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How Loud Does It Need To Be?

Working smarter when it comes to sound pressure levels at live shows...

Editor’s note: This one goes back a few years, but the question remains relevant.

I go to a lot of concerts. Most of the time, I arrive at sound check to spend some time talking to the techs and engineers about new gear or problems that need fixing. This is also a source of new product development.

Then, if time permits, we usually try to go out for a quick dinner before heading back to the venue for the show.

My favorite position to hear the band is at front of house. This where you can hear the mix the way the engineer wants it, and you can grasp the challenges of trying to serve all of the seats with a relatively good mix by basically best-guessing what it may sound like up in the rafters or 30 feet in front of the stage. 

What’s becoming increasingly alarming is the rising volume levels. At a pop concert a month ago, where the PA had over a half-million watts, I spent the whole show with my fingers in my ears.

Then a few weeks ago, I saw a country artist – or more appropriately a new country-rock artist – that was so loud that I left after two songs. And just last week, at dinner with a front-of-house engineer, he had to turn to me each time I spoke so that he could hear what I was saying. This was in a nice, quiet restaurant.

Notched Out
Truth is, a lot of engineers have permanent hearing damage. They’ve been abusing their ears for so long that they mix without a full spectrum to work with. Amazingly enough, many pull it off.

But more often than not, I find myself wondering why the sound is so harsh or shrill at certain frequencies and can’t help but think that these frequencies have been permanently “notched out” of their ears.

I use my ears for my job, spending days and even weeks listening to circuits and transformers, switching around monitors and instruments so that we can make a decision on how a product will sound in the real world under all kinds of conditions. Without my hearing, I wouldn’t be able to make these decisions.

So I must ask…how loud does it need to be? Or perhaps more to the point: Who really needs it that loud? Is it the artist? The engineer? Management? The audience? Are egos and power tripping getting in the way of good judgment? And once those ears are gone…now what? Does the engineer find a job teaching audio to a class where he can’t hear questions from the students?

Over the past 30 years, I’ve conducted hundreds of audio clinics in Canada, the U.S., and in far reaching countries around the world such as Lebanon, Turkey, Dubai and Malaysia. During these clinics, I suggest that the human ear and brain are much more capable than we give ourselves credit for. In fact, I’ve developed a simple test to prove it.

Try this for fun: Get a few friends or co-workers together in a room. Set up a microphone, small PA and a simple graphic EQ. Talk into the mic with the EQ set flat. Slowly notch out the mid range until you have a perfect smiley face.

By now, you should sound like an FM radio disk jockey. Speak…speak…keep talking…and then switch out the EQ. The faces in the room will be horrified with the sound. It will be all mid-range and sound truly awful. Or so we think…

Now move the mic away from your mouth and say nothing for 30 seconds. Begin to talk to your audience without the mic, and slowly bring the mic back to your lips. All of a sudden, the “flat” signature of the system will sound just fine.

What just happened? The brain adjusted. It automatically “filled-in” the missing midrange and then – when you turned off the EQ – it overloaded your senses in those frequencies. Only after you reset your “computer” did things come back to normal. Brains will also do this with excessive bass or excessive volume – they’re so much smarter than we give them credit! 

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