Defining Good Church Design: Measuring Your Facilities’ Form & Function

Both form and function need to be equal partners – often at great tension with each other- that need to be brought together harmoniously to create great design.

 

The American architect Louis Sullivan coined the phrase; Form follows function.

“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human, and all things super-human, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function. This is the law.”
Louis Sullivan 1896

Sullivan is the creator of the modern skyscraper that started popping up in the growing large industrial cities in America in the late 19th century.  The great improvements in steel and also skeletal design at that time fueled the growth in popularity of the skyscraper.

A skyscraper is a good example where function (driven by the need to go vertical as cities grew) was a strong driving factor in the design of buildings in that era.

As we look at our church buildings, what is driving the design form or function?

A modern-day example of form winning out is the Crystal Cathedral (now owned by the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in Garden Grove, Orange County, California.

Completed in 1981 it was touted as the largest glass building in the world.  The Cathedral was known for its terrible acoustics.  The initial $1.2 million sound system installed at the construction of the building was completely unintelligible. The system was 2,800 pew back speakers each row on a digital delay.  Three crystal clusters (custom built speaker clusters) also provided coverage.  Altec horns were added in the ceiling grid to get better frequency response.

However time and phase was not addressed, thus the sound was unintelligible.  The nearly 3,000 speakers were eventually replaced by 11 speakers that created a system intelligible enough to last the next 18 years.  But, it was still not a great place to hear a sermon because of the acoustics of the building.

A modern day example of function leading the way is the trend over the last decade to build black box theater type of worship centers.

In general, they are designed to be acoustically very dead, the ceilings are painted black and as the antitheses of the Crystal Cathedral there are no windows. These spaces were designed specifically to do production style of worship.  The dead acoustics allows for a studio like sound from the worship band.  The controlled lighting and video presentation provides the feeling of a concert.

As inspiring as the Crystal Cathedral was to look at, the black box theater style of worship space screams forget about the building watch only what is happening on the stage.

The two extreme examples above show that when the scale is tipped to heavily to either form or function there are great tradeoffs that end up happening.

My goal is not to say that the Crystal Cathedral or the Black box style of worship center is bad.  Rather my goal is say that both form and function need to be equal partners, often at great tension with each other that need to be brought together harmoniously to create great design.

How can form and function translate to good design at your church?

Function

1. Traffic flow inside and outside

I have a friend who writes a blog and basically makes a living online.  He talks all the time about making interactions with his customers as frictionless as possible.  He posts multiple places, uses multiple social media channels and does direct email.

His reason is to make it as easy as possible for each person to receive and engage with his content.  Traffic flow should be looked at in the same way.

How are you providing the easiest way for your attendees to get in and around your building?  Have you ever just studied your traffic flow on a Sunday?  Often some minor changes to a building or some signage updates can greatly improve the traffic flow.

2. Climate, heating and air conditioning
If your attendees are not comfortable it is difficult for them to fully engage.

Do you have someone who is monitoring the climate control system?  They should be looking at objective data, temperature and humidity.  Everybody has their own comfort zone regarding temperature so the best thing to do is pick a standard and then stick to it.

If you determine temperature off how someone feels on a given service that person may have a cold and thus turn up the heat to try to create comfort for themselves. At the same time this puts many other into discomfort.  The key is consistency. With consistency people can choose what they wear knowing that they will be comfortable at a service.

A person that I know brings a sweater every Sunday (even in the summer) they know sometimes it’s a little too cold for them so they come prepared.

One other note you should check your system every 4-6 months.  I suggest doing it at the change of the seasons.  Check to make sure the system if performing optimally also check the temperature in multiple different spots in the room to make sure the temperature is uniform throughout the space.

3. Sound (lobby noise and sanctuary sound)
I argue that one of the most important parts (if not the most important) is sound.

This includes background noise in the sanctuary and lobby. If people cannot hold a conversation in the lobby because of all the noise created by other people having conversations, consider getting some acoustical treatment to help deaden the sound.

One of the main social functions of church is that people get the opportunity to talk to friends and meet new ones, so create a space that helps make those conversations comfortable.

I also argue that the spoken word is the most important element of a worship service. A poor performing sound system where people need to strain to hear, or like the original system at the crystal cathedral where you could not understand what was being said makes people uncomfortable and frustrated.

Form

1. Beauty
What are you doing to bring elements of beauty into your space, indoors and outdoors?  Take a fresh look and walk around in and around your building.  Would painting an accent wall or adding a piece of art bring beauty?  How about planting some flowers around the entrance and trimming the bushes well you are at it?

A question I ask myself as I visit and consult with churches is; does this space feel institutional or warm and inviting?

Then the important follow up question, Why?  Color, furniture placement, plants and many other things factor into the feeling a space gives.  What are the things of beauty in your space?  What could you change to make the space inviting?

2. Engaging
Along the same lines as making the space feel inviting, what causes engagement in your space?  I have seen artwork bring engagement as well as beauty.  People stopping to view a piece of art and reflecting on its meaning.

Architecture can also do this.  Is there anything on the exterior of your building that engages people?  A recent church I worked with was looking for a new home, the building that they chose to purchase was purchased impart because the industrial look of the building fit well with their brand.

3. Uplifting
We attend church to have an extraordinary experience.  I am not talking about the cool light show and production. The point is the overall experience should not be like our ordinary daily experience.

A building has a personality, it invokes emotion from those who come into contact with it.  Is the personality of your building uplifting?  Do people sense and see something out of everyday ordinary life that lifts their spirit?

Yes, Sullivan is correct when he says the form follows function.  The building needs to work well and suit the needs of the congregation.  It also should point us to our creator with beauty and form.

I contend that good design involves form and function working together to create an extraordinary experience.

What is Good Design and How Does It Impact Your Church Facility?

Take a new look at your facility and apply some creative design ideas to raise both the form and the function of your building.

 

What is good design and how does it impact your church facility?

We live in what I have heard Daniel Pink describe as the dawn of the conceptual age.

As we moved long ago from an agrarian society to an industrial society to an information society, we are now making the transition to a conceptual society.

Pink in his decade old book A whole new mind talks about this transition subtitling it Why right-brainers will rule the future.

As most know the brain is dived in to two hemispheres and in generalities the left side is our logical side with the right side being our creative side.  Breaking this down a bit more, the left side thinking grasps details. Things like logic, sequence and analysis take place there. The right side takes care of our thinking related to the big picture it synthesis information, controls our emotions and gives us the big picture.

Pink outlines reasons for the rise of the right brain and its importance in the “conceptual age”. Part of what he argues is for the importance of design.

Design, at its core is our ability to create our environment in new ways that serve our needs and give meaning to our lives.

Paola Antionelli design curator at the New York Museum of Modern Art in her TED talk, Treat Design As Artstates that her view of heaven as satisfied curiosity.  She has also been quoted regarding design, “good design is a renaissance attitude that combines technology, cognitive science, human need and beauty to produce something that the world did not know it was missing” I would add that good designers have the ability to synthesize current needs, issues and culture.

Good design will create something that never existed or it will have people interact and have a new behavior with it.  BMW’s Chris Bangle states: “we don’t make cars, we make moving works of art that express drivers love of quality”.  A car is not new, but Bangle sees design as providing a new way for people to interact and experience a car.  Design dives into our emotional response to an object or what is around us.

The Tabernacle was a good example of God’s design and laid out in detail in the book of exodus. It provides us with some insight into design:

1) The tabernacle was first and foremost a very functional facility.  
The tabernacle was designed to be used, each of the Tabernacle had materials used based on function and purpose. It also solved the problem of a holy God dwelling in the midst of a sinful people.

2) It displayed wealth and beauty.  
The Tabernacle was a work of art.

It was inspiring and directed people’s thoughts and emotions to connect with God.

3) The building of it involved all of the people.
Designed for use by all people. It was also build by the very skilled craftsman who would worship there.

4) It reveals the character of God. 
The excellence of the tabernacle, both in its materials and its workmanship, is a reflection of God.

5) While composed of various elements, it displays the unity of all, in design, function, and purpose.
The design was complete, it was a sum of parts that all came together to produce a hole that was greater than the sum.

Through the Tabernacle God reveals that design is not just about objects, art, function or beauty.  It is about all of them with an emphasis on the behavior that these elements produced.

In today’s contemporary church I see a lot of emphasis on stage design.

Stage design being band layout, sets, projection or video elements and lighting.  A large number of new churches that have been built in the last decade or are under construction are what I would call the black box sanctuary.

If you have been to a production at a black box theater you know exactly what I am referring to.

Black stage walls black ceiling black covering on the stage floor. Black box is great because you can create an infinite number of “looks” by using set pieces. A good set designer can take this “blank canvas” and turn it into whatever scene or look the designer desires.

For some churches stage design is visited every week and different elements are used to give a new or different look every Sunday.

Others do thematic stage design that is built around the current message series that is going on. Some do 4 sets a year, generally built around the four seasons in nature.

Not all churches are black boxes and thus have elements that already exist and need to either be covered or designed into the new look.  www.churchstagedesignideas.com is a great place to get ideas and to learn about design techniques.

Design not only applies to the stage in the sanctuary it applies to the entire facility.  From traffic flow in the parking lot, the signage that directs you into the building to the artwork on the walls.  Design applies to almost every element.

The late Steve Jobs said “Design is not just what is looks like and feels like, design is how it works” I believe that good design also grabs our emotions and drives our behavior in how we interact with it.

Take a new look at your facility and apply some creative design ideas to raise both the form and the function of your building. After all, Design, at its core is our ability to create our environment in new ways that serve our needs and give meaning to our lives.

 

Understanding the “Why” in Church Planning

The recognition and praise of numerical size can drive some to emulate what Large/Successful churches are doing.

American culture leads us to the false assumption that bigger is always better.  This also spills into churches as we recognize and praise the numerical size of a church rather the spiritual depth that exists at a church.

Greatness is not found in numerical numbers or percentage of growth.  Although, I will argue that growth is a strong byproduct of greatness.

The recognition and praise of numerical size can drive some to emulate what Large/Successful churches are doing.  There is nothing wrong with looking at the successful churches to see what they are doing right. However, when you copy them, trying to emulate what they are doing is when you lose sight of your unique calling and purpose.

I recently was speaking with some church leaders and the discussion began to revolve around the church in the area that averages 15,000 attendees per weekend.

All of us talked highly of the church, its reputation and how it serves so many people. In fact, one of the leaders said I love the look of their stage especially their new set.  In fact, I like it so much I am trying to get our volunteers to build one just like it.

I have seen the set on the stage at the large church and it is gorgeous! It also really fits the DNA of the large church.

I also know that it costs thousands of dollars to build.  Feeling bold and also having a strong relationship with this group, I began systematically questioning first why that church wanted to copy the set and then how they planned to do it.

We didn’t get very far past the “it looks so cool” comment in regards to the why of building it.  Then the how and how much it would cost question pretty much shut down the discussion.  I was not trying to be the dream killer or wet blanket, but I thought it was prudent to first fully understand the why.

I then asked the following question, “if you had one more $, one more staff member or one more square foot of building, would you automatically grow spiritually or numerically?”

The first shot back at me was “It would sure help!” Following the laughter after that comment. I retorted “yes, but would it automatically cause you to grow?”  The discussion that followed was about how all of those things, $, staff and building follow growth, but doesn’t really cause it.

Our discussion also led us to ask the question Why?

Why did the large church have this cool set?  Our speculation was that the large church knew why they designed and built the set, it fit the sermon series and the overall impression that they wanted to make.  The church who wanted to copy it was doing it just because it was cool.  There was no real why.
I have found some successful questions to ask to help get to the Why?

1. Does it enhance your mission and your message?

If your mission revolves around bringing in the poor a $100,000 led wall and huge production is sending the wrong message and most likely alienating and confusing who you are trying to reach.

2. Does it bring engagement.  Does it draw people into worship?

Does it cause people to engage on a deeper level?  A friend of mine uses this litmus test after each service.  He asks the simple question “Did people worship”?

3. Does it show creativity, is it an artistic expression?

Creativity is a gift that God has given us.  I really enjoy when someone uses the creativity entrusted to them in a way that draws me into worship.

4. Does is evoke an emotion or deep feeling.

The most powerful times that I have in worship is when my intellect, my heart and my spirit are in unison praising God.  The environment is helpful in drawing me into that deep, powerful worship.

Answering these questions can help you determine if the next set, moving light, production element….  Has purpose and meaning.  In other words, you’re not just doing it because you think it is cool.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T “just a little bit” between Tech and Talent

I had the privilege of doing front of house sound for a sitting President of the United States.  It was one of the simplest and easy gigs I have ever done.  It was also one of the highest paying gigs I have ever done. You can read about it here

During the 4 hour warm up (The President was over 2 hours late) one of the Presidents detail handed me a few CD’s for pre-music. It was they typical stuff of that day U2, Madonna, Bon Jovi and even Kenny G.  During the wait the famous song RESPECT by Aretha Franklin came on. I have to admit I chuckled, thinking yeah respect, I don’t agree with the Presidents Policies or morality.

I was struck somewhere during that song how wrong my attitude was.  While I did not agree with this man, He was in a position of authority and was the reigning leader of the free world. I am called as a Christian to respect the office of the Presidency and at least honor this man as he was placed in this position.

Continue reading “R-E-S-P-E-C-T “just a little bit” between Tech and Talent”

The Kick Drum Is Too Loud? Says Who?

Sometimes my first reaction to something isn’t always my best reaction.

Recently I was mixing a group that I’d handled a few times before, and after about 30 minutes of rehearsal, the leader walked out in to the house to listen to the mix.

What happened next is where I thankfully took time to process rather than react. After a few minutes, the leader shouted, in what I interpreted as a rather curt tone, “The kick drum is way too loud!”

My passive aggressive nature was screaming from me to either shout back or turn up the kick even more.

But fortunately, in my case, a bit of wisdom has finally come with age. So rather than elevate the conflict, I did the smart thing and turned down the kick. Doing so also allowed me to think a bit more rationally.

My thoughts, not in any particular order:

1) The leader knows the band and what the mix should sound like.

2) The leader is an idiot. Everyone likes to feel the kick drum (notice I said I was only a bit more rational).

3) I’m a professional and know how to mix (OK, so I’m not always rational).

4) Maybe the kick is a little heavier on the main floor (I was mixing from a balcony position).

5) The average age of the audience will be somewhere between blue hair and retirement home, so the leader is probably just asking me to mix to the audience.

6) I’ve been accused before about having too much kick in my mixes.

7) Perhaps my mix is not matching the musical performance.

That last thought, number 7, is the one I settled on as “most” valid and most likely what the leader intended: the sound of the performance should match the music of the performance. Bill Gaither music should not sound like rock. Rock should not sound like classical. Classical should not sound like there is a sound system present. Etc…

I was thankful I didn’t take his “suggestion” as a personal attack and do something stupid, and I was able to provide a mix that better represented the musical performance. Win-win.

Later in the rehearsal, I went down to the main floor to hear how it sounded overall, and to specifically evaluate the kick. I thought the kick (and drums overall) sounded O.K., maybe a little light, but I asked the leader to join me and share what he was hearing.

His take was that the drums, overall, were a little too loud. It was his show, he had written all of the arrangements, and he leads this band all of the time, so he knows the sound he is looking for. It was my job to make that happen.

The morals of this story:

1) Be slow to speak and react.

2) Don’t take things personally. Just because someone makes a suggestion, don’t get offended.

3) Our role as sound mixers is to best represent what’s happening on the stage and to mix to that style of music, not how we personally like it.

4) The leader has the final say. He (or she) has either written or picked out the arrangements, secured the musicians, and has an opinion on how it should sound.

The Extra 10% Really Matters

Why do so many churches talk about middle of the road when it comes to system upgrades?
I recently had two experiences, unrelated on the surface, that really got me thinking.
The first happened at a church that was talking with me about upgrading their sound system. If you’ve ever been through the process of updating a system, be it sound, lighting or video, you know it’s a chore—or actually, a set of chores.There’s the pursuit of determining what’s needed, soliciting proposals, selecting a proposal, getting the church/committee to sign off on it, overseeing the install of the new components, and then figuring out how to operate them. I could talk at length about any one of the steps, but based on my recent experience, let’s start with a question (actually two): Why upgrade, and what are the expectations?

Continue reading “The Extra 10% Really Matters”

The Power Of Music & Technical Responsibilities

The emotional attachment to music that we humans have amazes me.

I can hear a song that I listened to in junior high school, and boom—my mind goes back there. I can remember where I was, see who was with me, and sometimes even relive the emotion that I experienced almost 30 years ago.

Recently I interview Gary Matthews, Pastor of Worship at Christ Memorial Church in Holland, MI, and we talked about this attachment to music.

Gary made some points that I think are very valid—one of them is, “when we eliminate a style or genre of music, we eliminate memories.” The me, at least, he’s right on with that statement!

Recently I was in a worship service where we sang the 1980s chorus “All Hail King Jesus” and I was “transported” to 20 years ago, standing in the sound booth at the church I served at that time, praising God for the blessings he had given me, in particular our first child that was born the week before. What a great and powerful memory.

Gary talked about the hymn sings that he led at Christ Memorial, noting that a highlight was “request time.” I attended a number of those hymn sings with my family, and request time was also the highlight for us. The key was that Gary asked each person requesting a song to share why it was important to them. To hear “older” saints talk about an event that happened almost a half century earlier was deeply moving.

So if music is so powerful, how does it apply to the technical side?

1)    It calls each of us, TnT (Tech and Talent), to bring our “A game” to the table every time.

2)    It calls us to be prepared, rehearsed and ready to go.

3)    It gives us the opportunity to participate in the worship in a way that also ministers to us, the technicians and musicians.

4)    It allows us to be involved in something way bigger than we actually are.

5)    It allows us to be a part of something that touches people and may very well bring them to a place, a memory, and in doing so, it strengthen our faith.

6)    The opportunity is there for someone who has “strayed from the church” to be called back to a time when they were involved and connected to God, helping call them to that place again.

Enjoy my conversation with Gary Matthews.

Who Is Gary, And What Is Worship Like At Christ Memorial? Each Worship Service Is A Unique Opportunity The Pastoral Call And Roll

5 Elements of An Engaging Church Facility

One of the activities that a church facility needs to facilitate is creating an active sense of community.

It is true that buildings are basically what we call brick and mortar, however we must also recognize that they have character and thus communicate a message about the inhabitants and often facilitate very specific activities.

Church attendance is often driven by our desire as humans to connect.

We primarily go to church to connect with God, but there is also a huge element of human/social connection that brings people thru the doors.

For a church one of the activities that a building should facilitate is creating a sense of community.

So how can brick and mortar help create a sense of community?

Church Seating Areas

When you show up early or stay later after a service you may want to have an extended conversation with someone you haven’t seen lately, or perhaps with someone who is personally struggling with a loss or tough situation in their life.

To connect on such a deep and personal level can be difficult if you are standing in a crowded lobby.  In that lobby setting there are fears of being overheard and also the constant distraction and interruptions as people walk by and wave or stop and say hi.

There is something about a seating area that is off to the side that communicates, do not interrupt.

It’s almost like you put up a do not disturb sign. In reality these areas often are where deep ministry takes place.  People are more open if they feel safe from being overheard or interrupted.

Community is about Gathering Space

There is something exciting about a crowd.

The noise, the closeness and sometimes what feels like chaos gives off a strong energy of “something is happening here”.  A lobby is great place to be seen and to see people and make a quick connection.

Church attendance is often driven by our desire as humans to connect.

We primarily go to church to connect with God, but there is also a huge element of human/social connection that brings people thru the doors.

For a church one of the activities that a building should facilitate is creating a sense of community.

So how can brick and mortar help create a sense of community?

Church Seating Areas

When you show up early or stay later after a service you may want to have an extended conversation with someone you haven’t seen lately, or perhaps with someone who is personally struggling with a loss or tough situation in their life.

To connect on such a deep and personal level can be difficult if you are standing in a crowded lobby.  In that lobby setting there are fears of being overheard and also the constant distraction and interruptions as people walk by and wave or stop and say hi.

There is something about a seating area that is off to the side that communicates, do not interrupt.

It’s almost like you put up a do not disturb sign. In reality these areas often are where deep ministry takes place.  People are more open if they feel safe from being overheard or interrupted.

Community is about Gathering Space

There is something exciting about a crowd.

The noise, the closeness and sometimes what feels like chaos gives off a strong energy of “something is happening here”.  A lobby is great place to be seen and to see people and make a quick connection.

This might be as simple as doing some of the above. Moving or creating new coffee stations, creating seating areas, adding tabletops can all give clues to where people should go and connect with each other.

Another way to help in traffic flow is to have key people that set an example or politely encourage people to move to s specific location.

If someone is lingering in front of the coffee station having an extend conversation blocking the area often someone simply coming up and saying excuse me as they walk towards the coffee station with give a social cue that the people in conversation need to move.

Your facility can most definitely facilitate community. 

Your challenge is to do the work and figure out what you can do to help make this happen.

Insuring Consistency From Service To Service

The benefit of keeping everything in its place and in working order

Talking with worship technicians and worship leaders, I often hear the complaint that from week to week, the quality of Sunday morning services varies.

Some of this stems from training, such as when there’s a problem and the tech doesn’t know how to fix it. Some of it is skill; for example, some sound engineers just have a better ear and command of the equipment than others.

The skill level of musicians may also vary, usually due to lack of experience and thus confidence. When they know a song, no problem, but when they’re unsure, they hold back and can become tentative.

But in my experience, there’s another primary contributor to the problem of inconsistency: equipment status and organization.

Example: It’s five minutes before the start of the service, and the sound engineer is sweating bullets, being told to set up for an additional four musicians that the worship leader hadn’t mentioned until just now. No time for sound check, no time for even a simple line check for these new players.

The mics and direct boxes are quickly located, plugged in, and positioned, and then the engineer high-tails it to the sound booth in time for the start of the service.

Rough estimates are made requiring the input gain and monitor levels, a quick prayer murmured, and the channels are unmuted for the opening song.

Then, and of course, “it” happens: that infamous bzzzzzzzz that makes everyone’s hair stand on end!

This particular time, the problem is the additional bass player’s direct box. Time for a split decision: mute the channel or quickly get to the stage to check find the cause, likely the line cord on the bass, or the direct box is faulty (or set wrong), or the direct box cable is bad, or…?!?

With so many potential trouble spots, and so much else going on during the service, the choice is likely going to be to mute the channel and be comforted by the fact that at least some of the sound coming from the bass rig is still being heard in the house, so the player’s efforts aren’t completely wasted.

Was this entire situation preventable? Of course! And, as usual, it’s the simple things that matter most.

There are at least five things that could and should have been done prior to this “sweat and bzzzzzz” fest:

1) Basic maintenance. All cables and cords need to be checked on a monthly basis. In addition, these should be treated properly (wrapped correctly) and organized (hung in a single, logical location). I recommend a peg board, where cables are sorted by type and length. This way, they can be easily found, even in pressure situation, and will work correctly.

There should be at least two spare cables for each variety of cables (and connectors) being used.

2) Organization. Staying with audio, it’s vital to know exactly how many inputs, and what type, will be required for each and every service. And all of these must be set up and tested ahead of time.

3) Communication. Techs should regularly interface with the worship leader and never be shy about asking if anything new or unusual is coming up. Do this early, and as often as necessary. It beats being surprised, and, it also beats having things go wrong on Sunday.

Still, last-minute stuff can and will happen. Working sound at my church recently, I noticed on the worship order that a missions report had been scheduled, and it would be delivered by someone we weren’t outfitted with a headset/lavalier mic. This was 10 minutes before the service.

So I walked up to the stage and quickly arranged for one of the vocalists, at the appropriate time, to hand off her vocal mic to the person delivering the report, and then to collect it when he was done. Nothing genius, but a last-minute solution that worked smoothly and well. When the time came, I was ready to quickly adjust that particular mic channel to adjust for the new person’s particular voice and mic handling.

4) Plan ahead, and always have a “plan B.” Normally the above scenario would not have been an issue because we always keep a spare “just in case” handheld mic on a stand on the stage (discretely out of the way). But at this particular point in the service, it was already going to be used by someone else on the worship team.

5) Have a party! (You didn’t see that one coming, did you?) Once every few months or so,  the entire tech team should get together to go through all of the equipment, making sure it’s all there, working properly, and organized. It really helps to make this a fun, festive event, with pizza and cold drinks and some time for everyone to “just hang.”

Keep these five things in mind, and you’ll see a dramatic improvement in consistency from service to service.

 

How Loud is Too Loud?

Your congregation’s perception of what is “too loud” during your services can be heavily influenced by quality of mix, sound system, acoustics and musical dynamics.

Sitting in the tech booth during a service on a recent Sunday, I had an “a-ha” moment. Not a big one, but still a good lesson.

We had traded worship bands for the day with our sister church. Our band was playing at their place, and vice versa.

One of our front of house people, Justin, traveled with the band to do the mixing. Just as our service began, I received a text from Justin that simply said, “Running a service at 85 dBA. A new record!” I glanced over at the Smaart app running on my iPad, and our levels were hovering around 88 dBA.

This was during a mellow song; moments later we were doing 90 to 95 dBA. Just then, Justin texted me again: “Update. I was able to get it to 80 dBA. It seems to have pleased the masses.”

This “conversation” (via text) got me thinking about the “how loud is too loud” conversation that’s a constant among church tech folks.

I realized this:

1) Since we’ve installed a new loudspeaker system and acoustical treatment, we’ve been running a bit louder yet haven’t received a single complaint (or for that matter, even a “suggestion” to turn it down).

2) Dynamics really do play into perceived level.

We all know that if the sound is pleasing, we tolerate more level. Think of your morning alarm clock at 90 dBA versus your favorite song on the car radio at 90 dBA—it’s a BIG difference in how you react to those sounds.

Watching as our meter hit 97 dBA, I thought “wow, it just doesn’t seem that loud.” Clearly, it was a combination of a good mix, excellent system, and the acoustical tightness of the room. (Lends credence to getting the the best system you can and mixing it loud!)

But the “a-ha” moment occurred when the band played a familiar song in a very different way. It usually starts out loud with a big guitar riff and big drums. However, this band began it with acoustic guitar only. I glanced at the meter and it read 72 dBA, and the sound was good and the level “felt” appropriate.

Then without warning came a huge downbeat, with everyone hitting it hard and then taking off. But the meter read just 86 dBA. What?! It had to be wrong, because it sure sounded like 92 to 95 dB.

The answer is obvious, however. The contrast was so great that the perceived change in volume was greater than the actual change. Kind of like when you walk out of a dark space directly into sunlight—once your eyes adjust, it’s not usually painfully bright.

The band used this type of dynamic very effectively throughout the service, bringing it way down for the quiet parts and then jumping on louder passages. They were quite skilled at it, and the new system was able to reproduce it very well.

When things got quiet, it still sounded full and rich, and when things got louder, the system responded accurately and without compressing or distorting. I watched the front of house mixer, Trevor, keep his right hand on the control group that we call program (basically everything but vocals). He wasn’t shy about riding the control group to also help accentuate the band’s change in dynamics.

So the lesson is clear: give dynamics more credence to add power and emotion to the mix.

I realize these observations aren’t earth shattering, but it’s a valuable reminder to mix to the appropriate level for the sound system. Don’t push it if the system can’t handle it. Also make sure that the system has enough headroom so that it can respond to these types of changes in level.

It’s also vital for us to bear in mind how we can best help accentuate the dynamics that a band is already producing on stage, to take advantage of that while resisting the temptation to overmix and overprocess.

Loud where it should be, soft where it should be—use the dynamics to make it all the more powerful.