Study Hall
Sponsored by
Audio Technica

Why Does It Sound So Loud?

Many factors can play into the reasons for audience complaints that go far beyond anything the SPL meter might have to say.

By David Kennedy September 22, 2014

Several articles have been written about appropriate sound levels for concerts and worship services. Many techs choose a simple SPL (sound pressure level) metering technique because it’s an easy way to take an average reading of the overall dB level of a one-hour church service. (Tom Young has written an excellent article on SPL meters, that is posted online here.)

I do have a formal education in record production, so I understand that rock music is not about capturing the authentic sound of instruments, as compared to audiophiles wanting high-fidelity sound of an orchestra. I suspect that I am in the minority, as a sound engineer that studied classical music, thus I know what the authentic sound of instruments are – so pop. concerts can be an unpleasant experience for people like myself who have studied classical &/or jazz music.

Poor sound EQ (equalization) or directional realism causes cognitive dissonance – stress due to contradictory information. Loud sounds and noises are startling to most people, and even painful.


If a worship space has a high reverb. time, it will be a challenge to get a good direct to reverb. ratio. Some people think that they can overpower the room/reverb. Actually typically the reverse is true; higher SPL will tend to overload the room acoustics.

On-stage sound levels can also be a problem, causing the sound tech. to push the main/house mix up over the reflected on-stage sound. Electronic drums do offer the advantages of lower sound levels and being able to choose different sounds or “patches” for each piece of the kit – some drummers do like to pick different sounds for a specific song or for different styles of music.

“Sometimes there’s no other good option than electronic drums, but in my book, let’s keep it real! If your drummer won’t play on electronic drums and Hot Rod Sticks with a Plexiglas shield aren’t working, then, it’s time to build a drum cave.” Gary Zandstra

Some People Are HSP (Highly Sensitive People)

The most common hearing problem people experience is hearing loss and a reduction in the ability to hear conversation, especially when in a crowded room with lots of background noise. Less common is a condition called hyperacusis – where sounds are perceived as louder than they actually are, uncomfortably/painfully so.

Are most contemporary/rock musicians, entertainers and public speakers adrenaline rush junkies, have hearing damage/loss or extroverted? Not all people are extroverted and not all sound techs are ex-rockers, thus not all people at concerts and worship services are adrenaline junkies nor have hearing damage. Some people don’t like the sound as loud (for many reasons). Females are even more sensitive to high-frequency distortion and upper-mid frequencies that are too loud in the mix. More on fear of and cringing at loud sound below.

High-Frequency Distortion

While mid-range EQ that is too high in level can be an issue, I and several people I know, have more of a problem with high frequency distortion & over-powering bass. Have you noticed how many pro-sound loudspeakers and line-arrays sound harsh – like someone screaming at you? EQ cannot completely eliminate this time domain issue. Most of the harsh/ distorted sound is coming from the upper-mid-range & high-freq. (HF) harmonics coming out of the HF Driver – more specifically originating on the Ti (Titanium) diaphragm in the HF compression Driver (behind the horn or wave-guide).

Distortion is also caused by bad gain structure. For instance, clipping (over-powering) a wireless microphone, or a “hot” microphone clipping a console input. Older digital components are especially vulnerable to clipping of their inputs. “A common source of high-frequency distortion is vocal sibilance, due to the tremendous energy found in some vocal sounds, particularly “s” and “f.” Fortunately, today we have an array of tools to help combat this problem. Generally, it’s good to start with the right mic capsule for the vocalist’s voice, and to make sure the gain structure is super clean the rest of the way through. If there’s still is a problem, we have plugins to help.”

Poor System EQ

“Between it and distortion, we’ve identified 90 percent of the loudness problem. Again, and simply, if the mids and upper mids are too hot in the mix, it usually sounds harsh. I think it’s possible that one reason for this is the prevalence of hearing loss among many sound engineers and techs, who then boost the mids and highs to compensate. An artistic tweak to the overall system EQ can work wonders, almost the same way mastering does for recordings. But it’s easy to overdo it and end up with a bunch of boomy bass and harsh, grating highs while also compromising clarity. Cutting is almost always preferred to boosting. After years of touring, I came to the conclusion that if the music is familiar to the audience, no one thinks it’s too loud.” Karl Winkler

Fear Of Loud Sound

To an extent the fear of loud noises is in-built in humans. Right since the dawn of mankind, any new, sharp or loud sound would drive humans to take cover in order to keep themselves safe. A surprising loud noise, for many people, is likely to trigger fear, &/or a primal fight-or-flight mode.

Loud sounds and noises are startling to most people, especially when they occur in an environment where they would not be expected. Imagine shopping through a department store and hearing a loud crashing sound around you. Everyone in the store would flinch, their heart would begin to race and they would immediately look for the reason behind the noise before returning to shopping.

Phonophobia is the fear of loud noises and sounds, which can cause anxiety attacks or be a result of severe migraine headaches. A phonophobic person placed in the above situation may suffer from an anxiety attack or nausea and be forced to flee from the room.

It is important to note that everyone reacts differently to sounds. Even within a single household, you will have family members showing different reactions to different sounds. Some might suffer from migraine headaches, still others might have experienced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that can lead to the Ligyrophobia. It is just the way human beings are made differently-just as one person is better at certain sports than the others, in the same manner, the ability or inability to withstand loud sounds and noises differs from person to person.

Adults Compensate For Ear Damage

Researchers from Harvard Medical School have described, for the first time, the adult brain’s ability to compensate for a near-complete loss of auditory nerve fibers that link the ear to the brain. The findings, suggest that the brain’s natural plasticity can compensate for inner ear damage to bring sound detection abilities back within normal limits; however, it does not recover speech intelligibility.

This imperfect hearing recovery may explain a common auditory complaint, in which some patients report difficulties understanding speech despite having normal hearing thresholds. Dr. Polley said. “By establishing the actual cellular components of the brain’s amplifier, we hope that one day we might be able to turn the volume knob up and down to find that ‘sweet spot’ where people can reconnect to the auditory world without hearing phantom ringing or cringing at a loud noise that most people would shrug off as ‘tolerable.'”

Read the rest of this post


About David

David Kennedy
David Kennedy

David Kennedy is the principal consultant of David Kennedy Associates since 1991. David began his career in the professional sound industry in 1980 as the owner and lead designer of Sound Advise. He has worked as an A/V systems designer for His Sound of Fresno, Paoletti Associates of San Francisco, and as senior acoustics and A/V systems consultant for Michael Garrison Associates of Fresno, for several years.

Tagged with:

Subscribe to Live Sound International

Subscribe to Live Sound International magazine. Stay up-to-date, get the latest pro audio news, products and resources each month with Live Sound.