Controlling volume overspill in church part 2 – identifying the noise-makers

Controlling volume overspill in church part 2 – identifying the noise-makers

Sound proofing in church

In my original post on  controlling volume overspill in church, I spoke specifically about noise problems outside of the building, concluding with the statement: If you seriously need to reduce the volume spill into the outside world then you should speak to your local acoustic consultant. However, in the light of the various comments I think it appropriate to delve into this topic further.

Perhaps I should reiterate, my last post was purely responding to a question about sound spill OUTSIDE of a building. Now I’d like to think about sound spill INSIDE. Sorry to be so blatant, but there is a big difference between these, so I’d rather be too verbose than make assumptions…

There seem to be two themes appearing from the comments on the last blog: reducing the overall volume inside the Church; and altering the fabric of the building to reduce noise / echo / flutter / reverb inside the Church.

These two elements go hand-in-hand; after all it is the direct sound (PA, instruments, spoken word, etc) that causes diffuse sound (echo, flutter, and reverb). I often think of this as the “direct to diffuse ratio”.

It’s a common misconception that reverberation in a building can be overcome by turning up the PA, but this doesn’t really make sense: diffuse sound is just the echo of the original direct sound that’s bounced off a wall or ceiling or whatever before reaching my ears. Therefore the direct and diffuse sounds are proportional, so increasing direct sound will only increase diffuse sound. So first off, if you struggle with too much diffuse sound (echo) then you can simply reduce the level of the direct sound (PA).

Reducing the volume produced from the band & PA

First we will summarise some of the main concepts on the topic and also think about the most common noise makers (I’m thinking specifically about Churches here, but the same principles apply elsewhere of course). We’ve also added in hypertext links to various relevant Musicademy articles throughout the text here.

Here’s my list of “most common noise makers”, and some potential resolutions.

Please note; this is by no means a conclusive list…!

Noise-maker # 1 – Drums

Wow! Undoubtedly the most commonly accused “noise-maker”. If you already have the perfect answer to this, then do please let me know! If not, then there are various methods floating around to reduce drum noise.

Firstly, why not ask the drummer to play quieter? To be honest, this is the most effective solution I’ve come across, although not always the most consistent. Hot rods or canes can work to help this, although if you’re asking your drummer to play so quietly they have no dynamic range left then we’ve just suppressed their ability to express themselves musically. Music should have some ebb and flow to it, perhaps the philosophers among us could argue it is not music if there is no dynamic expression?

Drum screens  are another common solution; often the go-to option. Yes, they can really help but be careful as this is not a perfect solution. You will need to mic the kit up (at least a bit) to get the definition you lose from putting up a drum screen. Also the musicians will often ask for the drums in their monitor which can end up being as loud (or louder!) than the drums in the first place.

Many drummers I know really struggle being caged in; the sound inside their box can be really hard to work with as it gets so lively in there. Equally, if it’s not introduced with sensitivity it can send the message “you are not a good enough musician to be able to control your own volume level therefore we have to control it for you”.

I sometimes ask myself, what would happen if the money from a drum screen purchase could be used instead to give your drummers a handful of lessons from a local professional in playing quieter whilst maintaining tone…?

Electric drum kits are becoming more popular; especially in the “silent stage” model which is being employed a lot at the moment. Again, you need to put the drums back in to the foldback monitors for everyone to hear. Equally, it can be really hard to get the right sound from it. Electric stage pianos are used instead of an acoustic grand / upright piano and there are very decent products available for reasonable money; electric drum kits are different though and a kit with a great sound and feel can set you back many thousands.

Noise-maker # 2 – Amps on stage

As a guitarist, I’m allowed to say this: most guitarists have their amps too loud. Yes, the sweet-spot of the valve amp is closer to eleven than one, but this is not a stadium gig, it’s Church. Guitar amps, bass amps and keyboard amps should be turned down as much as possible; maybe even gotten rid of completely.

Controversial I appreciate, but many keys players don’t need an amp on stage; you could just use the foldback monitor. The same could be said for bass guitarists too; many players only use an amp for the pre-amp tone rather than the power, especially if the in-house PA has the ability to carry the low-end, i.e. a sub. If you can go without the amp, then why not look at a pre-amp pedal to provide the tonal shaping you’re after? Of course, if the PA is only suited for vocals, then a bass amp can be a great way to add extra low-end contour to the sound.

Andy has written a whole host of brilliant posts on guitar amps (“Small amp, great sound” –  part 1part 2part 3part 4 and part 5), so I’m not going to step on his toes. Smaller amps can be amazing for Church use. Another great tactic is to get the amp pointing at the head of the guitarist rather than their ankles. Even better still: bring the amp around the front so it points backwards (not at the congregation) as this prevents unwanted spill off the stage.

I’ve experimented with putting my amp in a cupboard, which works well when I’m using in-ear monitoring. Although it is slightly disconcerting having your guitar piped in through the in-ears. And having a good, experienced engineer is vital.

Some of the multi-FX units with built-in DI outputs can be useful too. Lincoln Brewster is the man here; check out his tone if you think a multi-FX unit cannot give impressive sounds!

Noise-maker # 3 – Foldback monitors

The musicians’ monitors on-stage can easily destroy a great mix. I always say that the monitors need to be 10dB quieter than the main PA. If there is not this 10dB drop then the monitors will always fill your crystal clear mix with wash and muddiness. I’ve even used a freebie phone-based app to measure this 10dB difference in the past! It doesn’t have to be accurate, as long as you’re able to measure that 10dB drop…

Again as a musician I’m preaching to myself here as much as anyone: musicians often put too much into their monitor mix. In most Churches, the band are close enough together to be able to hear each other without the need for monitoring anyway. It’s just the vocals and non-self-amplified instruments (e.g. acoustic guitar, DI’d keyboard) you’ll need to trickle into the mix to hear. Less is more is most definitely the adage here. Also, as the guitarist I don’t necessarily need to hear what the seventeenth backing vocal is doing; it’s not a harsh statement, I’m just suggesting that in order to help reduce the volume, I should reduce the number of things in my mix.

In-ear monitoring or IEM can be interesting, although you MUST have a mix per musician; you cannot share IEM mixes as they are so finely tuned to the individual musician. You can spend big money on IEM solutions, especially the wireless versions, although shoe-string versions are out there too. I can guarantee that you will add a lot of time to your sound check if you run IEM. It’s easy enough to make-do with a roughly mixed wedge or spot monitor, but if your IEM feed is slightly out it can be almost impossible.

Noise-maker # 4 – Main PA

An obvious one! If you’re driving your PA too hard then perhaps ask yourself why? Maybe the people at the back can’t hear otherwise; or you’re trying to fill a black spot; perhaps there is not enough bass in your system? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions then I would suggest speaking to someone in the know. Driving your PA too hard to counteract these problems is just proof that the problem lies with the speaker system itself.

Maybe you just like it loud? Of course if this is louder than everyone else wants it, then that’s not so helpful… It might even be worth coming up with some volume / SPL readings for your Church service and then mix to an SPL meter? I started doing this a while ago and it’s actually a really hard discipline, but if it means I’m serving the Church more effectively because of it, then why not?

Ok, so perhaps there is more there than I was expecting to write this time around…! This is just the tip of the iceberg too. Reducing the stage and PA volume can be a really hard juggling act. The astute reader will notice that I’ve not got technical and geeky at all here; these are all practical solutions you can employ before getting behind the desk.

In part 3 of this series we will consider how to alter the fabric of the building to reduce echo and reverb.

Tim Horton is Project Manager at SFL Group.