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Tag: hearing

How loud should it be?

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.

spl meter and calibrator

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.

hearing protection

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.

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Survival kit for live sound work

As you may know, I still have multiple jobs for a number of reasons. My “second” job is being a live sound engineer both in FOH and monitor positions. As now the festival season has been started, I prepared myself to not only survive, but to enjoy it, and more importantly, protect my ears as I’m planning to use them in this post industry for very long years.

So what would one need to have in order to really be safe out in the high-SPL festivals?

Safety measures

First let’s see the necessary things, which won’t directly help you to do your job, but will help you retain you hearing, and protect you from exhaust.

Ear plugs. They come in every shape and form and price. A custom made is a very good choice as it is very accurately attenuates the outside noise/sound i.e. you can mix a loud show with it, because the frequency curve remains almost the same. A good solution, although not cheap and you have to be very careful not to loose them. Also clean them regularly as they go into your ears!

Cheap earplugs. These are the ones you can buy in every industrial safety shops. There are many brands, and it is safe to say that either will do a great job. Look at the attenuation curve and decide. I always have a pair with me, even when I’m not working. I go for a model that attenuates about 28–32dB. It is much, but needed. It won’t allow you to mix a show, but can give you nice isolation in a concert environment, so when you need a rest, or just waiting for your turn, it does a very good job.

I even have a rather strange habit to put them in during the show for a minute or two. This time is not enough to really rest your ears, but enough for them to “recover” from short term fatigue, so when you pull them out, you’ll have fresh ears in the middle of the show for example. On a long day, this can be a life saver.

I recommend to have at least a few pairs with you at any venue. Use them, and of course, clean them regularly. A quick cleaning tip: if you don’t have a chance to properly clean them before you have to use them again, use some antibacterial hand cleaning gel to clean them. Every pharmacy sells these little bottles and they are so small you can carry them in you pocket.

If you happen to forget to bring earplugs with you, even some tissues will do the job, although they attenuate far less than an earplug.

Hearing protectors

My ultimate choice. Just as the earplugs, they come in many shapes and colours, but the main point is how much they can attenuate. Even some cheaper one will do a wonderful job. I use a model which attenuates an average of 36dB. Average, because these are industrial tools and almost always have some frequency-attenuation scale. Obviously at low frequencies these protectors are able to attenuate less, and as frequency goes higher, you’ll find more and more attenuation there.

What are the advantages compared to the earplugs? Many. First, they are more comfortable to wear as they are like headphones, don’t go into you ears. Second, many times you have higher attenuation. Third, you can combine them with some earplugs to achieve extreme attenuation. Although that would diminish the first advantage, but you get the point.

Headphones and earphones

This is really not a viable option when you mix Front Of House, but in the monitor world, it can work. Actually it is working.

I use headphones to mix monitor whenever I can. You have to get used to it, you must know your headphones intimately to achieve a good mix. So don’t just grab them and start using it. Be prepared for it first with using a combination of wedge and the headphones, then as you become more and more comfortable with your headphones, you can stop using the wedge.

This way you choose the volume level you mix at, have more minute detail, can catch feedback frequencies faster as you don’t have the extraneous noise around.

Always check yourself

Loud sound not only damage your hearing, but can completely wear you out in very short amount of time. I encourage you to wear, use some kind of protection whenever is possible, even if it is an option only for a few minutes. Your mix and healthy hearing will thank you later.

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