Loud...Louder...LOUDEST

by George Petersen
in Editor's Note

FOH editor George PetersenIt’s hard to believe that in 2014 we’d still be talking about loudness and volume levels, but here we are, and it’s still a major issue on the agenda. We’ve all heard the pros, the cons and the who do you blame — sometimes it’s even us — but a news item I read recently brought us the subject from a new angle.

 

Last month, at the Corn Exchange — a 1,300+ seat theater-style (fixed seating) venue in Cambridge, England — dozens of fans walked out on a performance by reggae band UB40 due to the excessive sound levels during the show. Complaints ranged from headaches to physical pain, despite the fact that the venue makes earplugs available for patrons and supposedly complies with the “2005 Control of Noise at Work Regulations” — the U.K. equivalent of U.S. OSHA standards. As with most facilities, the venue claims to monitor levels and can ask for SPL reductions if necessary, but as in most cases, how these are monitored and by whom is a little unclear. What is clear is that when you have dozens of patrons walking out of a performance, that might possibly indicate that a problem exists.

Who's to Blame?

But without a thorough examination, it’s impossible to tell exactly who’s to blame. Pointing a finger at the FOH mixer is usually the case, yet before we get a rope and assemble a lynch mob, we need come answers first. Placing subs along the stage face or in a ground-stacked configuration is common, and any fans along the stage edge can be subjected to some fairly excessive levels of low-frequency energy and earplugs just ain’t gonna protect you from the thump. And it’s no surprise that reggae tends to be a little bass heavy, so any typical A-weighted measurement from an iPhone app or Radio Shack sound meter may not give a true indication of what’s really going on from an SPL standpoint.

As we all know, there’s no shortage of venues where the acoustics are just goofy, filled with hot spots, dead spots, nulls, nodes and bizarre reflections. And none of these factors help the situation much.

Now, back to the “find the blame” game. Ultimately, it’s up to the FOH operator to make an informed judgment call on proper levels for any situation. This also includes being aware of the effect of distance on SPL’s — applying a bit of the inverse square law — and realizing that in any venue, some common sense needs to be applied.

If you’re mixing from 300 feet from the stage and pushing 115 dB, then it’s a safe bet that the perceived volume is a LOT louder to someone who’s standing or seated 75 feet from the action. Here’s where the system tech (or at least an inadequate system) could also be at fault. These days, everything from modern line arrays to cardioid subwoofers offer directionality control that was nothing short of a dream a dozen years ago. Assuming your system is up to par, with a good designer the problems of many venues are surmountable. And with the help of wireless tablet control, it is possible to monitor, assess and tweak performance for anywhere in the venue. Sometimes, putting sound where you want it (and keeping it away from places where you don’t) is all that’s necessary, but achieving that simple goal requires a fair amount of effort that will really pay off in terms of the overall presentation.

A Vicious Circle

Not to say all of this comes easily, and we’ve all experienced — all fallen victim to — destructive sound issues that come from the onstage players themselves. This month, in “The Rant Zone,” FOH mixer Jordan Roherty addresses that exact topic, offering advice to artists who want good sound, but often, inadvertently do as much as possibly to sabotage the likelihood of a good house mix by pushing excessive onstage instrument levels (among other infractions). And once the guitar amp is turned up 10 dB higher than the sound check level, the situation is typically followed by the request for “more monitor” of the other musicians, because one person’s amp is drowning everything else out. From there, a vicious circle ensues, and suddenly every else needs more level and more “me” in the wedges. Meanwhile, of course, the hapless FOH mixer is faced with trying to balance a mix when the onstage bass/drums/guitars/etc. levels alone are too hot for the venue. Arrrgh!

I hate to pick on guitar players, but 90 percent of the time they are the culprit here, and if I hear one more guitarist tell me they need all that volume to achieve “tone,” I think I’m gonna go postal. Today, there are thousands of ways to achieve “tone” without excessive volume — ranging from preamps, smaller amps (a lowly Fender Champ can sound amazing), iso boxes, power soaks and more. Even something as simple as raising the amp up somewhat so it’s closer to the guitarist’s ears (rather than blasting into the back of one one’s knees) can make a huge difference. There are a few other solutions offered in this month’s issue as well. In “Theory & Practice,” Steve La Cerra examines some power soak options, while our “Buyers Guide” focuses on Direct Boxes.

There’s a lot more to check out this month, but one short piece — Terry Lowe’s “Publisher’s Note” — is an absolute must for anyone who owns a small sound company and is struggling with the issue of providing health insurance. Could be the most important article you read all year. Check it out!