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How Loud Does It Need To Be?

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

Keeping Up
Like so many engineers and techs, when I go to a concert, I often only stick around for a half a dozen tunes and then head out.

With hundreds of concerts under my belt each year, and as many as three or four in a given week, I can only afford to stay for so many. 

Last week, I saw another show – and was blown away. The artist was Jason Mraz, the venue was a soft-seater, and I was at my usual position at front of house with engineer Ettore (ET) Dedivitiis.

The sound pressure was unusually low. I commented on how enjoyable this was and ET replied: “This is a concert hall, it is designed for music. I merely allow the room to do the job.” When the audience clapped, it was louder than the band. I stayed until the very end. What a show!

This brings up another important point. The louder we drive a PA, the more difficult it is for the system to keep up. And with guitars, keyboards, horns and drums all competing, it makes it all the more difficult to mix. 

Another truly wonderful show was Rod Stewart’s recent outing. Lars Brogaard mixed and all I can say is wow! He had a dozen artists on stage, including electric guitars, a harp and a string section.

Even though we were in a 20,000 capacity hockey arena, you could hear each and every instrument behind Rod’s voice, and the crowd seemed to be extremely pleased with the sound pressure level. It was comfortable.

I predict that it won’t be too far in the future that maximum sound pressure levels will be mandated by government authorities in order to protect those that are working at concerts, such as security and ushers. In fact, I’m quite sure these types of regulations are already in place in various countries in Europe.

All it will take is for someone with an iPhone with an SPL meter app to record an obscenely loud concert to demonstrate that levels can be dangerously high. This will provide the grounds for legal action to be served due to concerns of permanent hearing loss.

With the litigious nature of some countries, this could even bring down a sound company, put them out of business. And sound engineers may also be held responsible.

Now that we have more power in our systems than we could have imagined even a relatively short time ago, maybe it’s time to use this power wisely, and give our audiences and ourselves a break. Our ears are our business…and we are a lot smarter than we know.

Peter Janis is president of Radial Engineering, which has been producing snake systems, direct boxes and interfaces for more than 20 years.

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