It was nearly time to begin the service. The congregation was gathering in the building, some clustering in the aisles and halls, others dutifully making their way to the space inside the large auditorium. At five minutes ’til, the musicians took their places, running through an instrumental version of one of the tunes we’d all be singing later in the meeting, and I winced in pain. A sinking feeling ran from head to toe: this was going to be a LOUD service.
As a musician who spends a lot of time recording, I’m nervous around loud sounds. I cover my ears when sirens pass. I rarely sit in the front rows of concerts. I don’t like playing with loud drummers. So as the volume swelled, I reached for my trusty iPhone, opening up the Sound-Pressure-Level meter app. The peaks were around 110 or 112 decibels, which is loud—-near the damage threshold, in fact. I put the phone away, determined to do my best in participating without wincing, praying that they would turn it down.
The irony of this story is that the music was as traditional as it gets. The only instrument playing as I took SPL readings was a pipe organ.
Volume is a source of regular frustration and conflict around worship services. I was only about 10 years old when I witnessed one of my first church wars. Our music minister had just resigned, and a church musician was asked to coordinate the worship services until a new minister was hired. On about his third Sunday, he rolled out “The Great Adventure” by Steven Curtis Chapman, a move that thrilled half the audience and offended the rest. While portions of the room clapped along, others literally stood covering their ears. (As I recall, electronic drums were purchased days later.)
I’ve been playing electric guitar in worship bands since I was 15, and the battle over volume has been part of that journey since day one. By no stretch of the imagination do I claim to have perfected this, nor do I claim innocence in all the volume wars I’ve been a part of. But over the years I have learned some valuable lessons, and I offer a few of them here.
All Music Is (at Times) Loud . . . and Should Be
Many assume only contemporary music is loud. This is simply untrue. While a rock ensemble is capable of painfully loud volumes (and it’s often easy to get to these levels), so is traditional or classical instrumentation. Symphonic music and pipe organs can peak at the same decibel levels as rock music, with the same potential for lasting damage. You encounter similar risks to your hearing at a performance of Handel’s Messiah as you do at a Matt Redman concert.
Most hearing damage happens when someone has sustained exposure to loud volumes. Every church should buy a decent, inexpensive SPL meter and check levels periodically from different places in the room. You’ll be surprised to see how much variation there is from spot to spot.
There should be no doubt that, in the gathering of God’s people, there’s an appropriate time for loud volume. Gather 500 souls in a room, get them all singing in harmony, and you’ll see that they can get incredibly loud—-and they should. The psalmist says, “Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” (Psalm 47:1) and, “Praise him with loud crashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150:5). Worship should invoke the kind of celebratory volume that flows naturally from a crowd. We cheer on athleticism at sporting events, we cheer on skill in the performing arts, we cheer on political speeches when they ring true to us. Likewise, we should respond to God’s revelation of himself with culturally appropriate, loud celebrations. In North America, the language of celebration in music is often led by some sort of rock ensemble. You can even see it in national politics, when Bill Clinton pulls out his saxophone and Mike Huckabee pulls out his electric bass. It’s not surprising, then, that this arrangement has become the standard for how many celebrate in our worship gatherings.
Music that’s described as “too loud” is often more of an issue with harshness than volume. Imagine the sound of your worship band as though they’re running through your car stereo. Turn the bass down. Turn the treble all the way up. Now listen at a normal volume level for four or five minutes. It’s will make you feel like your ears are going to bleed. In reality, it’s probably not dangerously loud. It’s just dangerously bad. Music regarded as loud, especially in the church where musicians and techs work desperately to tame volume levels, is often simply harsh, imbalanced sound.
Unfortunately, the problems related to bad sound are often heaped at the feet of musical style. The problem, it’s said, isn’t a particular application of sound; it’s the decision to play contemporary music. That’s simply not the case. While the challenges abound, if we pay attention to the details, good sound is most certainly possible with a rock ensemble.
Bad sound can be sparked at any one of a hundred directions. Each step in the process of making music introduces opportunities to get something into the speakers that just sounds bad. Here’s a simplified way of thinking about it. All music gets sent through your church’s PA along these steps:
3. Sound equipment
4. Sound engineer
Let’s examine each of these steps.
No amount of money spent on gear can make a bad singer sound good, or a bad drummer play in time, or turn an unskilled guitarist into Stevie Ray Vaughn. Your sound is only going to be as good as your players. I’ve seen great players pick up nightmarishly bad gear and instantly sound amazing, because good players pay attention to their sound, pay attention to their room, and work really hard as a band at building a cohesive overall sound.
It’s worth considering how you might develop your musicians. This might mean investing in master classes or private lessons. It might also mean narrowing the number of musicians who perform to feature only those with the ability to create cohesive and pleasant-sounding arrangements. That may sound like a harsh choice, but Sunday isn’t about giving people an opportunity to play music together. It’s about providing an opportunity for the congregation to gather and sing with one voice.
In my parents’ generation, churches spent massive sums of money on pipe organs and Steinway pianos. The investment was worth it on a number of levels. First, a quality instrument attracts quality musicians. Second, a quality instrument puts a tool in the hands of a musician that enables a wide range of dynamic expression. For instance, an inexpensive piano has a narrow difference between its quietest, darkest sounds and its loudest, brightest sounds. Fine pianos have a much wider range, enabling the player with more precision to dial in the emotional mood of the song.
This metaphor extends across the musical spectrum. We’re often tempted to piece together equipment for the church band as cheaply as possible. Then we’re surprised when the cymbals are unbearably harsh and the bass is never in tune.
The investment in quality is worth it. Good instruments make the musicians’ job that much easier and more pleasurable.
In particular, let me advocate for two things: First, buy good cymbals. Cheap cymbals sound like trash-can lids, and they ring with harsh, high-pitched overtones that dominate the sound of an ensemble. If a band sounds harsh, often it’s because of the cymbals.
Second, buy some decent, low-wattage tube guitar amplifiers. Look for stuff that’s about 15 watts or less. Any guitarist who thinks he needs more is deluded, unless he’s playing stadiums four nights a week. Put the amps on kickback stands pointed away from the audience (at the guitar player’s head) and mic them. This will give guitarists a sound they’ll enjoy, an amp they can hear, and an overall volume level that will be tolerable for the rest of the church.
I’ll keep this simple, because there’s a lot that could be said about sound equipment. If you make the investment in the first two items above (good players, good instruments) then the sound equipment becomes a much smaller issue. Your goal, at that point, is simply to support what the band is doing. So you need speakers with a good, full range of sound (lows, midrange, highs) and with enough power to run clean.
That second point is quite important. Churches often want to buy the fewest and smallest possible speakers for aesthetic reasons, but good, clear sound requires speakers running below their limitations. A rock ensemble usually requires subwoofers to balance out the low end. (Think of this like using the pedals on your pipe organ.) The more you push a sound system to its limit, the harsher everything becomes and the more distortion you introduce. Invest in a sound system that’s bigger and louder than you need. You’ll be able to get a full range of sound without pushing it to the limit and distorting. (But you’ll need to train your sound engineers not to turn things all the way up.)
You can’t say enough about the importance of good sound engineers. The person behind the board can make a good band sound bad, and a bad band sound worse. Invest in training your volunteer sound techs and consider stipending professionals who attend your church. A good engineer will prevent distractions like feedback and keep the overall levels under control.
Every room has a sound. Cathedral spaces were designed to carry a few voices from front to back. Smack a snare drum in that room and it echoes for eternity. Music venues and movie theaters are heavily treated with sound absorption and dispersion materials, creating a space with just the right amount of resonance. Too much resonance and echo, and the sound becomes chaos. Too little and the sound becomes unnatural.
If you’re going to use a rock ensemble in worship, it’s wise to treat the room in such a way that it hinders reflections, absorbing sound in chairs, bodies, floors, and walls. Without giving attention to the room, you’ll perpetually be fitting a round peg in a square hole.
The goal of music in the gathering isn’t great sound or even great music. It’s a church gathered and united in song. Pastors, consider the dynamic range of your service. Churches often lock themselves into a particular stylistic vein and work it for an entire service. Years ago I served at a church where consistently, week in and week out, the worship leader would pick four songs for the opening of the service. All would be in the key of G. All would be about the same tempo. All would essentially have the same four-on-the-floor pop rhythm that plagues contemporary worship. The band was a wall of sound from the beginning of the music until its merciful end.
Worship should be much more diverse, and that includes creating dynamic diversity in the sound of the band. Many who lament the advent of the rock ensemble in the local church point to the loss of beautiful A cappella singing. We have replaced it with the pervasive, quasi-U2 sounds of contemporary praise. It’s a good critique. Miles Davis is supposed to have said that the most important notes are the ones you don’t play. The decision to minimize, to pull the band out of a song, for musicians to limit themselves and serve the song, is of utmost importance in a worship band. Playing tastefully and discerningly will go a long way to encouraging the congregation to participate. It will also make room for them to be heard.
Good pastoral decisions related to sound will include wise decisions about songs and dynamics, ensuring that services create space for the congregation to hear themselves, to hear one another, and to join their voices in song. The psalms manage to describe an enormous diversity in emotions and energy, and with appropriate planning and care, our gatherings should reflect that. Even if they’re accompanied by a rock band.