Loudness war is present everywhere from current music through film sound to live sound. Lately I had so many bad experiences in almost every area that I thought it worth mention it here.
Louder equal better?
Yes, for the first few seconds at least. If something louder even a tiny bit, our brain can be easily fooled to think that it’s better. This is a fun fact every audio professional should be aware of. If you know this though, you can be alert to these things and really work on making things better, not only louder.
In live sound most engineers connect impact and high sound pressure level. Most think under 100dB SPLA you can’t really achieve THE CONCERT experience.
The problem with this mentality is that it’s not only simply false, but it can be hazardous to your hearing! Of course there’s undeniably a bodily sensation when you not only hear but feel the sound due to high sound pressure, but we must know that this is only true for one or two minutes. After that the impact disappear as the body get used to this feel, but the dangerously high volume might damage your hearing, even permanently. If you a concert goer and after the show often recognise the ear ringing effect, then the show was too loud.
Actually it is a trap. Live sound guys get accustomed to high SPL environment. Their brain learn it, and like if it was a drug, require even more after a certain period of time. But what is suitable for them might be too loud to a healthy listener. And we must NOT forget the fact that if everything is constantly loud, then nothing really seems loud. We only destroy dynamics and contrast in music. Honestly it is too easy to fall into this be louder trap.
To a certain degree even I appreciate that higher SPL can create a very sensational feel. BUT! And this is a huge BUT! Too often this means engineers use the bass drum and the bass to create this sensation. Which is, of course, results in the loss of intelligibility and clarity, and mask many important instruments and frequency ranges. Essentially you’ll end up featuring some instruments that shouldn’t be solo but forgetting others that support the songs.
I think I’m not alone with this, I rather be on the soft side with proper balances, enjoying how the musicians play than to hear a bass drum/bass guitar show with some other thing on the stage. In my opinion, working soft with great balances is harder. You need to pay attention to detail instead of just going up to red on the meters.
As you can see, I’m completely biased, I don’t like overly loud shows. Some of my colleagues say you need high SPL for certain types of music. I’d say you might be somewhat louder with those, but those still not require ear damaging loudness. One of the most popular example here being Skrillex. They say you need to be loud as hell to enjoy that type of music or a metal band. Well, I’ve got bad news for those colleagues. I was there on the main stage at Sziget festival when Skrillex was the headliner at that night. It was so tastefully mixed, kept proper balances, preserving dynamics in order to have real impact when they wanted that. Yes, believe it or not, they produced a very dynamic show. Sound quality over high SPL.
Avoiding the trap
Here’s some useful tips to avoid being an ear destroyer.
First, probably the most obvious one is to use a calibrated SPL meter during the show. Frankly I really support festivals and venues where there is a sane SPL limit you have to keep, but if there’s no such thing at your show, still, you can be the boss on how loud you go. I think it is better to be on the soft side than being overly loud.
When you check the band before your show, after listening to their performance the PA for a short period, wear ear-plugs to avoid fatigue.
Plan ahead the ballpark you want to be in. It’s a good idea to give yourself your own limit. Even, when you’re familiar with the songs, you can make a plan for big impact parts of the show.
Appreciate proper balance over loud volume. It is always better to aim reaching great balance than being the loudest guy on the planet. Remember, the majority of the audience is going there to listen to their favourite band. Which mean they probably listen to their albums so if you achieve a similar sonic picture, they’ll appreciate it more than just being loud.
Try to aim for a mix that has depth to it. Not every instrument supposed to upfront in your face. If you properly create depth, most of your problems already gone as instruments will be separated, don’t fight for attention constantly.
If you’d like to further explore this subject, here’s a short article in Guardian.