Oh, My Aching Ears – Is Excessive Volume At Live Shows Really Necessary?
Recently – well, “recently” in the grand/cosmological scheme of things – I attended two different shows on two separate occasions featuring two different bands playing two different styles of music. Yet, both those shows featured a commonality that served as genesis for the theme of this particular dissertation: that being, excessive volume at live gigs.
I’ve been a fan of New Jersey avant-garde/experimental/industrialized/hip-hop noise niks, Dälek for a long, long time. But, for a variety of reasons I had only got around to witnessing them in a live situation a few months ago. This isn’t designed to be a show review by any stretch of the imagination, but for the purposes of context, it’s important to note that the performance took place in a mid-sized venue with a capacity somewhere in the neighbourhood of 500. There was no intimacy-impeding barrier for those who wished to camp out up front and, for those wishing to drink the woes of their non-show going lives going away, a few simple steps would have you at the bar. When Dälek started, I was set up at a spot in the middle of the floor, about halfway back from the front. A few songs into their set, I found myself retreating to as close to the back of the room as possible as the combination of throbbing low end and the grating soundscapes that comprise much of their sound were being pumped at volumes loud enough to make the experience aurally uncomfortable. And it absolutely would have gotten worse had I remained at my original vantage point.
A few weeks thereafter, Dead Cross – the media-christened super-group featuring Justin Pearson, Mike Crain, Dave Lombardo and Mike Patton – was bringing their rotor-whipped hardcore to the people on their inaugural tour. The venue I caught the band at was larger, probably a 2000 capacity room, with a balcony open for business and the place was stuffed to the gills. Assuming a relatively unobstructed viewing position near the soundboard, it took less than a single song – and none of Dead Cross’ songs are anything anyone, except members of Sore Throat, would consider long – to conclude that this was going to be another painfully loud evening. Maybe not as painful as when Dälek had my ear drums begging for mercy, but considering it was a venue four times the size with 2000 bodies absorbing the sound waves and, again, that I was at least three-quarters of the way to the back of the venue, well, let’s just say I was glad I was standing at least three-quarters of the way to the back of the venue. This got me thinking: what’s the purpose of having a show be so loud that it makes paying witness to it unpleasant?
Some possibly relevant background about me: I’m a hole or two onto life’s back nine. I’ll keep you guessing as to my age – however, being as old as I am, but still getting carded on a regular basis must mean I’m doing something right! – but know that I’ve been going to shows since I was 13 years old, back in the early/mid ‘80s. My parents may have been lax on the supervision tip – a big huzzah for being raised by Type A workaholics! – but mama didn’t raise a complete fool: I started dabbling with earplug use in the mid/late ‘80s while playing in bands rehearsing in cramped rehearsal rooms and basements. It was here I discovered the damage standing in proximity to an active drum kit can do to one’s hearing. Essentially, the continual crashing of cymbal hits produces noise at a frequency that essentially and gradually slices through your ear drums. That doesn’t even speak to the rest of the drum kit and every other instrument in the room violently pushing air.
Personal earplug usage became mandatory at band practices with the consideration not so much being about what my hearing would be like in old age as it was not wanting to lie in bed at night with the equivalent of an air raid siren going off in my head. Of course, there was that whole bit about actually wanting to be able to hear the music I love. By 1987, earplugs became a 100% must for me at shows, regardless of what friends and strangers had to say about the practice not being cool and about me being a poser.
My draconian employment of earplugs hasn’t changed to this day. The point here is that I’m never without ear protection and that was the case at the two aforementioned shows. Thusly, you’d have to figure that if I’m whining that a band is too loud, then they’re probably too fucking loud. I’ve seen Motorhead a number of times, both in their prime and in their later years when they were using volume as a crutch and never had a problem. I recently got to witness three weeks of worth of shows by sludge metal legends, Crowbar and didn’t have an issue. So, riddle me this: how loud is too loud? And why is being explicitly loud still a thing?
In order to get a handle on ear blowouts, I asked a couple of friends, both of whom are professional sound engineers for venues in the cities in which they live and for touring bands, about why some bands feel the need to be loud to the point of auditory distress and what purpose that serves.
“Well I'd say with Dead Cross, they weren't too loud off the stage. It was the sound guy who made it really loud. And I can sometimes be guilty of that too!” The speaker in this instance is Steve Goldberg who happened to be doing sound for Secret Chiefs 3, the opening act on the very Dead Cross tour I’m referring to. He’s speaking from the position of experiencing the band’s punishing volume every night. “I'm not a fan of loud stage volume as all it does it blow out ears!”
Max Brunet agrees. She’s mixed a wide range of bands from pounding metal to pensive indie and probably a bunch of other shit in-between that I’m not aware of or can’t remember. “You should mix bands to what the audience/music genre calls for. For example, I will mix a metal band louder then I would a jazz band, because metal audiences expect a louder show. In the case of heavier bands, a lot of times the PA is competing with loud stage volume, particularly in small rooms. I think it's important for bands to work with sound techs to find a balance between stage volume and tone. I find my mixes sound better if I can add guitars/bass into the PA and am not fighting against loud amps to have the drums/samples/vocals be audible.”
Your intrepid author must also confess writing this as someone with a very rudimentary understanding of how to run live sound and less of an understanding of all the factors and variables that go into running that sound, not to mention mixing a live band and not having feedback squeal from every sonic pore available. However, regardless of my lack of applicable experience, I am of the opinion that as long as everything can be reasonably heard and there’s some amount of describable power behind it – and yes, there is a difference between power and being loud for the sake of rattling windows and fillings – then all is good. You know who agrees with me? Most of the bands in existence!
You know that massive backline of amps you see in ‘80s metal videos and at Slayer shows? Not only are most of those not even turned on/plugged in, many of them have been gutted in order to add to a certainly impressive look but be easier for the road crew to set up, break down and cart around. Shit, less than two days ago, I was privy to a conversation about a European band planning an upcoming U.S. tour and asking about having enough available cabinets to be able to build an amp wall, didn’t matter if they were live or “dummies.” From what I’ve witnessed and gleaned from casual conversation, the very most a guitarist should need in a live situation is a two head/four cabinet set up, and that’s for a one-guitar band playing a decent sized venue, and even that is pushing an unspoken limit.
“There are good levels for stage/PA ratios,” says Steve, “but there are some factors, like the size of the room and which microphones are being used, for example, but some bands like to have four different amps running at full blast from the stage which I think they feel is what gives them their tone. But I would definitely say quieter stage volume is better for overall sound.”
“The stage volume-to-PA output ratio changes depending on room and PA size,” agrees Max. “Professional bands – yes, even the loud ones! – work with their/the house sound tech to find a suitable stage volume. Amp volume affects everything from the Front of House (FOH) mix to what your monitor will sound like. It's hard for me to give you enough kick, snare, vocal, etc. in your monitor mix to make it discernible if I am competing with a loud amp. Ultimately, I'd rather the band be happy. If they don't want to turn down, so be it, but then they lose the right to complain when their friends tell them all they could hear was guitar from the audience!”
What this means is that a killer tone is one thing, but obtaining that killer tone via a stack of cranked amps actually can impact overall sound negatively. There is a huge difference between stage volume and PA volume. For the most part, nothing on stage really needs to be stupidly loud as the individual instruments are given a boost via the PA speakers themselves and onstage wedge monitors used so that the band’s members can hear one another. The actual volume blasting out of the PA is what’s at issue now and, at this point, the overall volume aimed at attendees becomes the doing of the band’s live sound engineer who is either under the directive of the band or is sadistically trying to send people home so they won’t be able to hear their spouses and bosses bitching at them the next day. And while those are some pretty solid reasons to want to experience temporary hearing loss, when things get too loud, one can assume that it’s being done deliberately and that’s when we wonder what the real point is.
It’s either to punish the audience because (s)he thinks it’s cool or amusing to do so, or (s)he is an ass-hat who still thinks the Guinness Book of World Records people still come out to measure live shows with decibel readers to measure live shows (which they no longer do, for safety reasons). I like to think tha,t in the case of Dälek, who was opening for Cult of Luna when I saw them, everything was pumped up in order to add some extra decibel power to their performance as a way of winning over a crowd accustomed to things like louder volumes and walls of sound, whether it’s a misguided perception or not. On the other side of the coin, excessive overall volume might be a tactic used by legendary decibel abusers like Manowar simply to disguise just how terrible their music is.
Any sound engineer would prefer clarity and power over punishing volume. Or at least they should. Max agrees. “I don't think any respectable sound tech sets out to have ear crushing mixes, even in metal/louder genres. A good mix is powerful, but shouldn't make your audience feel any sort of ear pain. Like I said, I tend to mix metal bands loud, but I also try and be conscious of how much I am pushing a PA and if it's becoming tiring for the audience. Particularly in Europe or at outdoor festivals, there are set dB limits for how loud shows can be. These were set up as safety precautions and to respect neighbors. While I think 85dBA limits are ridiculous (they are common in France and outdoor shows in Toronto), I can work with a limit of 105dBC at FOH and that is plenty loud.”
Still, excessive volume levels at live shows will never cease to be an issue. It has been since amplification was invented and likely will be until the last band plays the last show in the history of music. Even I, as someone who took time out of his day to hunt-and-peck out a couple thousand words bitching about all this, sometimes finds great satisfaction in experiencing a live set I can feel in my ribcage. Perceptual psychology will likely tell us how we react to excessive volume is a result of many factors including mood, previous sensory challenges and experiences, time, exhaustion, etc. This opens up an entire other discussion rooted in physiology and the impact of the various nervous systems.
What about the mood of the sound engineer him/herself? Imagine a sound person just finding out their significant other has been sucking all sorts of strange dick in video booth glory holes around town while (s)he has been on tour. Nothing anyone says or complains about is going to stop that person from taking out their relationship frustrations and anger with their beloved on a few hundred people in the easiest method they have available to them.
Our admittedly miniscule sample size of sound pros will tell you that there’s not a lot of real value in excessive volume. Additionally, there are tons of stories out there of members of bands notorious for being excessively and unnecessarily loud complaining that their own shows eventually resulted in they themselves suffering from tinnitus and other hearing problems (My Bloody Valentine, the Who, Husker Du, Dinosaur Jr., Black Sabbath and many more). But still, nothing’s going to stop certain people from believing that crossing safe decibel thresholds is wicked cool, man.
Then again, maybe this all comes down to the simple fact I’m a weakener because I find too loud to be kind of lame? Some dumb redneck once said, “if it’s too loud, you’re too old.” Maybe it’s as simple as that? Am I too old? Either way, there is a lesson here, one we should all be agreeing on: “Hearing is for life, wear fucking earplugs at shows,” as Max asserts. And as a backup, hold on to your chest cavity.