Hey Soundman! I can't hear the PA!!!

Church Sound System Etiquette - Part 1

Feb, 19/1996

From the JdB Church Sound Series

Many times as a soundman, people would come to me saying just that. How come I can't hear the sound system when the minister is preaching? Are they right? Was the sound system so low they couldn't hear the minister? - or was the sound level of the minister just fine, but! And this is a big but!! - Was the sound system adjusted so well, that you couldn't tell if the "PA" was on unless you turned the sound system off.
Recently, in the middle of a sermon, our sound system went down. Someone had tripped the circuit breakers in the kitchen. When the well meaning person went to turn the breakers on, they turn the sanctuary sound system off by mistake and it was left off until I found the problem. Meanwhile, the church members heard the minister preach for about 5 minutes without the sound system. At the end of the service, about 6 or 7 people came to me remarking that they had no idea that minister was using a wireless mike during his preaching.
The age of these people were from 25 to 75 years of age. They noticed for the first time in years how much the sound system really did, but they never knew it until it was turned off. This is actually very normal for a church sanctuary and sound system designed properly and working together. This is what many audio supplier try to sell to churches and hopefully deliver as well. Most pro audio suppliers will never use the term "PA". Rather, if the sound system of the church is designed right, the goal of the system is to reinforce sound where the natural sound drops off in sound energy. Pro audio suppliers who are good, will call their sound systems a " Sound Reinforcement System" and teach you how to use the system in that manner.

At this point, I will assume that your church already has a sound system and church sanctuary that meets the HIS System Spec. (Highly Intelligible church Sound System) or the "The Church Spec." for your denomination. This article will cover two areas of sound operation that is universal, but overlooked in poorly designed systems - for obvious reasons. The first area is what I call the "5 minute sermon drop" and the second area is sound quality of the sermon.
The 5 Minute sermon drop is a minor detail that really deals with listener's comfort. As written in the article about loudness, sound levels between 58 to 70dB are OK. Anything louder becomes offensive. However, in most churches, the sermon usually follows congregational singing. Depending on the denomination, I have recorded sound levels between 75 to 110dB***. A 110 piece live orchestra plays up to 110dB. (The same people over 60 years of age who love listening to live concerts complain if Rock Music is over 85dB.) When singing or around people who are singing, your ears become exposed to these sound levels for 2 to5 minutes. (In some churches, worship in music can vary up 90 minutes just before the sermon begins.)
When sound is this loud, the ears automatically turn themselves down. There is almost like a protections system that the brain automatically controls. This is not a protection from any possible hearing damage, but it is protection to the brain from information overload. It is as if you are tuning out the higher sound levels. By doing this, the sound that the brain actually perceives can then be match to the thinking and activity of yourself participating in the event. This is the science of psycho-acoustic.
When the music stops, your ears are actually turned down. They don't bounce back to normal levels for a few minutes. In the sound trade we call this "desensitized hearing". This term is widely used in Recording Studio's. A good recording engineer takes many breaks to give their ears a rest, especially during drumming and bass sessions. A common example of this effect is with the car radio. If you have a car that is noisy on the highway and you have been driving for a while, chances are, you have turned up the radio quite loud. Often, you will probably turn the radio down on the part of the trip where you turned off the highway, through the city streets and home. However, the next time you get into the car, what is the next thing you do after starting the car? Turn down the radio. The reason for this is because the ears did not full recover from the road noise on the previous ride in the car. The ears were "DESENSITIZED" on the highway and "SENSITIZED" before loud noise exposure.

In a church, the same thing happens. After congregational singing is over, your ears are turned down, or DESENSITIZED. It can take up to 5 minutes for your hearing to come back up to normal or sensitized. Speech is intermittent sound. Whether a charismatic preacher or a professional wordsmith style of preaching, the intermittent sounds of speech allow the ears to recover after worship singing. During the first 5 minutes or so, the soundman will have set a level while the ears are DESENSITIZED. After about 5 or 10 minute, as a person sitting in the pew, you will think that the soundman turned the sound system up. This perceived level change is mostly noticed by younger people or people with little hearing loss later in life.

This is when things become interesting. If your church meets the HIS System spec. it would be a courtesy to turn the sound levels down 3 to 6dB, 5 minutes into the sermon. And don't worry. If the mixer you are using is set up right, no one will notice that you did something. All they will notice is that the sound has become more comfortable and probably clearer. (If the NC of the room is high, you may not be able to do this.) This level change will not affect those with minor hearing loss. (Minor hear loss is when a person can hear well without lip reading in a quiet room like living room or bedroom. If a person has hearing problems in such rooms, they should be using a hearing impaired system that your church supplies.) Here is the critical part. If the reverb time in your church is shorter than the HIS Systems Spec., the louder volume is not a problem.
If the reverb time in your church is longer than the HIS Systems Spec., then the louder sound level will be degrading sound quality for people will minor hearing problems and, in most cases, lower overall speech intelligibility. A longer reverb time means that the walls are reflecting back a lot of sound energy. Often the sound system will re-amplify this energy. In other cases, the time delay of the extra energy makes hearing a strenuous effort. By turn the sound system down to excite less of the room, the sound become clearer for the person in the pew. (However, churches with longer RT60's often have other problems which will not allow you to do this.)
Churches that have their mixer controls in pulpits, closed off rooms, under balcony's, in spaces carved out of a back or side wall and any other place but in the seating area are usually unable to make this fine sound system adjustment. After making people aware of this bit of audio courtesy, either they realize that it would be nice to be able to turn things down or, members of their church are telling them how much better the sound system is working.
The 5 minute sermon drop is an audio courtesy to listeners in the pews. In my books, doing this shows a level of professionalism that comes with love, caring and a sensitivity in bring God's word to the people in the clearest possible manner.

The second item is sound quality. If your church meet the HIS Systems Spec. then you will be able to make the sound system almost disappear during most of the service. However, many churches that own a decent sound system today, once or twice used to own a poor sound system. The old poor quality sound system was usually a system to forced you to learn bad audio habits in order to give the church members something to listen to. When teaching people audio etiquette for the first time, the number one message that I always hope they will understand is, "whatever you learned about sound in the past, put it away. It does not apply here at all!" A proper church sound system is unique and it's operation is unique to the church community.
Over the years, I have been asked to return to churches I had previously installed a system in for additional sound training. What I find is often disturbing. Usually, it is all new people bring many secular audio habits along or those who are still there were using their old audio habits from the previous sound system days. Just by looking at the channel EQ settings, I know how that system will sound like - A cheap PA. Yet everyone at the church is very happy with the sound system performance. However, when a system can give studio quality sound, wouldn't you want it to sound that way?
The trap many people run into with a good sound system is that when the system is adjusted properly, you don't hear it. You just hear the minister and that bothers many sound operators. Many people don't trust their "normal", average hearing. They either want a meter to tell them what they can do better without a meter or, they will de-tune the sound system so that it will sound like a PA bull horn. Running the sound system is a huge responsibility. You have to trust your hearing at all times.
The whole idea of sound reinforcement is to reinforce speech or music in such a manor that it appear that the nature acoustics of the room are allowing you to hear without any mechanical devices. The sound system should not create deadspots or add to the reverberation in the sanctuary. The sound system should not attract attention unto itself. If you hear the sound system sound like a PA during sermons, changes are it's too loud.

Often, I would sit in on a church service to see how the system is being operated. When there is a problem, it is either the system is too loud or de-tuned. When I would make the proper adjustment, I would ask the soundman that I was training what he thought of the level. He would say it was too low. Then I would ask if he could here the minister. He would say yes. He could hear the minister just fine but he could not hear the sound system. The next thing he would say is "I turned up the sound system before anyone complains." Out of my pocket comes the sound level meter. I turn it on. The average sound level is 65dB. Finally, after three hours of training and half way through a sermon, suddenly, the lights turn on. This seems to be the only way for me to teach someone how to adjust sound levels.
I think that part of the problem is this. Older people usually do have some kind of hearing loss. Older people are reluctant to admit hearing problems because of the social isolation hearing loss causes. To admit hearing loss means you may be excluded from social activities. If their hearing loss can not be corrected with simple hearing aids or if the person if too embarrassed to wear them, they will do everything to hide this fact. These are also the people who are most likely to complain if the sound system is not loud enough for them, yet too loud for everyone else.
The next time an older person comes to you as the soundman of your church and complains about hearing, do the instant sound check.
Without raising your voice, try to start a conversation with the person while in the sanctuary. Keep a distance of about 5 feet from the person. Ask them anything to keep them talking. After a few minutes, ask them a question that requires you to talk to them for a few sentences. If they ask you to speak louder, or if they are always saying, "pardon me!", then you know this person real needs hearing assistance like an FM hearing impaired system
This also means your off the hook as a sound operator. If this person is hearing you just fine, then their compliant is worth acting on.
Once you have sorted out if the complaints are from people with normal hearing or those with a hearing loss, it becomes easier to figure out if you hearing is suspect or if room noises or other factor are at play. Audio Etiquette for churches is a new art form. Many people are accustom to high quality sound at home and in their cars. They deserve the same quality at church.
Another attitude for a soundman is to think of the sound system as an instrument - much like the way people view the church organ or piano. It would be a good practice several times a year, with the help of a second person, to practice setting up and adjust the sound system for it's optimum performance. The days of turning on a sound system and walking away from it are numbered. The idea of an automated sound system in a church seems restrictive.
Although there are many denomination, the differences in Audio Etiquette are minor. If the sound system you have is good, then you will be able to play it as if it were a Concert Violin. When you can do that, you will be able to sit back, enjoy the service and be spiritually feed.
By Joe De Buglio

***Update 2000 - It was pointed out to me just recently that some people may take these remarks as permission to play levels over 85dB or that there are no consequences to music being played this loud. When Ray Rayburn pointed this out, I had to re-read this article. It never occurred to me that people would think this, but just in case he is correct, here is the bottom line.

As many of you have heard, there are a number of Rock Stars and other famous musicians that are now using hearing aids. Did their long exposure to high levels of music night after night cause the problem? Yes, - most likely. Sure, many people loose their hearing as they age without being exposed to loud sounds. It is part of the aging process. However, there are many people who are into hearing aid much too young and noise pollution is very much part of it.

The people who are at most risk in a church are the musicians and vocalists. Next are ministers who use floor monitors and finally the audience. The audience exposure is being debated all the time. One group says anything over 90dB is bad news and exposure of more that 30 minutes every 24 hours is the limit. Others state that when the sound is natural, in a room that is properly diffused and the sound system has very low distortion, excessive sound levels are tolerated very well by the ears. But if there is more that 5% of distortion in the sound from the room being over loaded or the speaker system being over driven, then anything over 90dB sounds like an assault on the ears.

Nevertheless, when one is not sure about something, you go to the regulation. According to OSHA (Occupational Safety & Health Administration), most churches do not have anything to worry about.

OSHA Regulations (Standards - 29 CFR)
Occupational noise exposure. - 1910.95


Duration per day, hours | Sound level dBA slow response
8...........................| 90
6...........................| 92
4...........................| 95
3...........................| 97
2...........................| 100
1 1/2 ......................| 102
1...........................| 105
1/2 ........................| 110
1/4 or less ................| 115

The chart says, You can sing up to 30 minutes per day at 105dB without hearing damage. Personally, I think that this chart is out dated. If anything, these exposure times should be cut in half. The growing population of people with profound hearing loss is higher than it has ever been in the history of man. Well, enough of my ranting.

Allow me to share this. When you have good acoustics and you have a sound system that can be played at 100+dB with less than 5% distortion, you can certainly enjoy it for short periods of time. You don't have to play all your music that loud. Stand up to the ministers' wife who comes over and pushes you out of the way because you're not running the system so loud that blood is not flowing from the ears. (In case you didn't know, one of the first tricks for mind control of people is loud music. Remember Waco and Jim Jones?)

As a Sound operator, you are also a performer too and you can play the audience or be passive. Letting God's spirit guide me is lots of fun because I never know what is going to happen next and I am very pro-active when running a mixer.

When you have poor acoustics with standing waves or the room is over loading, when the sound system is distorting once it passes 90dB because it is under powered, when you ears just want to shut down, then that is a very good warning to you that your are most likely doing some long term damage to your ears. Be responsible. Get things fixed ASAP.

Often fixing a room doesn't cost much if your willing to put some labor into it. Just fixing a room can reduce the level of distortion from the sound system when performing at high SPL. Often doing this improves the sound system performance so that instead of 10% distortion at 90dB your getting only 3 to 5% distortion at 100dB. It give the impression that your doubled or tripled the size of your speaker system, yet it is not the system you fixed, but the room, and by fixing the room, there are other benefits.

When you fix the room, congregational singing becomes more exciting, people find that they don't have to scream to be heard, the choir will sound better and anything done acoustically will sound better too - depending on how well the room was changed.

Recently I tested a church I was commissioned to treat acoustical. The room had a lot of diffusion done with drywall and surface mounted panels. The results were very good and important. In the old sanctuary, the congregation was often singing and listing to music over 115dB. People often complained that they could not hear themselves or each other. Today, they are often singing and listing to music at about 95 to 100dB. The congregation really seems to be enjoying the change. Ok, this was not scientifically done, but this kind of reaction of a audience has been observed in about 50 churches that have done all of the acoustic work that was designed for them. Documenting such changes is an expensive proposition and I certainly don't have the resources for that, but I have been told by others acoustical consultants of similar experiences so all I can do is report our bias opinions.

In conclusion, I do not support the idea of churches that have to play music over 105dB for more than 5 minutes at a time. It is just not necessary. Doing that tells me the sound system is under designed and the room needs to be fixed. The two go together.

Ok Ok, final verse of "How Great Though Art" the sound levels hit 115dB last Sunday. Shame on me for having fun. After that the minister gave an altar call and 7 people came forth asking for Salvation in our humble 300 seat church. Mind Control or Spirit of God? I would like to think it was a team effort as the Spirit of God moved all of us and the music/sound system was just a part of it.

By Joseph De Buglio

Some statements and Specs have been blanked out under the understanding that it is part of the "intellectual Knowledge" guidelines and were not part of the original article. Such knowledge has value and can be purchased through investing in the book ""Why Are Church Sound Systems and Church Acoustics So Confusing?"Info on a book on Church Sound System & Church Acoustics

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Copyright © 1996 Joseph De Buglio
Most recent revision Monday, February 19, 1996