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Bass: How Much is Too Much?

by Vince Lepore • in
  • May 2018
  • Sound Sanctuary
• Created: May 15, 2018

There’s no such thing as too much bass. Everyone loves bass. I love bass. You love bass. We all love bass.

If you have worked in a church for even five minutes, you know this is not true. We all hear the complaints. “There’s too much bass,” or “Why does there have to be so much bass?” It’s a real challenge. There is this one awesome member of our congregation who appreciates what our sound team does. He would get a good laugh if he knew that I was referencing him in an article. He regularly compliments our mix and spends a good amount of time after services analyzing little details and nuanced things that he hears.

Once of the conversations that we have had is about how often we get complaints vs. compliments. In reality, we get very few complaints, but we do get more complaints than compliments. I think it’s mainly because if people like what they hear, they barely even think about the sound system or the mix, and that’s a compliment in and of itself. When we do get complaints, it is often about the low end.

‡‡         Out of Sight, Out of Mind…

We recently made a big change to our subwoofer configuration, which was to fly the subs behind the mains. Our subwoofer hang is almost identical in length to our main array, so if you’re sitting on axis to the system, you can’t even see the subs. I love the look, and I love not having arrays of subwoofers on the floor.

When I decided to go this route, I had some reservations in the back of my mind. “Would the subs still hit like they did on the ground? Am I going regret this and long to put the subs back on the floor?” Fortunately my instincts turned out to be correct.

While there is no question the subs have a different feel in the air than they do on the ground, overall it has been a positive change. The biggest benefit is for the people sitting closest to the stage who are no longer getting pummeled with low end. If you’re struggling with whether or not to fly subs, I’d say there are a lot of benefits, not the least of which is the improved time alignment of the subs to the mains.

‡‡         Those Pesky Aux Fed Subs

The subject of aux fed subs has been written about ad nauseam over the past decade. Many of the systems I encounter are fed this way, and most experienced engineers are familiar with the technique. In churches, the technique is sometimes abused by using the aux sends as a low frequency EQ control. Proper use of the aux-fed sub technique dictates that the sends for channels sent to the subs are set to 0dB and left alone (i.e., not used as a sub level control). The aux send is so tempting though, and many people abuse it.

Instead of feeding our subs from an aux, we use a group, which reduces the desire for people to turn that pesky aux send and mess with the crossover point between the tops and subs. That being said, if used properly, aux- or group-fed subs is a powerful mixing technique that can reduce muddy low-end bleed that makes its way into your subs, keeping your low-end under control. Our typical Sunday mix only has kick, floor tom, bass guitar, Ableton and ProPresenter fed to the subs. Everything else goes to the mains only.

‡‡         Subwoofer Placement

One of the most critical aspects of making subwoofer coverage consistent and keeping low end under control is how the subs are placed in a room. I looked at the following subwoofer placement scenarios for our new contemporary worship space…

  • Ground, spaced left and right
  • Ground, placed in the center
  • Ground, evenly spaced across the front of the stage
  • Flown, spaced left and right behind the mains
  • Flown in the center

Fig. 1: Flown subs in the center can be a thing of beauty.

As shown in Fig. 1, our prediction software clearly showed that the best position for the subs was flown in the center of the room. Subwoofers spaced left and right is certainly the traditional way of doing things, but you can see from Fig. 2, that it creates power alleys and valleys with less than desirable results. Some audience members are being pummeled by low-end, while others barely get any. Alas, the center flow array of subs just wasn’t in the cards for us. This will be surprising to most of you, but audio coverage isn’t the only consideration when placing loudspeakers, and there are a lot of people involved in the decision-making process that don’t understand audio coverage at all. In our case, we were building a proscenium stage with a thrust. The flown subs would have hung below the proscenium opening, creating a poor visual, especially for our theatrical shows. As much as the audio engineer in me wanted to hang the subs in the center, we chose to fly them left and right behind the mains. Fortunately for us, as shown in Fig. 2, the power valleys (areas with decreased subwoofer energy) mostly land in our aisles.

Fig. 2: Flown subs spaced left and right, behind the mains: Power alley. Power valley.

‡‡         The Bottom Line

At the end of the day, you are the best judge of how much low-end is too much. I’ve been working in churches for so long that I really don’t take occasional complaints too seriously. There is no way to make every single person happy. Someone will always think there is too much bass. If those complaints become frequent — every week, every other week or even every month — perhaps it’s time to consider backing down the subs. Again, your ears and your experience are the best judge.

Vince Lepore is the technical director at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Orlando and teaches live production at Full Sail University.

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