what is the perfect volume? part 2

In part one of this post, I talked about making sure you know what you are trying to do in your services and how volume fits into that.  This is a leadership question, more than a dB question.  As a church, what is your goal for the service?  How loud it gets will be a part of that answer.

5362778675_36102f9559_bIn this post we are going to take a look at a different aspect of the “perfect volume”:  the appropriate volume at the appropriate time.

In your service and in mine, there are moments that need to be loud, and there are moments that need to be quiet.  Here are a few examples from my current experience:

Beginning of the service

When people first walk in, we tend to want to grab them with a high energy song; something that people can really engage with.  The trick with this is high energy tends to mean high volume.  It is difficult to take people from the volume levels of lobby noise, right to 95dB without a clutch.  So, even though the band might be killing a high energy song on the stage, we try to ease into it, so that we don’t blow people’s heads off.  By the end of the first song, we are usually up to a volume that matches the energy of what’s happening on stage.

Quiet moment

Years ago, we hosted the band Delirious? at Willow Creek.  One of the things I really marveled at was how loud it was at times, but then how quiet is was at times.  They were really good at building a set with great dynamic range, having a quieter song at just the right moment.  It gave everyone’s ears a nice rest.

If you are mixing audio at your church, it is really important to let these quiet moments get quiet.  If the level of the kick drum is the same on a quieter song as on a upbeat song, you aren’t doing the moment justice.  In our auditorium, it is really difficult to make the space feel intimate, but by bringing the volume down for a quieter song, actually helps to draw people into the intimacy of the moment.

Many times the people on stage need help striping down arrangements to make them more simple for these types of songs.  As the person out in the room trying to create something small and intimate, you can assist the band by suggesting potential ways to make things simpler and less busy.

In the case of the quiet moment, just giving ourselves a maximum, not to exceed dB level, doesn’t really address the need for us to make quiet moments, as quiet as they need to be.

Loud moment

I was once asked to mix FOH at a Willow Conference in Germany.  This is a story in itself, but one thing I remembered is that the closing speaker had people whipped up into a frenzy, trying to get them as loud as possible.  Someone in the booth grabbed the Radio Shack dB meter we had brought from the states, and turned it on.  The crowd was at 103db, A weight, slow.

From there, the worship team was going to lead us in one last song.  This was one of the few times that I couldn’t get the PA loud enough.  We struggled to get the band and vocals heard above the volume of the audience.  When it was all said and done, I think we hit 110dB.

I would never say that we should be shooting for our loud moments in the service to be at 110dB, but the point is that for us to match the moment of what is happening in our service, sometimes we need it to get loud.

In this example, having a maximum ceiling on our dB levels, doesn’t take into account a situation that requires that it be louder.

Mixing is an art form.

The “perfect volume” is something that changes with each nuance of the music and the changes happening throughout the service.  To put all the responsibility for “how loud it is” on a dB meter is too simplistic and the wrong way to go about determining the audio levels in your services.


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what is the perfect volume? part 1

I get a lot of questions about how loud we run our services at Willow Creek.  I always find it difficult to give a standard answer.  Much of that comes from the fact that I think in terms of grey, as opposed to black and white.  Each situation is different, so I tend to give the answer, “It depends”.

2691912528_e90e9c68e8_bAudio volume is so subjective and dependent on so many factors.  Saying that there is a perfect volume level, or a maximum not to exceed, is ridiculous to me.  What isn’t ridiculous to me is the reality that not many people are willing to do the difficult work to figure out what is the right volume for your church.

Know what you are trying to do.

At every church, in every environment, it is important to know what you are trying to accomplish.  It is important to know this before you get going, so that we all know what a successful volume actually is.  Are you trying to make it like a rock concert?  A campfire sing along?  What is your service trying to accomplish?

When I was first starting out as a volunteer  audio engineer, I used to get really upset by the long line of people at the sound booth after a service to complain about it being too loud.  I remember talking to the music pastor about it, and he told me not to worry about it.  He said that if he thought it was too loud or the senior pastor thought it was too loud, then we’d have a conversation.  As far as he was concerned, it was exactly the volume it should be.

Because we had talked about it and we knew what we were trying to accomplish, I was able to be OK with the line each week, and I knew that I just needed to send them to my boss if they thought it was too loud.

The other thing this taught me was that it wasn’t necessarily my responsibility to carry the burden of how loud it should or shouldn’t be.  As the audio engineer, it was my job to interpret what the leadership of my church had decided was the proper volume based on the goals of the service.

This responsibility thing cuts both ways.  In one aspect it was nice that someone else could deal with the complainers in the congregation.  In another way, I need to mix based on the desired outcome that the leadership had determined…not necessarily on my own personal taste.

If you are a leader and a decision maker when it comes to how loud it should be, give your audio team the direction they need to succeed when it comes to volume.

If you are an audio engineer, ask your leadership to clarify what your church is trying to do with the audio mix, so that you have a better idea of where the mix should live.  Once they have helped define the desired volume, mix to that standard and not your own.

There is way more to this topic, so we’ll continue this in another post…


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production should be simple


37signals.com, the makers of project management software Basecamp, have some pretty cool values that help determine the kind of company they want to be.  After a short break from looking at these values, we are back to check out value #7, Software should be easy:

Our products are intuitive. You’ll pick them up in seconds or minutes, not hours, days or weeks. We don’t sell you training because you don’t need it.

While production tends to not be easy, this value made me think about simple and intuitive. 

When I was the TD at Kensington, way, way back, we met in a high school auditorium.  We would have to empty our 3 semi length trailers and set up the entire church in under 2 hours…then naturally need to tear it all down at the end of the day.  As the leader of this process, and as newly graduated Industrial Engineering student, I was always thinking about more efficient ways to get this job done. 

One of my first thoughts revolved around making each task a one person job; to reduce each part of the process into a series of jobs that one person could accomplish.  There were definitely things that we needed several people to lift or to get into place, but the majority of the tasks could be done by just a single person.  What this did was keep everything very simple and doable within the time frame we had to work with.

As a technical artist, I was always finding myself fighting against this idea, simply because I wanted to try new things or expand our technical capability.  Keeping things simple enough for one person jobs was not easy, but it helped us involve the largest number of volunteers possible, and it sustained us being portable for so long.

In my current life, my boss Bill Hybels is always pushing me and my team to not make things too complicated.  He has caught onto the fact that as technical artists, we are trying to push the technology envelope, and wanting to try new ways of doing things.  However, what can sometimes happen as a result of this push for new, better ways, is that we can make something so complicated that it is bound to fail.

We have this joke between us that why would we have a person do a task, if we could figure out a way to have a computer do it?

37signals.com says their products are intuitive and are easy to use.  Does what you are doing make the most sense to the largest number of people, or is it so complex you need a PhD to figure stuff out?

In our drive for the newest technology, or “better” technology, are we losing sight of doing things most effectively?  Most simply?  Will the new way introduce new levels of risk that we don’t need to take on?  Is a new way necessary or just cool?

At the foundation, the technical arts in the local church are in place to amplify the message of God’s word.

Our use of technology should only be as complicated as the content/message requires.

Are your processes and systems so complicated that they are getting in the way of the message we are trying to support?


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the perfect font choice

I have the privilege of working in Germany from time to time.  I also have the privilege of having family who lives in Germany that I get to stay with.  Along with those privileges, I get the chance to go and see things that tend to blow my mind.

109404349_24546a482f_zI am flying back to Chicago right now, reflecting back on this latest trip, and one of the things that really struck me.

I went to the city of Mainz, where among other things, Guttenberg did his early work with the printing press and movable type.  Here was the 15th century version of a technical artist, someone who was pushing technology to make the Bible more relevant and available to more and more people.  Pretty cool.

Going to the museum, I was expecting to be impressed by the printing press itself, or the amazing manuscripts of Guttenberg that were on display.  Unexpectedly, the thing that caught my attention was Johannes’ choice of font for his printing press.  Or should I say lack of choice of font.  He had 2.  For the time, I realize that he was using cutting edge technology, but come on!  Only 2 font choices?!

When I stop and think about it, I love the simplicity of his dilemma.  So often I find myself caught up so many choices that I get distracted by them.  They either stop me from making a choice, because I can’t decide, or I end up getting buried by all the possible options and spend all my time trying one thing then the next.

I think that as technical artists in today’s church, with so many options, the way we use technology can get so overwhelming that it overshadows the message or dominates the conversation.

The thing I love about about Guttenberg’s limited options, is that it was about making the Bible available to as many people as possible.  It wasn’t about font choice.  He wasn’t trying to wow people with his creativity; he was just trying to crank out as many Bibles as possible.  This isn’t to say that he still didn’t spend some energy on some handcrafted art work, but the bottom line idea was let’s print a bunch of these so people can have them.  For some people, the hand drawn, illuminated Bible was what they wanted/needed, but Gutenberg’s idea was to use technology to print more, was for the purpose of making it accessible to more.

For me, much of technology is in place to help us reach a larger number of people.  Amplifying words and music, making graphics so that people can follow along with the scriptures, using IMAG so that more people can make “eye contact” with the teacher.

In today’s local church scenario, where the message being understood is so dependent on technology, it isn’t very far to it becoming the center of attention and take away something from the message.  In Guttenberg’s case, it could have easily been about him and his font choices, instead it was all about God’s word.

How are you using technology in your church?  Are you distracted by all the options and therefore taking away from the message?  Or are you taking the technology and using it to maximize the message?


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