We've all been warned about the dangers of ear fatigue — even if our parents didn't call it that. As teens, we've likely all cranked the volume of our music all the way up and were then told to turn it down, whether or not we were wearing headphones.
Volume levels that harm ear health are generally associated with large concerts, whether indoors or outside, but not usually with places of worship. However, proper church sound management is crucial to dialing the right volume for a given space to ensure optimal audience enjoyment and comprehension. Here's why.
Preventing ear fatigue is important — and not just for avoiding hearing loss. It manifests in different ways, including pressure on the eardrums, a dull ache in the ears, tinnitus or ringing in the ears, and even headaches.
Consistent loudness is typically the number one culprit, possibly from working in an environment like a factory floor or construction site. Being overexposed to a single frequency range, such as a ramped-up bass on a set of headphones, is also a common cause. Any overexposure to environmental noises can lead to ear issues due to sensory overload.
Worship spaces vary as vastly as their attendees. An old purpose-built edifice might come to mind when thinking about a religious service. These days, though, many modern church services are held in non-traditional buildings, so church sound management has become more complex. These spaces can include community centers, school auditoriums, and repurposed warehouses. Many newly-built churches are designed as multi-purpose facilities. They may be used by other community groups or even rented out for events to fund maintenance of the facility.
Church sound management today requires understanding the behavior of sound as well as how to manage and deliver it. This is important for distributing music — like that of different worship services — as well as spoken word and prayer. Musical instruments shouldn't drown out a worship band or choir, and the spoken word must be equally understood by an audience sitting at varying distances from the front of the space.
Modern churches likely have multiple generations of attendees sharing a space. Therefore, church sound management must balance intelligibility and volume. Louder isn't always better. Music or spoken word shouldn't cause discomfort for elderly parishioners or small children.
Effective church sound management starts with understanding the space — whether it was built specifically for holding services or as a multi-purpose venue for various activities.
Perhaps a new church was built with acoustics in mind. Ideally, its church sound management would succeed using as little technology as possible. There's also more to it than outfitting the primary worship space. Many churches have youth rooms, secondary quiet spaces, conference rooms, and even outdoor spaces. There are also videoconferencing solutions and options to engage in services for those who can't attend.
Upgrading a sound system is a significant capital expense, so it's important to remember that not all spaces of worship are the same. Church sound management concerns not only the space's acoustics. It should also consider soundproofing panels on walls, ceiling audio solutions, and how the shape of the building affects sound delivery.
If there's one key measurement to consider in church sound management that will mitigate ear fatigue, it's decibel (dB) levels. While a rock concert might hit as loud as 120dB, a church service shouldn't exceed 80dB. An average of 65dB to 70dB during the service can help mitigate the fatigue. Anything higher leads to loss of concentration and potential hearing damage.
It might be tempting to aim for an even lower dB level just to be on the safe side, but church sound management is about finding a sweet spot that allows everyone to hear speech and music comfortably. If people are straining to hear, it can also lead to both ear and brain fatigue. Aim for an average listening level of 25dB above the noise of the room — this requires understanding existing ambient noise levels. Generally, the low 60db range should be good for listening. If the sound system must exceed 68db for parishioners to hear, there's likely a noise issue.
Because every building and worship space is different, it's wise to have an evaluation from an expert in church sound systems. They can best understand the acoustics of a space to craft a church sound management system that's inclusive of all members of the community, helping prevent ear fatigue and improve engagement.