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A Brief Theology of Volume Levels in Worship

Regardless of your tradition, volume may be one of the top three perennial “unsolvable” problems in worship planning and leading. No matter which way you go, someone is unhappy. Too loud? People feel discouraged from singing because they can’t hear themselves. Too soft? People feel discouraged from singing because they can hear themselves! And this isn’t merely a problem for churches with million-dollar sound systems and rock aesthetics. It’s a problem I’ve heard articulated by folks who feel the organ is too loud (or too soft) in a traditional service. There are people with hearing problems or hearing sensitivities that complain about how worship can be literally painful to endure. Yet others don’t have a formulated reason beyond “I don’t like it.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve received a prayer card disguised as a complaint about volume: “Please pray for the drummer who feels it’s his job to make us all deaf” is a paraphrase of one “prayer card” I received years ago on a Monday morning. So, yes, volume is a hot issue.

No Resolution?

And it also seems like it’s not a resolvable issue. Inevitably, if you make a decision which sides with one group’s persuasion, you are deciding directly and actively against another group’s persuasion. For those of us in charge of making these decisions, it feels lose-lose. My general opinion about volume levels has been a kind of happy medium: loud enough that the music fills the space, encouraging the people to sing out without feeling exposed, yet in the quieter moments offers key times where the congregation can clearly hear themselves singing mightily. For me, when I have strived for that, it seems that the complaints have gone down to a minimum (not completely gone!) and musical worship has been most strengthened. However, I think there’s something slightly more nuanced—more pastoral—at play here.

If you’ve read my book, you know it’s my belief that every decision we make in worship is a pastoral one, whether we know it or not. In other words, nothing in worship—not even decibel level—is outside the governance of faithful, biblical reflection. I’d like to offer some brief biblical and pastoral reflections on volume level in hopes that worship leaders, sound technicians, and congregants alike can see that they are all participating in real, biblical, pastoral work as they process and facilitate the “sound environment” of their worship spaces. And to do this, we turn once again to worship’s great biblical barometer—the Psalms.

1. The Bible tells us worship should be LOUD.

Listen to these commands: “Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts” (Psalm 33:3); “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” (Psalm 47:1); “Praise him with loud clashing cymbals!” (Psalm 150:5). Joy, again and again in the Psalms, seems to be associated with pushing the faders up, pressing the organ volume pedal to the floor, and turning the amps up to eleven. The joy of salvation and deliverance is expressed in shouts (Psalm 20:5; 27:6; 32:7, 11; 33:1; 35:27; 42:4; 47:5; 65:8; 66:1; 81:1; 89:15; 126:2; 132:9). Trumpets (no mutes in the ancient Near East) were blasted (Ps 47:5; 98:6; 150:3). So it seems that the loud end of the dynamic spectrum is appropriate for worship music. 

2. The Bible tells us worship should be SOFT.

Equally present in the Psalms is the expression on the other end of the sonic spectrum. “I have calmed and quieted my soul” is what one worship song sings (Psalm 131:2). Psalm 95 provides that contrast. Verses 1-5 express loud, thankful, jubilant worship. But Verses 6-7 encourage a different posture: bowed, quiet, reverent. Alongside the admonitions to leap, clap, and shout are the edifying words that whisper “be still” (Ps 37:7; 46:10) and “wait” (Ps 25:5, 21; 33:20; 37:7; 130:5). As one desperate worship song puts it, “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Ps 62:1,5). In the Psalms, therefore, we hear that low decibels, even a zero reading, are appropriate for worship music.

Pastoral Choices That Lead to “Faithful Feelings”

So if we look to the Scriptures for a “biblical theology of volume in worship,” we hear something that defies almost all our categories. We hear a word that tells us that God wants it all—the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. It’s not so much, then, of whether worship should be loud or soft, but at what moments. How might we navigate this wide spectrum as faithful pastors? Well, it might start by recognizing our job as emotional shepherds. We have a role in faithfully guiding the people of God through a holistic experience (emotions included) of worship’s rhythms and story. What if we began to see volume not as something that needed to be solved with a one-size-fits-all level that works for the most people? What if we understood that volume was an affective tool to faithfully and pastorally wield in the art and craft of disciple making? What if we got our musicians, sound technicians, and congregants on board with a mode of thinking that worship is a journey though a story, and that story has ups and downs, highs and lows, louds and softs? What if our congregation learned how to be more faithfully Christian “feelers” of the loud and raucous joy of God’s glory and salvation, of the quiet contrition of confession and repentance, of the piercing moans and groans of lamentation, of the weary sighs of mourning? What if our noise trained us to be more faithful Davids who were loud in their gladness to enter the house of the Lord (Ps 122:1)? What if our silence trained us to be more faithful “watchmen” who quietly waited for the morning (Ps 130:6)?

And now we can see how our aesthetic choices about dynamics are really opportunities for pastoring. We see now that from the electric guitarist’s amp level, to the organist’s use of their antiphonal division, to the sound tech’s fingers on the main faders—these are all moments where every believer can take up their call as a “priest” in ministering to their sister and their brother. Hopefully a post like this can open up fresh dialogue on a topic that in many churches feels weary, old, or hardened.


Rhythms of Grace - A Book Every Worship Leader Should Read

A few weeks ago, I picked up Mike Cosper's Rhythms of Grace (Crossway, March 2013) and quickly devoured it.  Mike is Pastor of Worship & Arts at Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, KY.  That I knew I would love and highly recommend the book is a no-brainer, because Mike and I have tracked along the thought-patterns of many of the same theologians, philosophers, thinkers, writers, and practitioners in the field of Christian worship today.  I want to point out a few things about the book, along with what I think are its best, must-read points and chapters.

A Biblical-Theological Structure & Emphasis

It's remarkable that for the first 50% of a book on worship, Cosper doesn't even mention music.  Instead, the first four chapters walk through telling the story of the Gospel in all of Scripture, particularly through the lens of worship.  It's beautiful.  

Understandable, Digestible, & Memorable

Another remarkable thing about Rhythms of Grace is in the presentation of the information.  It's one thing to know and believe something.  It's another thing to communicate it thoroughly and convincingly, yet with brevity and clarity.  Cosper excels at this balance.  It probably comes from the fact that he's taught on these subjects and ideas many times and has learned how to hone content into digestible portions.  Chapter 5, "Worship One, Two, Three" is a prime example of this.  There, he lays out a wonderful paradigm on how to think biblically about worship from the 10,000-foot view:

  1. Worship has one object--God.
  2. Worship has two contexts--scattered and gathered.
  3. Worship has three audiences--God, the Church, and the world.

The upshot of this simple paradigm is that many of our conversations about worship on the ground level would be so much more fruitful if this paradigm were in place.  So often, when we dialogue about "worship," we're talking past each other, not necessarily because we disagree, but because we're speaking about different facets (e.g. gathered, corporate worship vs. whole-life worship).  Frameworks like "worship one, two, three" establish concrete biblical-theological ideas so that we can speak the same language and actually talk to rather than talk past.

Distilling Recent Worship Thought

Rhythms of Grace acts as a primer for some heavier reads that some worship leaders find too cumbersome to wade through.  For instance, Chapter 6, "Worship as Spiritual Formation" is a rough distillation of the thought of James K. A. Smith in Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom.  If well-intentioned worship leaders have picked up those books and put them down, overwhelmed by their density, I would heartily recommend reading Cosper's chapter.

The Three Strongest Chapters

Chapter 9, "Sing, Sing, Sing" - Not only is it a marvelous exposition and application of Colossians 3:16, it cuts to the heart of issues of musical style, preference, singing, and the role of music.  I've never seen anyone dive into the issue with so little splash and so much balance and biblical clarity.  Every worship leader must read this.

Chapter 10, "The Pastoral Worship Leader" - In this chapter, Cosper gave me a way to think about the ever-vexing questions of cultural relevance and "contextualization."  It is so clear and so convincing.  Cosper's paradigm, especially on pp. 176-179, will most likely forever be the way I think and talk about these issues.

Appendix C, "The Sound of (Modern) Music: Technical Challenges for Audio and Congregational Singing" - Who recommends an appendix?  I do.  It's short but incredibly incisive.  It is the best brief treatment on its topic I have ever read.  In it, you'll find a defense of loudness in worship, a parsing of the difference between "loud" and "bad," and a very brief summary on how this plays into everything from musicians and instruments to sound engineers and gear.  And the opening page levels the playing field by delivering a really cool, unexpected punch to the gut.

Get this book!


Sound in Reverberant Spaces, Part 2: The Most Important Thing

nerdy sound guy shirts from zazzle.comThis is the second installment in a series of posts on identifying and addressing the difficulties of mixing ampliied sound in reverberant spaces.  It is a series of guest posts by Steve Bailey, Chief Sound Engineer at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church (Denver, CO), where he mixes both classical and modern (amplified) music in a traditional, hard-surfaced, reverberent room.

Last time we talked about the science behind why your room sounds the way it does. This time we’re finally going to start talking about solutions and the things you can do to get the most out of your room. Unfortunately I have some bad news: you may not like what I have to say this time around. But I can promise you that if you do nothing else that I am going to suggest in the coming posts but follow the advice in this one, your room will sound significantly better. Furthermore, if you do everything else I suggest and ignore this one piece of advice, your room will probably never sound as good as it could.

The Most Important Solution

You need to hire a professional sound engineer. I’ll pause while you catch your breath… I know, staff is expensive and you’ve got volunteers that do this already. But let me ask you this: would you let a volunteer with no professional experience remodel your kitchen, or work on the electrical system of your car, or perform surgery on you? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not prideful enough to think that what I do is as difficult or important as surgery, but the fact is that audio engineering is a difficult and complex job, which requires years of training and experience to become proficient in. That probably isn’t your volunteer.

Why This Will Work

There is nothing wrong with volunteers. In fact, I suggest you keep those that you already have on staff to work under the supervision of this person. However there is a fundamental difference between a paid position and a volunteer. For one, professional people come with experience. This is a technical, and difficult job which is very easy to get wrong and can be daunting to people who don’t understand it. There is also far more accountability from a person you are paying than a volunteer. If a volunteer messes something up, it’s not a huge concern, but if a professional messes up they should take it much more seriously. Also, volunteers will do this because they want to, so if something more pressing comes up, they are often going to take care of that rather than your needs. A professional person should have the church as their highest priority while they are there. It is work for them after all.

As I said before, this is the best thing you can do for yourself. The truth of the matter is that a good engineer can make a bad room sound good, and a bad engineer can make a good room sound bad. This person will probably try and take care of other things that can help your sound improve as well, many of which I will be mentioning in future postings (this doesn’t mean you get to stop reading).

How to Do It

Start talking to people you know in this industry and tell them what you’re looking for. You probably want this person to work your rehearsals, your services, and a few extra hours a week fixing things and cleaning up, so they’re going to be part time. I can’t stress this next point enough: pay them competitively. If you want to have a professional level person working your board, you need to pay them a professional wage. To determine what a competitive wage is in your city, talk to people in this industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also has a very complete job profile on their site. There’s also a lot of information in forums (like this one) and other sites on the internet, so give Google a shot too.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you look for this person: in this industry experience is far more important than a degree. A lot of really excellent engineers got where they are based only on experience and not on a college education (myself included). It’s very important that they have professional level experience with live mixing. Preferably in a setting similar to the room you’re in now. Not studio work (the two are very different animals), not gaffing and running cables, not lights. Definitely not “I do sound for my band,” and definitely not “I’m really good at hooking up stereos.”

Have Faith

This is a tough solution to get your head around. This is particularly true in churches, where we rely so heavily on volunteers for so much of what we do. In the long term, this will also probably be the most expensive thing that I am going to suggest you do. But the person in this position is really integral to your worship experience. This step is the most important step you can take to improve the sound in your room.

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Sound in Reverberant Spaces, Part 1: Why It's Hard  

I've had the privilege over the last year to work with Steve Bailey, a musician and sound engineer who I believe has "conquered" our hard-surfaced, reverberant, classically-oriented worship space at Cherry Creek Presbyterian Church here in Denver.  As a worship leader, my vision for a good mix is not about making our musicians sound awesome as much as it is that the music we make sounds inspiring enough such that we eliminate distractions toward the people of God singing boldly on Sunday mornings.  A lot of my friends and readership work in older church buildings which are highly reverberant and therefore difficult to mix for amplified music.  Because Steve so excels at mixing our difficult room for our diverse musical sounds (everything from big rock, to Dixie, to bluegrass, to folk-classical), I invited him to post here.  Hopefully we'll hear more from him!

The Problem

Amplified sound in highly reverberant spaces is a very common problem, particularly in churches. It’s common enough that the vast majority of the work that I have done as a live sound engineer has been for churches with overly reverberant rooms. The problem comes intrinsically from oppositional forces being at work within the church. The forces of the past demanded large spaces that are designed for acoustic worship music. The forces of the present demand contemporary worship music, which is almost always amplified. So we run into the issue that suddenly a room that was designed for a “classical” musical aesthetic is now being used to play “rock” music.

When building rooms that are designed for acoustic music (or that don’t take amplified music into consideration) architects seem to favor lots of hard, reflective surfaces and funny angles. Honestly, I don’t know if architects take into consideration what their space will sound like or if they just build with hard surfaces and angles because it looks good. It probably goes both ways, but the end result is the same: you have a room that sounds really good for unamplified music or speech because it is highly reverberant.

The Science

As a general rule, I’m going to try not to get overly technical in these posts, but some science talk is demanded here. Sound, amplified or not, is essentially a vibration that disturbs the particles of nearby air and causes them to bump into each other. So, the soundboard on a piano, or the cone of a speaker, or someone’s vocal cord, vibrates and pushes air particle 1. Particle 1 bumps into particle 2, which bumps into particle 3 and on and on until particle 13,732,085 bumps into a tiny hair in your ear. This hair is connected to a nerve, which sends an electrical impulse to your brain. So everything is really just pushing air around.

But our ears are really tiny. When you think about the amount of air, and therefore sound, that’s actually traveling into your ear versus the amount that’s being pushed around by a piano, or a cluster of speakers, there’s a lot of air that’s going to places apart from our ears. This is where those hard surfaces come into play.

With hard surfaces in a room, the sound literally bounces around more. So, the chain of air particles that didn’t go into your ear hits a hard wall and bounces off of it, and might then also bounce off of another wall and maybe another before it reaches your ear. All that bouncing ends up taking a lot of time. So there’s one set of particles that come straight from the sound source to your ear, and a whole other set that bounce around the room for a while and then hit your ear later. Realistically speaking, we hear dozens of reflections coming from various points in the room all reaching our ears at different times. This creates what we in the ‘biz’ call “reflections.”

Reflections aren’t bad. In fact, a lot of musical effects are designed to emulate reflections that don’t exist. Things like echo, delay, and reverb create a little bit of time between the original, unprocessed signal and what’s called the ‘wet’ or effected signal. These effects create a sense of space in music that otherwise wouldn’t have it which is great and, honestly, totally necessary to keep things sounding natural.

So rooms designed with hard surfaces create a natural reverberation, which sounds great at lower volumes. But once things get amplified everything falls apart. Here’s why: imagine bouncing a super-ball. When you bounce it softly, it bounces for less time before it dribbles out and eventually comes to rest. If you jump in the air and throw it as hard as you can, it bounces for much longer before it comes to rest. This is what’s happening to the air particles in your room.

Think of amplitude (another, more precise word for “volume”) as being the force that you impart to the super-ball. When acoustic music is performed it happens at a low enough amplitude that only the sound reflecting off of one surface reaches your ear. These reflections are called “early reflections” and are the good kind of reflections. The other, bad reflections that come from bouncing off of two or three walls (called “late reflections”) lose all of their energy through bouncing around so that they come to rest before they can actually reach your ear. This would be like when you bounce the ball softly.

When you amplify sound, you are imparting more energy to it and thus more amplitude and volume. So those late reflections have a lot more energy when they start out and never come to rest before they reach your ear. Think of when you jump in the air to bounce the super-ball. All these late reflections are competing in your ear against the direct sound and the good early reflections, making the whole thing sound messy and unintelligible. 

Toward a Solution

So that’s the problem in a nutshell. The solution to the problem is complicated and comes from a lot of different approaches. In later posts, I’ll start addressing what these approaches are and the philosophy that will help you to get the most out of the fixes that you decide to use.

If this was hugely interesting to you I would first call you a nerd, and then suggest that you do some reading on the physics of sound. The first few chapters of almost any sound reinforcement textbook will have a wealth of information for you. I particularly like Audio in Media, by Stanley Alten. For a more comprehensive approach to these concepts, and really for everything audio, pick up the The Sound Reinforcement Handbook, by Gary Davis and Ralph Jones. It’s a hefty read and can get extremely technical, but I consider it to be the most complete source of information on the subject.

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