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Too Loud? Maybe Volume Isn’t The Reason

Examining some of the reasons why levels aren't the sole culprit for earsplitting concert sound...

One of my pet peeves: there really is no excuse for loud, bad concert sound. It’s a topic I’m revisiting in light of Dave Rat’s recent comments here.

In particular, what piqued my interested was Dave’s statement that “painfully harsh, poorly mixed sound is always too loud.” His point is that yes, rock concerts are (and should be) loud, and even so, they aren’t as measurably loud as a NASCAR race or an NFL game. And I agree that sound level can be an important part of an experience.

But for many, sound that is “too loud” takes away from the enjoyment of the audience rather than enhancing it. So let’s examine some of the reasons that an audience might have that impression.

Turn The Tables?
First, of course, is the fact that perhaps the sound really is too loud. Yes, I may be getting older, but I’ve found that in many cases, and this includes trendy bars and restaurants, that the volume level often makes me uncomfortable. I read an article recently providing one explanation for this phenomenon, that the idea is to “turn the tables” more quickly so patrons come in and order a few drinks but don’t hang around longer than necessary. The use of sound as a negative force is intended to increase profits.

O.K., but what about rock shows? This, of course, is where Dave’s point is most valid. Audiences want an experience, and loud sound is a big part of that. Heck, without body shaking bass, we’re not sure if we’re really even at a rock show and not just listening to an iPod. I remember an interesting demo given by the makers of ServoDrive subwoofers a few (ahem) years ago. Their point was that with a deep, extended bass response and fairly mild mids and highs, the sound would be perceived as “big” by the audience, yet people could still talk to one another.

But back to the point about volume…At big shows, I like it loud too, as long as it’s clean loud sound. Which brings me to my next point: what if the sound isn’t “clean”? In other words, what if it’s distorted?

I contend that distortion, as a result of poor gain structure, is the number one cause of sound being “too loud,” particularly to the novice listener. The simple reason is that distortion artifacts largely fall into the upper midrange of the human hearing system, right smack where our ears are most sensitive.

Distortion caused by bad gain structure usually happens because one gain stage (or device) is overdriving the next one in the chain. For instance, the problem can happen within a console, or between a console and a drive rack. It can also occur between a wireless microphone and the console input.

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 plug-ins to help.

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