This is a common problem for anyone who had manned a church sound console or worked with worship bands. When there are complaints about the sound being too loud, it’s often the sound technician that’s thought to be to blame. And it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with worship style for the volume of the music to be too loud. Some churches have praise bands in order to draw people, attract younger people or for their children’s ministry, but a common sense approach is required to ensure good comfort levels for the whole congregation. I have been present on Sunday mornings in churches where the dB level has probably been similar to rock concerts.
1) First thing is to not react aggressively or defensively to initial complaints no matter how much you want to react. It’s natural to want to do that because it seems at the time like a personal attack on your ability or on the worship leaders. I think you need to distance yourself personally from the question, and not take it too personally, nor should the worship team. If it were someone else on the sound desk, the chances are the same complaints would be made. Assume to begin with, that people’s concerns are genuine, as loud music can spoil the worship experience for many people and in the longer term cause hearing loss.
While these tips are mainly with reference to complaints from a congregation, it is also worth taking into consideration the wellbeing of the worship musicians. If you are using stage monitors, then they may need some form of hearing protection and wear ear plugs, or perhaps use an in-ear monitor system which can also reduce the sound pressure level to the inner ear and prevent damage caused by noise exposure.
2)Listen carefully to the complaint and gives folks the benefit of the doubt. Assume that the person making the complaint has genuine reasons to do so. Try and put yourself in their shoes and understand exactly why they are complaining. It might be helpful to ask a few other questions to get to the bottom of the problem i.e. where do they sit in the sanctuary, is it a problem for every song, is it too loud every week or just occasionally, is it related to one particular instrument etc
3)It is a difficult thing to assess but you need to figure out whether the person’s complaint is a problem for the congregation generally, or is it just that one person’s preference. Ask some other people in the congregation from different age groups and who sit in different places whether it’s too loud for them. If it isn’t a problem for others, then it might be related to where the person making the complaint is sitting. The purpose of church music is to enable congregational singing, whether contemporary worship or traditional it doesn’t matter. If people aren’t singing in corporate worship because it is too loud, then perhaps there is a problem. But then again, the issue might be more complex than that.
Maybe they are too close to a loudspeaker. See my post on how to position loudspeakers. If that is the case and no-one else believes it’s a problem, maybe gently suggest they try sitting somewhere else in the sanctuary and see if it makes a difference. Measure the noise levels using a sound level meter. It is also worth checking for excessively loud low frequencies using a spectrum analyser app on your phone or iPad.
4)If a person’s complaint isn’t related to any of the above, then it might just be that what is really behind the complaint is that the person has different musical preferences to the rest of the congregation i.e. they don’t like electric guitars or drums etc. If this is the case, then it is not really your place as the sound tech guy to makes changes to suit one person’s preference. That is a decision for the church leadership. You don’t want to bother the pastor or elders about every complaint, but if you feel it relates more to the style of worship, then I would defer that to the pastor and elder team, rather than try and deal with yourself. I would also mention to the person making the complaint that they should really take their concerns to the church leadership.
5)It’s a shame I have to mention this one, but sadly there are occasions where some people seem to make it their life’s hobby to complain about anything. Some do it even to try and undermine their pastor. If it’s nothing to do with loud music you believe this to be the case with some people who complain, then I would definitely take this to the pastor.
6)Assuming you have a genuine complaint and it has nothing to do with the church’s general philosophy and values of worship and music, try and find out why there is a problem. Check your sound levels, and if it’s loud right across the auditorium, then it’s an easy fix, just turn down the main volume. If it’s related to a particular instrument, you can either turn that instrument down on the mixing desk or try and find out if the musician is maybe changing some of their settings that could be affecting the mix. No.1 source of problems with this I find is guitarists with effects pedals.
You might have had a sound check and everything is ok, then they play around with the settings on their pedal afterward or switch something during the service that changes their volume level. You really don’t have much control over this apart from listening for changes and turning their channel volume up or down to compensate. I usually ask musicians to set their volume to something easy for them to remember like 50% or max volume, so that I can then make consistent adjustments from the desk. Speak with your worship team and if they can’t hear themselves then that should be done from the monitor mix rather than them turning up their own volume.
7)Some complaints may relate to a fault with the sound system itself, such as distortion, feedback or hum during quiet parts of the service. You may have to look at things like the system EQ etc. See my post on system EQ here. For these types of issues, you are going to have to investigate what the problem could be. Don’t just ignore these types of complaints, because they are important to people’s overall experience of worship. If you ignore them, the complaints aren’t going to stop, their only going to increase in number and frequency. A sound system is a tool to allow people to hear the preacher and worship musicians, but you don’t want it to be a distraction. Also, you don’t want your audio system to be responsible for anyone’s hearing loss.
8)After making changes, check back with the folks who made the initial complaint and your worship leaders and see if the problem has been resolved and everyone is able to hear comfortably. If it has, then thank the person for coming to you and helping you to make the sound better. If it’s still not right, you might need to go through some of the steps again I mentioned above and maybe ask a wider group of people to find out what the real source of the problem might be.
9)Communicate with your senior pastors and church staff and leadership. When you receive complaints it is a good idea to keep the church leaders in the loop, and when things have been fixed, do let them know. What can start off a small complaint, can if it isn’t dealt with properly snowball out of all proportion to becoming a bigger issue than it needs to be. So it is important to keep key people in the loop.
10)If you are still having problems with complaints about your sound system that go beyond what I have already mentioned and you don’t know how to fix it, it may be time to call in an audio consultant to take a look at your whole system and see what the real problem might be. I know you probably feel you should be able to fix this, but there is no shame in calling in a professional. Yes it will cost money and you will obviously need to talk about all of this with your pastor and elder team or deacons, but it will be worth it if it improves the overall worship experience for the congregation and brings a halt to the complaints.
Frank Edwards is the founder and owner of churchsoundtips.com and has over 10 years experience running sound in his local church.