How Loud Is Too Loud?

The other night I was at a show at a local bar…I mean church…I mean…no it was definitely a bar, seeing a friend’s band play, and the mix was LOUD. Like, uncomfortably loud. I pulled out the dB meter app on my iPhone (not super accurate, but close enough) and it was reading 112 dB on average during loud choruses. Luckily I had earplugs, but it got me thinking: how loud is too loud? And what do we as church engineers say when people tell us that the mix is too loud?

On a technical level, it’s pretty easy to say what’s “too loud”. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has done research to determine exposure times at various decibel levels that can lead to hearing damage. Their data tells us that around 106 dB (A-weighted) for 3.75 minutes will lead to possible hearing damage. That’s pretty loud, but I’ve definitely heard some church environments (especially camps/retreats) hit that level regularly. Above that, you get to a mere 2 minutes of exposure at 109 dB and less than a minute of exposure is acceptable at 112 dB. So…I’m really glad I brought those ear plugs. 

In purely the technical sense, going over 106 starts to get into the territory of “too loud” for the average ear to handle for the length of a typical song, but there’s a lot more to it than that. For on thing, it’s rare that a song is going to be that loud for the whole duration of the song. Contemporary worship music usually has a lot of dynamics, with lots of different parts that are soft and loud. So it’s unlikely that you’re going to hurt anyone if you peak at 106 for a few seconds at the loudest part of the chorus, because after that loud chorus there’s going to be a softer verse or instrumental that drops the dB level back down again. There’s a lot of give and take when it comes to loudness.

But let’s talk about what really matters: your congregation’s PERCEPTION of loudness. You could be running at 91 dB, which on a technical level is perfectly safe to listen to for 2 hours straight…but if you try to pull that level with a congregation full of older people, you’ll be kicked out of that church faster than you can make a joke about turning down their hearing aids. 

My personal “safe level” for the churches that I mix at (which are contemporary, medium-to-mega churches playing modern worship music) is from 92 to 98 dB depending on what it feels/sound like in the room, and what the congregation is used to. Lower than 92 dB, and the mix usually starts to feel flat and lifeless, but higher than 98 dB, and you usually start getting complaints from the people near the speakers. 

So what do we do when we get a complaint about it being “too loud”? 

The answer is: it depends. If the complaint comes from the pastor, or from the tech director, I immediately turn the mix down. There’s is ZERO room for argument when the request comes from them. You might be perfectly within the safety levels defined by NIOSH, but if the pastor says it’s too loud, then it’s too loud. 

But what about the other times, like when a random congregation member comes back to the board and says I’m running too loud? This is when we as sound engineers have to be very objective. There’s definitely a chance that I may have become caught up in the moment and have pushed things louder than they should be. So the very first thing I do is to check my dB meter. If I find that I actually am loud, I’ll pull down the mix a little and thank the congregation member for telling me. That’s just the right thing to do. But, if I REALLY, objectively don’t think it’s too loud, I’ll politely tell the congregation member “Thank you, I appreciate your input, if you’ll come stop by the sound booth after service, I’ll be more than happy to talk with you”. That’s my line, every single time. Feel free to use it. 

If they actually do come back after service (which is exceptionally rare) I’ll explain to them that I’ve been hired by the church to provide a certain level of sound reinforcement that is compatible to what thousands of churches across the country do on a Sunday morning, and that what they were hearing was absolutely not damaging anyone’s ears. Usually, that’s enough to satisfy them, but if not, I’ll refer them to the tech director or a pastor on staff for follow-up, but I’ve almost never had that happen. 

Hopefully, this has provided you with some insight on what volume is “too loud”. It’s a complicated subject, but it’s an important one that needs to be addressed. Above all, trust your ears. If it feels like a good volume, it probably is. 


As always, we want to help you become a better live sound engineer! So if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out to us at worshipsoundguy@worshipsoundguy.com

*All figures quoted above are based on the “A weighting” system of sound measurement, and all information is based on my experience – none of the information contained within this blog should be taken as scientific, and I take no responsibility for its use.   11 Likes


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    1. Great question! So OSHA requires employers to implement a hearing conservation program when noise exposure is at or above 85 decibels averaged over 8 working hours, or an 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA). Hearing conservation programs strive to prevent initial occupational hearing loss, preserve and protect remaining hearing, and equip workers with the knowledge and hearing protection devices necessary to safeguard themselves. You can find out some more info about it on the OSHA website at https://www.osha.gov/noise

  1. When the music keeps people in their cars till it’s over because of heart health issues or causes head aches, is that loving and kind and necessary?

    1. Definitely not! The mix should never be discouraging people from coming in to the auditorium/sanctuary. Usually I’ve found if it’s that extreme of a case, there’s more going on than just “it’s too loud”. Typically there are issues with stage volume, speaker placement, harshness or poor EQ choices. So there’s a lot to unpack there, but the short answer is no, the mix definitely shouldn’t be discouraging people from participating in service.

      1. How would you suggest a congregational member approach the staff about this issue?

        I cannot tolerate the loud thumping bass drum – I literally start having panic symptoms. Note: I am not “old,” I used to be a pianist in a church that played modern music, and I am musically literate (can read and sing parts). It used to not be this loud. I am at a loss as to what to do.

        I miss being able to hear the congregation sing over the musicians.

        1. Hi Rebecca! That’s a great question. It’s tough to say for sure without hearing what’s going on. I’d politely ask other people in the congregation if they notice an issue with the volume of the kick too. That way you can see if it’s bothering everyone or not.
          After that, I’d simply suggest a polite conversation with whoever is in charge of tech for your church. I guarantee that absolutely no audio engineer out there WANTS to cause panic from the volume of their kick. If it’s an issue for a lot of people, it’s likely that you’ll be able to have a great conversation with them and can get some more information about why they’re running the mix in the style that they are, and potentially what could be done to make everyone’s experience better.

          I’d also encourage you to move around the room a little bit. There’s definitely a good chance you’re sitting in an area where the bass is louder than in other sections of the room. You might be able to move your position slightly to somewhere that’s a more manageable volume.

          I hope that goes well for you!


  2. I ran sound at my church today. Dbs were between 89-94. We had a couple congregants complain, but all church admin said it was great and want me to do sound again!

    More people engaged in worship than usual because the music was loud enough that they weren’t self conscious of their singing.

    Thank you for this article!

    1. That’s awesome! The high 80s to low 90s is a good spot to compromise. You usually won’t get too many complaints, and like you said, it loud enough where it fills out the room and encourages more engagement. Glad it worked for you!

  3. I have someone in our church that said the music is to loud he said it was over 100 dm on his laptop and he was sitting about 50 feet from the speakers towards the rear of the church when I took out the meter it was running between 82 to 87 dm and would peak once in a while to 90 but it was never over 90. The sound with no one talking is 47 he thinks the music needs to be in the 60 something range I think it would be impossible to have professional good music in the 60 or 70 range what do you think

    1. Hey Tom! Yeah, there are a lot of considerations here. The main one that I’d be curious about is what settings he was using to make that 100+ db measurement. I’m betting he was on a “fast response” which will always register very high and is not a good way to measure whether an environment is too loud. If it’s something that comes up again, it would probably be worth having a conversation with him about how to properly measure SPL levels and to assure him that he’s not in any danger. A mix that’s in the mid 80’s should be totally fine and should not pose any significant risk to long term hearing.

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