How Loud Is Too Loud?


Just when you’ve settled into your mix and things are starting to sound great you get the infamous tap on the shoulder that makes your heart sink.

“My smart phone app says its 200 decibels in here!”

It’s an unfortunate truth that anyone with a dangerous amount of knowledge can download a free app that awards them the confidence of an audio engineering degree (The same goes for iPhone wedding photographers… you really do get what you pay for in these cases). While it is in fact possible to accurately measure volume with a proper decibel (db) meter, you also need to understand what it is measuring. Most db meters have two standard settings: “C- weighting” and “A-weighting”. In short, A-weighting measures how it perceives sound at low volume. For this reason, most people measure in A-weighting, as it’s a better indication of the warning signs of damaging frequencies as the volume rises. Remember, every additional 3db is actually double the volume!

“You’re going to make us all deaf!”

There is a difference between comfort and safety, and luckily the human body is pretty good at warning you through discomfort long before you’re actually going to hurt yourself. You’re ears will start to sting long before any permanent damage is occurring and this is often mistaken as irreparable damage already in the making. According to OSHA, 105db (A-weighting) is not damaging until constant exposure for 1 hour. 100 decibels? 2 hours. Since most worship sets are 30 minutes or less, it is technically not unsafe to sustain 110db for this period of time. Safe? Apparently. Comfortable? Not for me.

When it comes to your church audio, there is a difference between comfort and safety. @robmerow Click To Tweet

“I can’t hear the organ over those electric guitars!”

Volume can be an easy scapegoat for a multitude of unspoken complaints. Often, dissatisfaction for the genre, progressive style, song selection, or arrangement gets lumped into “it’s too loud.” This is where personal preference really hits home. 95db of an electric guitar solo may be completely intolerable to someone who wouldn’t bat an eye at 95db of pipe organ or classic orchestral music. A fun fact is that the conductor’s position in an orchestra can easily reach over 100db without any sound reinforcement at all.

“I know it’s too loud because my hip is acting up!”

With age and wisdom unfortunately can also come a change in physical hearing. As hearing fades in general, it does not do so evenly across the spectrum. Many find an increased sensitivity to high and mid-high frequencies with age, causing discomfort with specific instruments within otherwise tolerable sound levels.

“If you don’t turn that down I’m leaving!”

The most important takeaway regarding volume is to have a guideline for your church. What db range has leadership & your worship or technical director agreed upon in advance? Train your sound team in how to mix within the limits and regulations so that the congregation has a consistent experience each week, and doesn’t only show up when their favorite sound guy is on. Also have training sessions on how to handle the good old tap on the shoulder complaint. All churches have different philosophies on this – anything can work from having a separate mellow service and a contemporary service to having a basket of earplugs available for free at the sound desk. The only “correct” one is the one that is chosen to be enforced consistently.

The most important takeaway regarding volume is to have a guideline for your church @robmerow Click To Tweet

About the Author_02

Author Photo - Rob Merow

Lighting Designer
OneLux Studio | New York, NY

Rob discovered his love of theater and passion for creating dynamic environments early on as a volunteer at his home church in Pennsylvania. His degree in architecture and years of experience as a volunteer prepared him for his calling to full time ministry where he led teams in the areas of lighting & scenic design, audio production, graphic design, branding, and interior design. He and his wife Emily have recently moved to New York City, where he has come full circle into architectural lighting. Rob enjoys blurring the line between theatrical, experiential, and architectural design; keeping one foot in ministry as often as possible.