Asked to ‘turn it down’? What causes a gig to be too loud?

Asked to ‘turn it down’? What causes a gig to be too loud?

Too loud

If you’re a sound engineer or a gigging band, you’ll be familiar with the following scenario. You’re halfway through the night and the crowd is rocking. The epic medley of Queen songs you’re thrashing your way through is about to reach its crescendo and then, he appears.

Meandering through the throng of the dance floor, a grim-faced chap approaches the stage or mixing desk, cups both hands around his mouth and shouts (you assume – you can’t hear him, after all), “Turn it down! You’re too loud!”.

In truth, few bands and sound engineers set out to harm the hearing of their audience. Sure, there’s a certain satisfaction in ‘cranking it up’, but the end goal, always, is to provide a period of entertainment that people won’t forget.

But how do you do that without being too loud? And what, exactly is too loud?

A 2008 study discovered that loud volume levels at gigs typically led to people drinking more. It could, therefore, be argued that it is in a venue’s best interest to encourage loud music. In reality, though, any sound engineer worth their salt knows that mixing at high levels is counterintuitive; it introduces fatigue which results in your ears effectively closing down and being less able to judge the mix.

Gigs typically start to get too loud when a battle for space in the audio spectrum begins. The band starts, and the guitars aren’t loud enough, so they’re turned up. But now, we can’t hear the singer, so she is turned up, too. The drummer’s complaining as well, and the bass is somewhat lost, so they come up. And then there’s the keyboard guy – he really should be louder. And so it continues, until sound levels are simply beyond enjoyable for everyone involved.

Microphones compound the problem, too. They’re inherently dim-witted, because they have no grasp of the fact that their only job is to pick up the singer. Instead, drums, guitar and anything else nearby will bleed through. Therefore, when you turn the singer up, you’re actually turning everything up. Again.

Venues can be a problem, too. Small stages compound the mic bleed problem, due to the proximity of performers. Large, reverberant rooms are also a killer because, even at moderate volumes, with a poorly-balanced mix the room effectively raises the volume and jumbles everything up to the point where it becomes one loud, noisy mess.

A poor PA can also prove problematic. If the gear you’re working with isn’t able to accurately reproduce key frequencies (too bassy or too much top-end, for example), you’ll end up over-compensating and, most likely, raising the overall volume as a result.

It isn’t always the sound engineer’s fault when a gig is deemed too loud by one or many. The venue, band and kit can all be contributing factors. If you’re dealt any of those, you have no choice but to work with what you’ve got, so if you feel the volume levels are creeping up, pull back. On the other hand, if everything is in place but you can feel yourself getting rather overzealous with the master fader, remind yourself that too loud usually results in a poor night!

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