The Sound and the Fury

Debate over sound safety heats up...
Wednesday, January 8, 2014

When it comes to volume, everybody wants to be heard. Some audiences like it loud. Others demand things dialed down. Performers consider it as much a part of their art as pitch or tempo, while sound engineers say controlling it is most important thing they do.

At the center of the maelstrom: Presenters trying to balance the treble and base of strong opinions and keep their offerings authentic and entertaining.

But sound levels are more than a matter of preference, they are a safety issue. Multiple studies make it clear that exposure to extreme noise for prolonged periods of time can damage hearing. That makes everyone – those who create live performances and those who show them – responsible for the both the enjoyment and health of the people who play, listen and work in their venue.

All too often they disagree on what is reasonable. “It’s always a fight,” said Jeremy Ganter, director of programming for the Mondavi Center at the University of California in Davis. “The audio people always want to push it.”

For their part, sound engineers contend they are just giving audiences what they want, and in many cases ticket buyers expect high volumes to be a part of the show, even if it’s not good for them. “Most people would be really upset if they didn't get what they paid for,” said Bill Brown, a veteran audio systems specialist at the top venues presenting classical, pop and touring events in Phoenix.

Everyone agrees, though, that things are getting louder in public arenas where sound is amplified. Recent reports have put the noise level in NFL stadiums as high as 137 decibels. That’s way above the caps set by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration to protect the ears of workers on job sites, and it’s causing growing concern.

Connecting OSHA’s workplace standards to concert halls isn’t an exact science, but if the typical concert lasts three hours, then the ideal volume would not exceed 97 decibels. You would be hard-pressed to find a rock ’n’ roll guitarist who found that number anything but low. That goes for many fans, as well, says Brown. Part of the thrill of concerts is the “goose bump effect” that comes when the volume is cranked.

Where should venues draw the line and who should be the one with the chalk? That depends on who you ask.

The Mondavi Center, which brings its community such diverse acts as alt-rocker Jeff Tweedy and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, believes the presenter has the ultimate responsibility, and it puts that in writing. Contracts with performers spell out clearly a limit of 90 decibels. It’s not an unreasonable requirement and leaves room for some artistic license. The cap is averaged over rolling, 30-minute periods, which allows for very short spikes in volume. The center is sensitive to the work artists do, and tries to enable them rather than interfere. They have “complete control, with exception of amplified sound,” said Ganter, because the venue can’t ignore its obligation to create an environment that audiences can trust.

The limits became a necessity, Ganter said, after the center found decibel levels spiking near three digits. Managers tried to work with performers, setting a voluntary maximum of 92 decibels, “but we found very quickly that became a target not a ceiling.” So they stepped up for the sake of public safety and that has helped bring levels down to the Mondavi’s sonic “sweet spot” of about 87 decibels.

Ganter believes the change has made audiences more comfortable, and paved the way for better art. Performers can’t use manipulated sound to manufacture the energy and emotion they should be supplying organically from the stage. That’s a gimmick, not art.

“The big weakness on the presenters’ side is that we pride ourselves on being very artist-centered,” he said. But that predisposition was conflicting with the well-being of patrons. The center couldn’t have it both ways. “Once we realized and accepted the conflict, that was the thing that enabled us to act,” he said.

But presenters can go too far, Brown argues. Volume is something best left to the sound guys (and yes, they’re almost all guys). If a municipality doesn’t regulate noise levels, venues should be hands-off as much as possible.

Brown suggests that OSHA guidelines are structured to protect workers from constant and repetitive machines. They don’t take into account the breaks between songs that concerts offer, and they don’t accurately measure the complexity of bass, which registers high on sound meters, even though it may not be as hazardous as, say, a pulsing jackhammer.

He puts the safety responsibility on audiences themselves. Attending a loud show is a choice, he said, one adults should be able to make. “Most people are really aware of how loud the acts are,” he said, and suggests a better answer might be posting notices at the theater door that advise customers of the risks, similar to signs that warn about strobe lights or gun shots. If venues want to help individual patrons, they should supply personal noise-reducing apparatus, and could even increase revenues in the process. “Most venues offer assisted-listening systems, why not have ear plugs available?”

Controlling audio is not an easy task for engineers, especially those traveling with touring acts. Conditions are different in every theater and getting the sonic mix just right in each city can be a challenge. Even in-house technicians must deal with variables that change with the fare offered on any particular night. Plus, there’s the factor everyone speaks about under their breath: That sound workers can have hearing issues of their own caused by years on the job. If the guy in charge can’t hear, how can a venue depend on him to makes thing safe for the entire house?

Engineers also have to deal with the performers themselves who tend to prefer things louder than venues might want and who do what they can with their own amps to pump things up, said Ted Blaisdell, a sound engineer based in Southern California. Most audio specialists, he said, want to keep levels reasonable, but they try to be sensitive to musicians, whose job it is to get people up to dance. The same might go for actors and singers in musicals trying to create characters and scenes where higher volumes add depth to their quest for truthfulness. “If you can get the band to trust you, they might be open to turning things down a little bit,” he said.

Blaisdell suggests much of the problem has to do with technicians who aren’t experienced or who lack adequate training and are unable to find the proper balance that reaches people’s core without crashing sound meters. “A lot of guys simply never learn how to do it.” For that reason, he thinks venues ought to feel comfortable stepping in, and they have that right. “They’re the boss. They’re the ones paying the bills.”

Ed McCue, an acoustician with the respected firm Kirkegaard Associates in Denver, agrees venues should be assertive, but he suggests sound problems are rooted in a lack of understanding about the task at hand, which is “creating a healthy and two-way connection between the performer and audience.” Sound is a language and the goal is to have a conversation that can be heard by two parties.

McCue, whose firm fine-tunes acoustics in concert halls around the world, believes concerts and other events where sound is amplified are most effective when they invite audiences to listen rather than simply bombard a visitor with noise. “You want to turn them in an active listener, not a passive listener,” he said, and be sensitive to the ins and outs of the particular venue. “I don't need to be assaulted by overly aggressive reinforcement. I want the art to come through with the right level of reinforcement.”

Some concert attendees show up expecting an exaggerated copy of the music on the records they enjoy at home. But concerts should offer something different, which is a personalized version of the material, cooked up by the performer in response to the environment at hand. That’s the art of a live show.

Sound engineers who think volume is the main element that makes a night special can ruin things for audiences who deserve that unique experience. “They really should get more out of a performance than just a recreation of the loudest level they can produce with their personal equipment at home,” McCue said.

The goal of sound is to facilitate intimate connections between performers, who can seem larger-than-life, and the fan who gets to hang out with them for an evening. A clear, emotionally charged union like that more often comes from turning the sound down.

It’s a matter of valuing lasting quality over quick, visceral thrills.

Like so much in performance, it comes down to audience. Audiences have memorable moments with singers, musicians and performers who pass through, but they build relationships with the theaters who are there for them night-after-night. Presenters are responsible for keeping that bond consistent, reliable and safe, and it is they who control what happens in their theaters. “Understanding who your audience is,” McCue said, “is the first element of being a successful concert presenter.”


Ray Mark Rinaldi


Ray Mark Rinaldi is an arts journalist and editor who writes about culture in the West. Currently, he is the fine arts critic for the Denver Post website and newspaper. On Twitter: @rayrinaldi