Decibels and Distraction

As of late I have been attending the local parish for Mass. I have found that the microphones and sound system are set at what I perceive to be very high levels. In fact, even with 30 dB attenuation with earplugs, I can hear the Mass quite well and at a reasonable noise level even from the last pew. With attenuation, I hear the homily as if a person were speaking to me at a three or four foot distance without attenuation.


Why is Mass loud in some churches? I can think of a few reasons.


* Some persons in the assembly are hearing impaired and have requested a higher level of amplification.


* Poor acoustics due to church design. Poor acoustics might be due, for example, to heavy carpeting or because a church was originally designed for another function (i.e. the church was once a gymnasium).


* Greater tolerance of “loud spaces”. Examples of loud spaces include sports arenas, rock concerts, and the central business districts of cities.


Since I suspect that some persons benefit from the audio amplification, I merely adapt to my surroundings by using inconspicuous earplugs. Even so, I wonder if my use of earplugs to lower the sound level for my comfort defeats an important principle of the liturgical reform. Am I actively participating if I use passive devices to turn down the volume? Am I in some way sequestering myself from the unison of active participation? I must admit that what I perceive to be loud amplification impedes my personal thought and meditation to some degree. Perhaps what I deem to be over-amplification is purposefully designed to counter a tendency for the mind to wander.

I now ask for the experiences of other PTB readers. Do readers find their churches, and other churches they’ve visited, to be over-amplified? Should over-amplification be tolerated out of charity and concern for those who might have difficulty understanding the Mass at a lower volume? Are there newer technological solutions that allow a worshiper to understand Mass at a sound level comfortable for him or her without compromising the overall intelligibility of the Mass for the entire assembly?

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35 comments

  1. It’s no longer a problem in our parish where a fairly functional sound system has been replaced by one which renders everything unintelligible.

  2. I find many churches either are too loud, or the sound system is unbalanced. Also many systems have one setting for everyone, regardless of the different voices and tembres. Also to many priests rely on amplification, and think they no longer have to enunciate… And so we have amplified mumbling… And don’t even get me started on cheap unidirectional mics… Sigh.

  3. One of my greatest aversions in choosing a parish community is over-amplification.

    I attended Mass at a local parish, whose late former pastor was well known in liturgical circles. The current music director has a powerful voice that needs no amplification in the size of the space. Yet, there he was at the piano with the mike right near his mouth, and he sang everything. You could barely hear the congregation when it sang. No one has told him not to sing amplified when the people are expected to sing (or, if someone has, he disagrees). It was painful at times. He has the pianist’s version of the same itch that causes organists to be too loud in accompaniment: he’s constantly making the accompaniment into a busy concertato counterpoint to the congregation, an all-too common vice among liturgical accompanists. First rule of accompaniment in Mass: support, but stay out of the way – the congregation’s voice should be more musically noted than yours – your job is to be not too visible, as it were. (A corellary: when programming music, the presumptive rule should be to choose music that does not require accompaniment at all, that people can sing well without any instrumental support.)

    This congregation offers no missalettes for those whose aural faculties work best when assisted by visual aids (which is true for MANY people); the disregard for difference reception styles is marked.

  4. The parish council of my large suburban affluent parish spent most of its time dealing with complaints about sound level (people could not hear), light level (people could not see), and parking (not enough handicapped parking). The church of modern fan shaped design was built in the 1980s.

    The lighting problem occurs in part because the church has many windows which provide a lot of light on sunny days, however at other times it is like we are in a dimly lit Easter Vigil Service of Readings. The cost of replacing the lighting system was about $60,000. Too many other priorities for that to be done. One council member suggested we pass out miner’s lights for all who want them.

    The acoustical problem is caused in part by carpeting and poor acoustics. The sound system seems to be adjusted for the pastor who likes to preach (and say Mass) in a shouting voice. Never any problem hearing him, and he is not too loud. However other quieter speakers (priests, deacons, readers) often are difficult to hear.

    With all the modern technology available with personal devices we could solve many of the sound and lighting problems except that as a seventy year old I have found they challenge my manual dexterity. The contract costs for these devices are also prohibitive especially if you would only be using them for Weekend liturgy. If I had one I would be tempted to tune out the homily in favor of chant or hymns.

    The future of electronic worship aids could become interesting. We each could have other own custom experience of the Mass, those who like the Latin or the Propers could simply use their “aid.” The end of much liturgical dictatorship and liturgy wars.

    CNN has an interesting article on Steve Jobs that is somewhat relevant:

    http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2013/08/17/the-faux-religion-of-steve-jobs/

    But baked into Apple products is a troubling paradox. Like a technological Trojan horse, Apple products assail our senses with sumptuous visuals and rich acoustics while unleashing a bevy of addictive and narcissistic habits. The ‘i’ prefix on Apple devices is a constant reminder that personal technology is ultimately all about us.

    The Apple religion is not a religion at all, but a celebration of the self through personalized pleasure.

    I am not so sure “personal technology is ultimately all about us.” Christianity is about persons living in community. The question for both personal technology and liturgy is whether it fosters both personhood and community.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #3:
      The ‘i’ prefix on Apple devices is a constant reminder that personal technology is ultimately all about us.

      Except that’s not with the “i” in front of iMac (the first Apple product to use the i- prefix) means.

      1. @Jeffrey Pinyan – comment #7:
        Jack – the usual *rabbit hole* approach. What JP is trying to say is that the *i* in iMac stands for *internet*.

        What he misses in his usual style is that your point is right on target:

        Point:
        – The iMac was designed to attract people who have never owned a personal computer and also to win back former Mac users who had moved to personal computers …..low-priced iMac symbolized Apple’s determination to compete in and increase its share of the personal computer market.

      2. @Bill deHaas – comment #10:
        Is it simply a reflex to throw in a gratuitous personal insult totally unrelated to your point, or are you trying to signal that as far as you are concerned some people are unwelcome here? It’s getting really tiresome.

      3. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #15:

        Fritz,

        I disagree with you. Perhaps you are becoming reflexive?

        I found Jeffrey’s response to my post very awkward. It seemed to accuse me of endorsing what I had quoted, when clearly I was questioning what I had quoted.

        Jeffrey also did not make clear what he thought “I” really meant. So it seemed to me that he was merely being critical of me without furthering the conversation. In other words Jeffrey was being gratuitous.

        In this case I appreciate very much Bill’s comment and think it was very appropriate.

  5. It seems to me that most Catholic parishes have a “set it and forget it” mentality when it comes to sound amplification systems. There are so many variables (different people speaking, microphone placement, number of people in the building, etc.) in any given liturgy, that a parish will not achieve the desired quality of sound without someone actively running a mixing board for every service.

  6. All the major Protestant churches in town do have a technician who adjusts the sound board depending on who is talking, singing, etc and will turn off microphones that are not in use.
    I’ve been in neo-Gothic/Romanesque churches for the past 28 years and each of them have had acoustical problems in terms of ricocheting/echoing sounds. These churches are splendid for singing, but not for speaking. Yet all three need sound amplification in order to be understood (not heard as the hearing isn’t he problem) when speaking and sometimes for solo chanting. People who are new or visiting find our acoustics the most difficult as they haven’t learned how to listen in our church and don’t realize that some seats have better “intelligibility” than others. And in all of the churches I’ve been in, money spent on sound systems has been exorbitant. For those truly hard of hearing, we provide radios as our system has a radio transmitter. This has been the best solution for the hard of hearing and those who have these devices hear better than anyone else.

  7. Something to consider when thinking about ‘sound systems’ — any Church constructed before 1929 probably needs no sound system or at least a minimum one, since the microphone was only invented in 1929. The architects before that time took into consideration the need to hear and tried to build in the proper acoustics. That is also why pulpits had ‘sounding boards’.

    1. @Philip Sandstrom – comment #6:
      Sorry – not my experience at all. In fact, Allan captures it best in the dioceses where I have lectored or given presentations – “….neo-Gothic/Romanesque churches (most built in the 1950s) each have their accoustical problems in terms of ricocheting/echoing sounds”
      What I have found too often as parish boards meet to approve church construction is a tension between what is best for organ/choir versus a sound system that supports spoken words so that the majority of the community can hear and understand. Usually (as Jack states well) it is a financial question – good sound systems can run all the way to six figures; issues such as use of carpet or not: if material or cushions are used on pews, kneelers; are there internal posts/columns blocking sound; too few speakers or they are poorly located or are unidimensional – sound travels in only one direction, etc. Usually, the diocesian board has guidelines and must also approve designs but have found that the *spoken word/amplification* etc. have a low priority in these guidelines.
      These issues are magnified by the growing number of foreign priests who have heavy accents, don’t articulate (this can be found in newly ordained clerics and cantors/deacons, also). Homletics, practice sessions, taping homilies, feedback loops with lay participants should include the ability to understand and use various sound systems. Finally, more and more congregations have older catholics who have hearing difficulties – no sound system can effectively help many of these folks – it requires special headphones and radio systems (and how many catholic churches even cathedrals have that?).
      This is a sad reality and it impacts folks participation, attendance, etc. and few priests/dioceses have the necessary skills and expertise to address these issues.

  8. I thank Jordan for bringing this up. It also vexes me when sound is overamplified, especially by music ensembles. As a reader I prefer to speak without any aid, and I could do so in most sanctuaries even when they are equipped with microphones.

    I have never taken part in a parish planning session about sound levels. It may be that a parish sets its sound levels under normal voice assumptions. In some cases there may be more attention to the performance aspect than the participation aspect; in other words, it is considered more important to demonstrate that a mass has been celebrated in this place, than to celebrate it with active participation by all.

    This weekend I listened to students who had returned from Youth Week in Rio, and I realize that they were fully active participants in the heavily amplified songs. This was certainly performance and active participation. Was it liturgy as presented in SC? Well…

  9. Clearly not my experience. If I plunge into deep memory I can recall the few times the sound was over amplified. I can tell you, just in the past month, of poorly amplified, unintelligible pastors, readers and yes, even church musicians.

    Last week I watched the parish keyboard player … didn’t hear barely a note. Attended Mass at the cathedral and a ring modulator could not have distorted the sound any worse. I was sitting in the seventh row, hardly word one was heard … readers, cantors, psalmist … fans roaring, traffic driving by, pipe organ bellows droning … PA badly, badly adjusted.

    Attended a Christmas Eve Mass at which the priest announced that he did not need a PA to be heard and then spoke, well at least he gestured, for over 20 minutes.

    Let’s be real here. I am, by trade, a professional opera singer who knows how to fill a large space with my voice yet I will use a microphone (properly) at all times … reminded constantly that the singing of hymns during the service was a response to a bored congregation who could not hear or see what was taking place. You do not want me pushing stage power in the church. It come across as a performance (which is becomes) and artificial, which to a congregation used to the one-on-one of TV and personal media, it is. Can be done but the complaint will be “acting” right after.

    Whatever happened to the “loud, clashing cymbals?”

    My sister is part of the five-person sound team that runs the sound setup at her evangelical church … every service … every week … btw, arrive early because seats are at a premium … gotta love the digital drum set!

  10. Dear Boomers —

    Ask yourselves: why are we called “boomers”? Answer: not just because there was a boom of babies after WWII but because around Elvis’ time your music started to boom and has gotten progressively louder. Listening to too much of it has made many of you rather deaf or very deaf if you had problems to begin with.

    The solution isn’t better audio systems for your churches. Take thee to some good hearing doctors who will probably prescribe hearing aids. Don’t cringe at the term. They help. Face it, Boomers, you’re sadly becoming old and deaf.

  11. I remember an architect telling me in 1970 that acoustics is not a science. There was still a lot of guessing.

    Now it is a science. A skilled technician can usually overcome defects in architeture and use and put something together that works. A bi factor is that it costs more money than we originally budgeted. But the cost is worth it.

    Let the experts put the system together. Not the well meaning parishioner who can get these special speakers at a cut-rate price.

    Rev. Richard L. Allen
    retired; Appleton, WI

  12. The problems:

    (1) Folk who are getting old and whose hearing is diminishing. They don’t need louder sound but clearer sound.

    (2) Folk who have spent too long in discos and whose hearing has been impaired as a result. They need more volume as well as greater clarity.

    (3) Presiders who vary, as KLS pointed out, between the Horse Whisperer and the Stentorphone.

    (4) Sound engineers who insist on setting microphone levels just a tiny tad away from over-peaking. Actually we don’t need things to be just on the edge like this. Give us some breathing room and cut the levels down.

    (5) Amateurs, lay and ordained, who fiddle with sound boards, and who do not realize that the volume slider and the gain knob are both involved in setting the right level.

    (5) Sound systems that have been designed for speech but not for music, and vice versa. The two systems should be completely separate.

    (6) Instrumentalists who are “performing”, who think that everyone wants to hear them, and who have no idea about supporting the singing rather than dominating it. Couple that with (4) and you have a recipe for disaster.

    (8) Vocalists or presiders who love the sound of their own voice and do not know how to use the mic. They need to understand what the purpose of their music is, or what are good vocal techniques for leading people into prayer.

    (7) Poor acoustics: the church has been designed for speech and not music. The basic rule of thumb is always to have acoustics which favor music — reverberant space — since it is easy then to provide sound systems to make the spoken voice clear. It is impossible to do the reverse. An acoustic which is good for speech will be lousy for music.

    But many churches have shapes where the sound focuses on some spots and is inaudible in others. Architects need to work hand-in-glove with acousticians, but they usually feel threatened by this.

    (8) Sound systems with poor, cut-price microphones, inadequate amplifiers and speakers which cannot do what they need to do.

    The solution:

    Stop considering sound reinforcement as the poor relation, but involve experts at every stage of building design and, later, when the building is in use. Never install or replace a sound system without taking advice. Your system could be wonderful: you just aren’t using it properly. On the other hand, it could have been installed by a cowboy.

    I have lost count of the number of churches I know who replaced their sound systems and ended up with something worse than what they started with.

    Loads more to say, but that is probably enough for now.

    1. @Paul Inwood – comment #15:
      Paul makes an important point about the need for clearer sound, not louder. My parish is in a wonderful new church. Our architects worked closely with sound engineers to meet our request that we strive for excellent musical acoustics without sacrificing fidelity and amplification for speaking. That the acoustics are outstanding for choirs of sacred music is verified by the repeated requests to hold concerts here by the directors of four college choirs (three from Brigham Young University) and several community and high school choirs. The spoken word fidelity is generally good. However, I have noticed myself and have received complaints from folks when men whose voices are coarse and rough are at the ambo. I speculate that deep, raspy voices have many overtones that are not amplified with fidelity thus making it more difficult to understand. Enunciation and a slowed pace becomes especially important.

      With respect to several of Paul’s other points, we have six different weekend Masses (three English and three Spanish) and seven different choirs, each with different instrumental groupings and different numbers of vocalists. While we asked for, and got from the designers, a sound system that would give each group their own pre-sets, achieved by pressing a single button, we underestimated the need each choir feels to fine-tune its sound differently every Mass, sometimes multiple times within a single Mass. Within three weeks of having each group meet with the sound engineers to optimize settings and program the pre-sets, someone in each group had figured out how to change them. The moral for me: no matter how much planning one puts in to make the perfect system, human nature comes to the fore.

  13. Btw, I will offer a thought for those who think churches should get with modern marketing approaches to building market share.

    At least here in Boston (and I suspect this is as true in other major US megalopolises), restaurants *deliberately* design their spaces to enhance the ambient sound/noise level – it’s a signal to designed attract the hipper set that spends more on cocktails (and spends more time on smartphones than talking in person, to put it crudely) and to discourage middle-age and elder clientele. Even if it means servers have a harder time hearing orders correctly.

    I kid you not.

    Kids, what’s the matter with kids today?

  14. Many of the posts here mirror in their content the situation in Australia. Most buildings in this country are carpeted (even older buildings) and then parishes spend exorbitant sums of money putting in a speech reinforcement system and then the musicians complain, so they are added to the system, and invariably they then turn up the volume on the false assumption that loud is good. In my Diocese there is one parish where the sound of speech and music is so loud I can’t fathom how anyone can pray at all. I agree with Paul Inwood that it is better to err on the side of favouring the music. One of the reasons congregations don’t sing in acoustically ‘dead’ buildings is because they are very self-conscious about their own voices. In a resonant building they are more likely to feel the auditory solidarity of those around them. In the major Cathedrals here (all basically neo-Gothic) the sacristan normally sets the levels once Mass has begun. I think that has a lot to commend it. The risk is that you need someone competent and who understands the system, but it might solve a lot of problems.

  15. I always enjoy Mr. DeHaas’s muscular Christianity. He is so evocative of Bishop Lawrence of old Boston who was no wimp. Bravo!

    (Actually I was a bit worried when he seemed to praise Fr. Allan in comment nine.)

    1. @Brian Duffy – comment #19:
      Ah, the muscular era of Bishop Lawrence and President Lowell (cousins), the latter being the kind of deity about which it could be said when a visitor inquired about meeting him early in his presidency of Harvard: “The President is Washington, visiting Mr. Taft”.

  16. I will not enter into any place, churches included, in which the decibels are overpowering, invasive and disruptive of inner quiet. Fortunately, I have several places, including Walsingham, which invite, rather than prohibit, inner peace and contemplation.

  17. I didn’t accuse anyone of anything. I quoted a line from Jack’s post, which was itself a quote from another source, and responded to it.

    Even Jack disagreed with the original quote, saying: “I am not so sure ‘personal technology is ultimately all about us.'”

    I’m not going down rabbit-holes or trying to be tricky or nit-picky or whatever else you might think. Why not ASK me what my intention was instead of letting Bill deHaas speak for me? My email address is japhy DOT 734 AT gmail DOT com.

    Next time I’ll think twice about leaving a comment right before I’m walking out the door.

  18. For the Solemnity of the Assumption I went to an EF Low Mass and was struck by the contrast between the Mass itself, which was unamplified and, even when audible, largely unintelligible even for someone who knows Latin, and the vernacular re-reading from the pulpit of the scripture and the sermon, which was amplified.

    After the murmuring of the Mass, the readings and sermon seemed quite jarring. Perhaps this was simply because of the contrast, but it might also be that, being quite elevated and having a sounding board, the pulpit really didn’t need to be amplified.

    Also, I was struck by how unimportant it was before the Council for people to be able to hear the spoken word, apart from what was said from the pulpit.

    1. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #27:
      What you describe is the problem which need not be today. I use a mic for our EF Mass and while I pray the EF’s Canon in a low voice it is audible because of the mic. I remain an advocate for a vernacular EF Mass or at least partially so even with all the 1962 rubrics as this would be more widely appreciated.

    2. @Fritz Bauerschmidt – comment #27:

      I’ve often thought that the massive pulpits of historical churches were of such great size not simply for acoustic reasons but also to emphasize the pulpit’s role in instruction. Certainly, large testers (sounding boards) were necessary to project the celebrant’s voice into the nave. Also, the location of the pulpit in the middle of the nave served another useful acoustic purpose.

      EF Low Mass is private Mass which laypeople can attend. I have my theories about why Low Mass is inaudible and not comprehensible to the congregation, learned in Latin or not. The focus at Low Mass is on devotion and theurgy and not necessarily cognitive understanding. I need to better fine-tune my thoughts on this latter theory. However, you are entirely right Deacon Fritz to link the inaudibility of the EF spoken eucharistic ritual and the accentuated audibility of the pulpit, homiletics, and sermon.

      1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #33:
        As with many things, the meditative and purely devotional characterisation of the low mass is a latter day invention, assigning a symbolism and metaphysic to things that were, in origin, purely practical innovations. Simeon of Thessolonika, writing about liturgy and the mass in the late medieaval era, assures us that ‘from the beginning everything was sung, and nothing was uttered in the spoken voice’. (Note: EVERYTHING sung, NOTHING spoken.) Spoken liturgy is an historical aberration unique to Protestant Christendom and rather late mediaeval Catholicism. It’s origin in the latter is directly related to the profusion of priestly monks (most monks were, historically, not necessarily priests) in the religious orders, and the need for each of them to ‘say’ his private daily mass in a multiplicity of side altars. (Chantry masses also played a role in this.) This has not been a great liturgical advance, but, liturgically, a negative development which we are yet striving to overcome. Public worship, liturgia, is not a private devotion; and, making such a devotion out of it is to misapprehend it utterly.

      2. @M. Jackson Osborn – comment #34:

        All that you write MJO is absolutely correct. As you note, Low Mass was a concession to the burgeoning monastic culture. I would say rather that the chantries of the late medieval period had their genesis in the beginning of the clericalization of monastics in the early and high medieval period, as you have mentioned. You also perceptively note that Protestant worship has in many respects perpetuated the notion that spoken worship is normative. Also, I fully agree that devotionalist and individualist views of worship cannot overtake the reality that worship is liturgy, the work of the people. As evident in many of my PTB posts, however, I have grave doubts and conflicts over the realization of what public liturgy should be. Perhaps the prominence of spoken liturgy over the centuries has contributed a permanent intellectual turbulence to the question. In my case, a great love for the said Mass provides yet another complication which impedes my ability to view the phenomenon objectively.

        However, the spoken Eucharist in western Christendom has existed in one form or another for at least a millennium. I would say that this amount of time is more than sufficient to influence not only ritual behavior but also liturgical architecture such as pulpits.

        It’s fair to say that the great influence of the spoken Eucharist in the Christian west derives from a level deeper than emotion or sentiment. What few have arrived at is an intersection of the psychological influences behind individual western Christian believer’s preference for spoken liturgy and the prominence of spoken liturgy over the past thousand years or more.

  19. When people can’t hear, the natural inclination is to turn up the volume. But turning up a poorly designed system just exacerbates the problem. Pumping more acoustical energy into a room where the sound is bouncing all over the place makes things worse.

    When I arrived at my parish three years ago, the church had struggled with acoustic issues for ages. The previous system was expensive, but was poorly designed and never yielded the promised results. Rather than focusing sound on the listeners, it sprayed as much or more sound energy onto the walls and ceiling causing all kinds of reflections and echoes. Even if the person talking were 10′ in front of you, their voice came booming and distorted from all around you, sounding like an announcer in a train station.

    One of my first tasks was to work with a sound engineer to design a completely new system for the church. Rather than buying some one-size-fits-all system from a salesman with a firm handshake, our pastor had the wisdom to seek out a real sound engineer with advanced technical training and experience in large churches and auditoriums. The resulting project took 18 months of intensive design work and cost in the high five-figures, but the results are amazing. Now the sound is rich, warm, and fully present in every corner of the room. Even if you are 60′ away from the lector, you can close your eyes and they sound like they are standing right in front of you, speaking directly to you. Music fills the room wonderfully, whether it’s a large choir and orchestra or a single 10-year old cantor. People are amazed with the results, having gone from one of the worst acoustics in the area to arguably the best.

  20. I could write a book about the process, but here’s a clue. If a sound guy walks into your church and after one conversation is proposing “these sweet speakers,” “this amazing sound processor,” or “this great microphone” that will just work wonders, he is likely a salesman and not an engineer. His job is to sell you stuff, hopefully expensive stuff, that will not solve your problem so he can keep selling you more stuff every year ad infinitum. By contrast our engineer spent over 100 hours in the room–listening during Mass from multiple locations in the room, making a 3D acoustic model of the room, meeting in detail with end users and our committee–before he proposed anything. And then it wasn’t a “how much do you have to spend” approach, but a “here’s what it will cost to do it right.”

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