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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.

By Dave Rat May 31, 2011

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.

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About David

Dave Rat
Dave Rat

President, Rat Sound Systems
Dave Rat heads up Rat Sound Systems (, a leading sound reinforcement company based in Southern California, and has also been a mix engineer for more than 30 years.


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Mike says

To me all of this sounds funny and may explain why so many people seem to complain about the sound on peppers’ shows.

Isn’t our (sound engineer’s) goal to make everything be heard nice and well? Isn’t our goal to get good sound coming from where the musicians are?

This whole article sounds like the goal is to impress some measurement device. I give a fuck about sound limits.

If there are - then it may be the reason why it’s not that load than on unrestricted shows. that’s about all. When I’m mixing it will still sound great, not “a dB or two” louder with flipped polarity in the subs…

however good luck with convincing the kids tht loud is better.

otherdave says

i agree, a loud show with phasing issues and weird linear response (at least enough to fool someone or something measuring) seems like a recipe for shite-sound.  sure, i’ve been dissappointed by overbearing limitations, but isn’t that something you go over before scheduling a gig?  tech-rider? my experience is limited and dave is a widely respected guy, but i think this article is incongruent to good audio practice.  not to mention unprofessional.

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