Limiting Stage Volume

In my previous post about volume limits, one of the keys I mentioned was limiting stage volume.  I mentioned I could write an entire post on this topic alone, so here it is…

If you think of the average contemporary church stage, there are quite a few sources of volume.  Drum sets and guitar amps are normally the most obvious offenders, but floor monitors can be just as dangerous.  For this post, we will focus on the different contributors to stage volume, and different strategies to limiting them.

Drums:

This in many churches is the loudest source of stage volume.  Often loud drum sets will dictate volume levels more than any leadership mandates could.  I have been in situations before where we did not mic the drums, and mixed the rest of the instruments to the live drum volume.  I am not recommending this practice, but it gives you an idea of the challenge we face.

The most obvious solution to the drum volume problem is electronic drum sets.  However, whether this is a true solution or not is debatable.  They do reduce stage volume, but unless you splurge to buy a high end electronic kit, you will never be happy with the drum sound, and even with top of the line kits it is difficult.

The second option is sound limiting techniques.  Drum shields and padding are often use to reduce or redirect live drum sound.  Some churches even go so far as building a full cage for the drum set.  Although a full cage is not in the budget of most churches, some level of sound redirection is very helpful.  Just make sure you are not making the problem worse instead of better.  I visited a local church this summer who was having problems with their music mix.  As soon as I walked in the room, I knew what the problem was.  They had built a drum cage out of plexiglass and styrofoam.  I am sure budget issues limited what they could do, but their DIY drum cage definitely hurt, rather than helped.  The natural tendency of a drummer in a cage is to play louder.  Put them in a cage with little or no sound deadening, and you are magnifying the problem, not reducing it.  A good quality shield in front of the drum set would be much more effective.

Another thing to consider with a drum shield is where the sound is being redirected.  Typically, a drum shield will reflect sound up, and against the back wall.  So if you are reflecting this drum sound onto hard surfaces, such as walls and a low ceiling, you are probably doing more harm than good.  Consider adding some baffling behind the drum set, against the wall, or above the shield, or both.

Finally, and most importantly, work with your drummer.  Most drummers simply want to make the band sound better.  So if you talk to them in a polite way, and work together, they can help reduce stage volume.  Talk to them about how lowering their volume on stage will make the sound in the house better.  This step should be the first and most obvious solution.

Amplifiers:

Again, key number one is working together with musicians to lower stage volume.  This can become a complicated issue for many reasons.  One factor is that any many churches, guitarists and bass players typically prefer to hear themselves through the amp, rather than a monitor.  So reducing the amp volume reduces their ability to hear themselves.  To solve this problem, try placing the amp in front of the player, and point it at their head instead of their knees.

Another issue with guitar amps is that volume level effects tone quality.  Many guitarists intentionally run their amp louder to get the tone they are looking for.  So asking them to reduce their amp volume on stage is like asking them to play with bad tone.  So the solution is trying to find a way to reduce stage volume without turning down guitar amps.  Again, pointing them towards the back wall may help, but probably not enough.  If the amp is on stage, baffling it may help.  The other solution is to move the amps off stage.  Many guitarists cringe at taking their amp and hiding it in the closet.  They don’t want to loose the ability to adjust the amp.  But when the choice is between turning down the amp, or moving it off stage, most guitarists I have worked with will choose the later.  Just make sure they get a good sound in the monitors, or no one will be happy.

Monitors:

One contributor to stage volume that often gets over looked are floor wedges.  If you have multiple floor monitors on stage, you have a cascading problem.  The wedges have to be turned up to overcome the other loud volume sources on stage.  Then with the wedges blaring, there is no clarity in the mix, so people start asking for more of everything in their mix.  This just compounds the problem.

The most obvious (and expensive) solution is replacing wedges with in-ear monitors.  This is definitely a great option, but out of the budget of many churches.  And sometimes you will find that a cheap in-ear solution does more harm than good.

Another potential solution is how you set-up and mix floor wedges.  One important thing is to have the musician or singer as close to the wedge as possible.  That way, you can lower the overall volume level of the wedge, and the musician can still hear.  Another key to reducing wedge volume is to mix monitors by subtraction rather than by addition.  They most natural way to mix monitors is to add a little of this, and a little of that.  More often than not, that is how musicians will request changes.  However, the more you add, the louder it gets.  Rather, if a musician needs more of several items, try reducing the other channels instead.  Also, training musicians to ask for channels to be reduced rather than increased will help as well.

Following these guidelines can help reduce stage volume, which can bring a lot of clarity to the house mix.  But please let me reiterate, the key is to work with musicians, not against them.  If the volume struggle becomes an us vs. them battle, nothing will help.  I hope these suggestions help you control your stage volume and make your mixing better, and more fun.

Mixing Within Decibel Limits

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I have been trying to write this post on and off for almost two weeks now, and have been continuously disappointed with the direction I wind up going.  I keep finding myself caught up in the “should there be decibel limits” conversation, or “what is appropriate decibel limits”, or “how to set decibel limits.”  But I am not in a situation where any of those conversations are necessarily relevant.  They are all things that should be discussed, but in my case, the discussions have already been had and the decisions have already been made.  So, instead of writing about what “should” be or “could” be, I want to focus on how to create the best sounding mix within decibel limits.  I can cover the should’s and could’s in another post if anyone is interested.  Let me know in a comment or through the contact page.

Like many churches I have heard of, my church leadership has put decibel limits in place to create consistency, and try to create a positive worship environment for as much of our congregation as possible.  I personally wish the level was a little louder (actually personally, I wish it was a lot louder, but I know that is not what is best for our church).

But the limit is what it is, and my job is to create the best mix within that limit.  How do I do that?  I live by these simple rules:

  1. Know and respect the limits: Whether you agree with the limits that have been set or not, they were set intentionally.  Respectful and honest conversations about limits are great, but remember, at the end of the day, the final decision is not ours.  Our job is to respect and obey.  So know your limits, remember them constantly while you mix, and respect them.
  2. Get a good decibel meter:  Without a calibrated decibel meter, specific decibel limits are meaningless.  So make sure you have and use a good decibel meter.  Also, understand how your meter works.  Make sure you use the correct settings to get the measurements you want.  Know what weighting and range settings to use in your environment, and use them consistently.
  3. Understand hearing safety: You must know how the OSHA safety standards relate to your specific decibel limit.  Often noise complaints will include concerns over hearing safety.  Being able to address those concerns with your specific decibel limits and OSHA standards will assuage safety concerns (and reveal the preference concerns that underly the safety complaints).
  4. Know your room: Walk your room with your decibel meter.  I do this while playing pink noise through the system.  This will give you a steady reference, so you can find any hot or cold spots in the room.  For example, the main entrance of our worship auditorium is a hot spot, and is about 2 decibels louder than anywhere else in the room.  Knowing this, I can walk this area during sound check to make sure things don’t get too out of hand.  Discuss your findings with your church leadership.  Perhaps in the future they might be able to address problem areas, but that is more of a long term solution.  In the meantime, ask anyone complaining about volume levels where they sit.  If they are in a hot zone, a new seat may solve the problem.

(Wow…. 4 points about mixing within decibel limits, and we haven’t even mentioned mixing yet… I am doing well aren’t I?  But really…. how do I mix within decibel limits?)

  1. Always use your decibel meter: This may seem obvious, but make sure you pay close attention to your decibel meter during rehearsal and sound check.  Nothing is worse than dialing in a great mix, then looking down at your dB meter, and realizing you are too loud.  I have my meter on from the first moment of sound check.  And I am constantly monitoring my levels even while setting up everything else.
  2. Beware vocal spikes: In my situation, in my room, it seems like the biggest problem I have are with vocal peaks.  Typically they happen when singers jump octaves, or during loud portions of the song.  One thing that really helps this is properly setting vocal compressors.  Even then, I often have moments where the vocal will peak 5 dBs.  The saving grace is that with good singers the peaks are normally in the same places. If you pay attention, you can anticipate when these peaks are coming, and adjust accordingly.  I note these peaks on my cheat sheet to ensure I don’t miss them.  (Look for a post in the near future about how I setup my cheat sheets).
  3. Limit stage volume: One of the biggest factors in a muddy mix is too much stage volume.  When I first stepped into my current role, I muted the house speakers, and I was measuring about 75-80 db at the sound board, with just stage volume.  If you are trying to create a great mix within difficult decibel limits, reducing stage noise can make the battle much easier, and the results much better.  I can write an entire post just on this topic (and I hope to in the near future), but for now, I will mention a couple of things: Work with musicians to turn down amp volumes, work with drummers on dynamics, and consider drum shields or cages.
  4. Watch the balance: Turning down the volume is not as simple as lowering the master fader.  Changing the overall volume level will change the low to high balance.  So, instead of limiting volume with the master fader, I always use my VCAs (or groups, if that is what you use).
  5. Grouping is your friend: On my board, I use VCAs, but find a way to group similar channels together.  I run all my drum mics through one VCA, so I can adjust the overall drum mix, without messing up the balance of the individual pieces.  I do the same with background vocals.  How many VCAs or groups you have really dictates what you can do with them.  I can share my setup if it is helpful, but I have 8 VCAs, so I don’t know how helpful that might be.  Let me know.
  6. Less is more: When working within volume limits, it is especially important to mix by subtraction rather than addition.  If you want to highlight a particular instrument, often you can get the same effect by lowering another sound or two.  That way, you can still mix with style, taste, and interest, but stay below your decibel limit.
  7. Don’t loose the energy: When limiting volume, the hardest thing to maintain is energy.  Softer sounds naturally sound like they have less energy.  When I need more energy, I always look for a driving sound.  Sometimes that is the kick drum, sometimes bass, sometimes rhythm guitar.  You just need to find a sound that is pushing the song forward, and give it a little more prominence.
  8. Know what is peaking your meter: Most decibel meters will tell you the volume of the loudest frequency at the mic.  So, it is imperative to know what is peaking your meter.  If you are passing your volume limit, you need to know what to turn down, so listening is just as important as watching.  If your lead vocal is peaking the meter, dropping the volume of the rest of the band might get you below the magic number, but it won’t sound good.  Know what is peaking your meter, and how to make it work.
  9. Carve your EQ: Rather than boosting volume on vocals and other items you need to hear clearly, make room for them using EQ.  For example, I typically create a boost around 1khz in the lead vocal, I will then carve out that space by making a 1 khz cut for other instruments.  I do the same thing for my piano at about 2 khz.  Generally speaking, each instrument should have it’s own sonic space.  This will allow you to hear everything more clearly without having to crank the volume.

I hope you have found these basic tips helpful.  Sorry this post got so long… Just kept thinking of more things.  If you have any thoughts, comments, or questions, please feel free to share them.

Happy mixing,

Aaron