Backstage Class: Strategies In The Volume Limit Battle
When I’m told there is a sound limit at a venue, I smile - not because I want the limitation to exist, but rather, because I enjoy the challenge.

May 31, 2011, by Dave Rat


Let’s face it , without sonic energy we do not have a rock show. The question is how much is enough and how much is too much.

As with anything, there are people who can’t resist using massive amounts of power if given the chance. Equally in the “cops and robbers” game of life, others can’t resist (or are leveraged into) the policing side of the equation.

Hence we end up with a line drawn in the sand, a rule, a series of words describing how loud the sound can be. Here’s a look at how to work the situation with some finesse.

Do Recognizance
When I’m told there is a sound limit at a venue, I smile - not because I want the limitation to exist, but rather, because I enjoy the challenge. There’s no point in getting mad because it’s a waste of energy. The whole “throw a tantrum” thing is boring, predictable and unproductive.

Instead, I think harder about doing my job: How can I present the best show possible to the audience given the parameters at hand? First, I locate the individual responsible for monitoring levels and introduce myself - it’s a good idea to get to know the person who holds your volume future in his hands.

Then I find out why the limit exists - is it an off-site issue or for protection of the hearing of the audience? How knowledgeable is this person about sound? How are levels measured, and where? Is it A or C weighted? What is the time period of the averaging? Are there even penalties for exceeding the limit, and if so, what are they? Who has the final say, and how much is opinion-driven versus tracked by technology?

Following this research, I ponder the limit: Hey, 103 dB A-weighted at the mix position averaged over 30 minutes outdoors - no problem. That’s fairly easy and about where I like to be unless I’m mixing a band like Rage Against The Machine. But 98 dB and below can be challenging, and short term averages of less than 15 minutes as well as C and Flat weightings tend to make things even more interesting.

Locking in the rules beforehand is critical. Make sure you know them, and that the limits enforcer knows that you know them. Often the rules are written “as measured at the sound board.” Awesome! I then work to lock down these rules with them: O.K., at front of house, it’s these specified limits, and if I follow that, it’s all good – no changes, right?

One time under this scenario, I even grabbed some stage hands and we moved the mix position, which was just a 6-inch-high platform topped by an 8-foot by 12-foot scaffold setup with a tent roof, away from the stage as far back as the snake would reach. After some grumbling, the rules held.

Working It
In no particular order, here are a few other things I’ve done over the years to get around noise limits.

None of these involve sabotage or any sort of overt rule breaking - it’s all about working the situation to our advantage.

Frankly, some of these things can only be pulled off as a headline engineer or when touring with a system, but hey, good ideas have a way of catching on.

The most obvious way to get more level when pinned under an A-weighted reading is to dull down the mix in the 2K to 4K range.

If the measurement mic is up high and you’re using a line array system, figure out which boxes are pointed at the mic, and then turn down (or off ) the mid drivers in those cabinets. This can buy you more of a “rock” factor.

When the mic is off to one side, turn down that side of the PA, and turn the other side up the same amount. Yes, the stereo imaging shifts, but it adds an extra dB or so in volume.

Cranking up delay clusters that are outside of the measurement zone is simple enough. If the measurement mic is low to the ground, get the band manager to stand in front of the mic after a few songs into the set. This not only helps lower the reading, but also lets the top brass know that you’re on your game while also getting you out of the line of fire, so to speak.

With many subwoofer setups, there’s a power alley, and then to each side, there’s a significant low-end null. Though we don’t like these nulls, we can use them to our advantage. By slightly delaying the subs on one side, a null can be steered right on top of the measurement mic. This will get you a few more dB with A-weighted measurements, and even more with C- and Flat-weighted measurements.

With off-site readings, something as simple as turning down (or off ) the side hang pointed in that direction can help. Killing sound to the top boxes in an array can also help - walk the space to figure out if there are even going to be people where those boxes are pointed during your show. Heck, turn off all the boxes you don’t need!

If you’re carrying production, flying the PA as high as feasible and using a more drastic down tilt causes sound to bounce upward rather than skim across the ground for longer distances.

In a worst case scenario with a low limit C-weighted measurement at front of house, I will go to the extreme of flipping polarity of the subs on one side of stage, which creates a distinct low-end hole down the center. This at least gets some volume to the other three-quarters of the venue.

Friends & Tools
If you really want to get deep into it, carry a mic calibrator.

I’ve never done it, but you may find that a few dB can be gained. If it works against you, then “hmm, my calibrator must be messed up” can help you back out of heading the wrong way.

Compression can be your friend. I always compress all of my instruments a bit anyway with comps on my subgroups, and with noise-limit shows, I use a bit more than usual. It helps get my average volume up with very little loss of sound quality.

If you’re pushing into a long-term averaged show, keep the intermission music low - no reason to eat away at your performance levels.

One strategy to consider is to come on strong right out of the gate, and then back off a bit. If you show that you’re not intentionally going to disrespect the limits, the “sound levels cop” will often give you more slack to rock up the finale.

I’ve often found that the person monitoring levels will have some useful suggestions as well. Embracing and following that advice can really help, and it also means you’re working together rather than against each other.

A few years ago in Italy with the Red Hot Chili Peppers, facing strict noise limits, it took two songs before the levels cop decided he couldn’t resist my repeated offers of a glass of wine. By the end of the show his laptop was closed and everyone was happy.

These are just a few ideas, and there are plenty more, I’m sure. In each situation there is plenty of room for creativity. None these methods will solve a crushingly low noise limit, but when used together, they can mean the difference between a bummer and being the most exciting band of a festival.

So have fun, turn it up and enjoy the challenge of boredom avoidance.

Dave Rat ( heads up Rat Sound Systems Inc., based in Southern California, and has also been a mix engineer for more than 25 years.

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Backstage Class: Strategies In The Volume Limit Battle