How Loud?

Often we get emails or calls about volume in the sanctuary.  It’s one of the more common questions.  This is a reply I recently sent to someone and I figured it was worth sharing.

Volume in the sanctuary is one of those preferences that are hard to make everyone happy.  Goldilocks and the Three Bears come to mind, ha ha.  There’s “too loud”, “not loud enough”, and “just right.”  The problem is everyone is different and we can’t make everyone perfectly happy when it comes to volume.  Welcome to audio engineering!

How loud?  Well there are a couple of parts to answering that question.  The quick answer is that we run between 90 and 95 db at the sound booth.  This probably means that the hottest parts of the room are between 95 and 100 db.  These would be the seats closest to the PA.

With our relatively low ceiling it would be very difficult to have every seat at the same volume level.  We just can’t put the PA where it would really need to be to make that happen.  In a way it’s better that there is some variation.  People who want it softer can sit further away while people that want it louder can sit closer.  It’s not too often but when we get complaints we nicely recommend that solution.  Usually people don’t want to move their seat though, ha ha.

Another part of the equation is the stage volume and room volume.  Because we are not competing with a loud stage we can run the system at reasonable levels and still have the PA loud enough over the stage volume to get a good mix.  The room is also controlled enough that we don’t have a long decay to compete with.  Both of these things help keep the mix intelligible and allow us to lower the volume.

If you have a very loud stage (drums, guitars, monitors, etc.) it will be very hard to get a nice mix in the house without having to get way louder than the stage volume.  You will also struggle to get enough gain before feedback.  And if your room isn’t treated acoustically and there’s nothing to absorb the sound it will make it hard to discern vocals and the teaching.  In my experience you have to get at least 3-6 db over the stage volume to get a good mix.  So if your stage volume is 90+ db you’re already in trouble and that’s probably where you need to start.

We had to put a lot of acoustic treatment in our sanctuary to make the room usable.  The ceilings are treated, about 70% of the walls are treated, and the carpeted flooring and padded seats all help control the room.  In a 3,650 seat room this was essential to make it work but it’s just as important in a 300 seat room, you just don’t need as much.

On stage we are now completely on in-ears for the band and singers.  This helped control the stage volume immensely.  We’re using an Aviom system, which gives everyone on stage control of his or her personal mix.  There are a few other options out there now that are pretty cool as well.  We also put all of the electric guitar amps in boxes and the drummer behind a Plexiglas shield.  Each of these things contributes to our quiet stage.

Lastly I would say consistency is very important.  We have several full-time audio guys so that’s a little easier, I know that’s not always the case.  At my previous church I was the 14 year old volunteer running everything, ha ha.  I’ve seen and done both extremes.  We are consistent in our mix and volume in our services.  I think this goes a long way to not having the sound be a distraction to people.  We don’t really use a db meter or RTA, we go by the meters on our console.  We know where the main output levels should be and that’s where we stay during worship.

Not that we stay at the same exact level every song of every service.  We also adjust for the mood of the song and crowd.  A mellow song during a mellow service 8am service and we’ll be a little mellower with our levels.  A rocking song during a night of worship when the crowd is singing their heads off and we’ll push the system a little more.  Even though there are changes we stick to our max level that we feel won’t kill anyone.  For a normal weekend we don’t vary too much from service to service and I think that consistency helps people to know what to expect and to find a seat that suits their preferences.  If it wasn’t consistent then a person could sit in the back one day and not hear a thing, then sit in the front the next day and get creamed, ha ha. We don’t want that.

So that’s what works for us.  I’ve heard of some churches that run worship really loud and just hand out earplugs to those who think it’s too loud.  I wouldn’t do that but that’s what works for them.  Either way I hope that I’ve helped, if you have any other questions feel free to email me.

Lighting Apps

There’s an app for everything these days.  From little handy tools up to full lighting control.  I’m just going to run down some apps I use for lighting that come in handy.

iLedMapper is a cool little app that will receive ArtNET and turn your iPhone or iPad into a mini “LED” panel.  I’ve used it to put a light into a prop when you want something to light up.  Pretty cool and cheaper than buying a custom LED fixture.

In our theatre we have an ETC ION lighting console.  ETC makes two apps that work with that console.  One is free and shows you the cue list and lets you make notes on each cue.  Great for tech rehearsals when you’re still dialing things in.  The director doesn’t have to figure out what cue you’re on, they’ll see it live on their iPad or iPhone.  Cool idea and not too hard to set up or use.  I’ve also thought about giving access to people back stage to see where we’re at in the show live.

The second app lets you actually control fixtures and go through the cue list.  That app is a little pricey but does come in handy.  It’s cheaper than getting the hardware remote and can do more.  If I were to buy the console again I probably would save the money for the hardware remote and just get the software.

Pocket LD has all kinds of great info on lighting fixtures.  One cool feature is being able to calculate the throw distance and see what size light beam you’ll have and what the brightness will be.  Great for when you’re setting up a show.  Helps take out some of the guesswork when you’re trying to pick the right light.

DipSwitch is a really simple app that makes addressing older style intelligent lighting fixtures easier.  You just enter the address and it shows you the dip switch combination you’ll need to set the address in the fixture.  If you’ve ever set dip switches on a lot of fixtures you’ll love this app.

Audio Apps

Faber Acoustical makes some pretty cool iOS and Mac apps.  I got them a while back when they were a little cheaper but they’re still reasonably priced.  Since I always have my iPhone on me I use these apps pretty often.  More often than I would use Smaart on my laptop.

There’s an RTA app that I use the most.  Granted the iPhone microphone doesn’t have full range, flat response, but you can still identify frequencies that are feeding back or sticking out.  When you’re killing feedback it helps to really zero in on the exact frequency that’s giving you problems.  Many times when dialing in by ear it’s hard, or at least a lot slower, to get perfectly center on the problem frequency.

Once I’ve gotten enough gain from a microphone then I can move on to adjusting for tone.  That’s how I approach problematic situations like wireless LAV’s and headsets or choir mics.

Smaart Live and Basic System Tuning

When you’re dialing in a system you’ll want something to reference along with your ears.  Smaart Live has been around a long time and offers a lot of features.  I use it with an Earthworks reference mic that gets it’s phantom power from an internal battery.  This allows me to use Smaart on my laptop and be completely portable without a board or power cables.  With a standard mic you’ll need to get phantom power from a board which usually ties you down to one spot.

Typically I’ll start tuning a PA with some pink noise and make some larger adjustments to get the PA in the ball park.  The software make this a quicker process than going by ear alone.  Once I make some tweaks with pink noise I’ll use the transfer function in Smaart.  This looks at the reference signal from the board and the measured signal from the mic and shows you the difference.  Now you can see the frequency response of the PA without listening to pink noise which can get annoying.

Once some large adjustments are in place I’ll listen to some music I know really well and tweak by ear.  Then go back to Smaart and see what’s happening. Listen, move locations, measure, repeat, etc.  I find that you don’t want to realy just on ears or software. Ears fatigue, software doesn’t.  That said I try to leave the “last word” to my ears.

Do you have to have measurement software to tune a PA?  No, but it will allow you to work much faster and be more precise.  And for dailing in system delays that are measured in milliseconds, you really need software.