The topic of sound pressure levels at live shows increasingly comes up in my conversations with audio professionals. There’s no firm direction or action that I see coming in the near future, at least with respect to the U.S., outside of specific local and/or venue enforced rules.
But given all of the talk on the topic of late, I thought it would be instructive to check in with long-time mix engineer (and LSI contributor) Dave Rat, who’s also the owner of Rat Sound Systems in Camarillo, CA, to get his take.
Keith Clark: Are sound pressure levels too high at most pop/rock concerts?
Dave Rat: As with any perceptual-based opinion – “too loud, too soft, too fast, too dangerous” and so on – I have to say “it really depends.” If we can agree that the purpose of a rock concert is for people to gather together and share an immersive and memorable experience, and if we can agree that saturating the human sensory preceptors can increase our level of immersion in a given situation, then it would follow that higher sound volumes would be helpful in achieving a high level of immersion. At higher sound levels we can “feel” the music while masking any auditory distractions.
Just like the acceleration of a roller coaster or the simultaneous cheers at a sporting event increases our excitement level and narrows our perceptual focus to what we currently see, feel and hear, so does the saturation of senses at a rock concert. Bright lights, loud rhythmic music, and a mass of humans gathered together with a common focus all coincide to bring a memory so desirable that concerts have spread to and exist at every corner of the planet.
So as to the question of volume levels being too high, my response is that yes, painfully harsh, poorly mixed sound is always too loud. Is volume too loud as a generalized whole? In my experience, I don’t believe so.
Should we be concerned about SPL at concerts?
I believe we should be concerned about SPL levels at airports, car races and shooting ranges. We should be concerned with the speed and G-forces of roller coasters and the volume levels of screaming fans at sporting events. We should be concerned about the wind pressures on our ears while riding a motorcycle or driving on the freeway in a convertible. I also believe that the effects of prolonged exposure to high SPL levels and pressure change when flying in commercial airplanes are under rated, and further believe that the sound pressures on our ears in nearly all situations pale in comparison to the pressures and dangers to our ears while scuba diving. And I believe that when attending a rock concert, people should be aware and concerned about SPL as they should be in all of the above situations, because the same rules apply.
Being aware of auditory exposure is wise and the thought of municipalities purely focusing on rock concerts is concerning, especially since hearing protection is such a simple and inexpensive choice. When it’s cold, we put on a jacket, when it’s sunny, we apply sunscreen, and when it’s raining, we use an umbrella. If we get on a commercial jet, go to the drag races, or attend a rock show, if it’s too loud for our desired preference or personal exposure level, put in ear plugs. No biggie.
Why do you think so much focus is put on SPL at concerts versus other events and attractions?
That’s a good question. It’s weird to me – why is there not a big focus on SPL at drag races or NASCAR? Ever been? Now that’s loud! And just this past NFL season there was a “loudest stadium” competition with fans screaming their heads off in pursuit of “bragging rights,” with at least one stadium measured at more than 135 dB. Wouldn’t it make sense to focus on reducing those levels?
I believe the focus on concerts is based on several factors. Remember Beatlemania? Well, I don’t directly but I’ve read quite a bit about all of the concerns about those “long hairs” playing music. It may be a stretch, but to me it seems that in every generation the older and more conservative humans have a bias against the younger generations gathering in groups. Perhaps this is one of the reasons that volumes at rock concerts are a concern while volumes at sporting events seem to be a non-issue.