Thursday, 7 June 2012

The difference between Loud and Good.

Loud is good right?

Not really, there is Good and there is Loud and here is why.

I first noticed the difference between Loud and Good about 10 years ago when I was mixing sound for a country music show that was mostly comprised of older audience members.
The first band was really good (not that I'm a huge country fan) and I happened to glance down at the dB meter (measures volume), it was touching on 95dB (thats pretty damn loud) and here were a group of blue rinse oldies sitting in the front row happy as can be.

Latter the same night another band did a country rock number and the guitars were awful. Even though I pulled the volume right down to not much more than 80dB, I still got several complaints from a couple of oldies that it was too 'loud' and several people at the front had their fingers in their ears.

So how is it that people perceive loudness then?
Here we have a situation where somone finds music as loud as a jackhammer perfectly ok while the same person finds music no louder than the road noise inside a car to be so loud they need to put their fingers in their ears.

My conclusion after all these years is that it all comes down to quality, and I'm not just talking about quality of musicianship. The quality of the PA system, musicians and venue acoustics all play their part in determining what volume sounds good to people.
The higher the quality of all these factors, the greater volume your audience will tollerate.

It is therefore my belief that if someone tells you to turn it down, they are not really asking you to turn it down, what that really means is one of these things..
  • They don't like your music.
  • The PA is not big enough for the gig (and is distorting)
  • The venue accostics are rubbish
  • You aren't that good.
Death metal is a great and probably slightly more extreme example.
I've heard some amazing metal bands in my time, and some of them at what would normally be excessive volumes, but if the band is tight and the guitars have good tone, then you can tollerate high volume (SPL is the technical term - Sound Pressure Level) before your ears start to fatigue and tell your brain that it is too loud.
I have also heard some very bad metal bands. Sometimes they are tight as hell and have a great stage show, but are let down by the guitars having a horrible tone. Here is a tip for death metal bands, if your guitars sound like a swarm of buzzing bees inside a tumble drier, turn down your treble knob. It will make the world of difference to your bands sound and you will be able to play much louder before your audience's ears start to bleed.

Guitarists and drummers should also be aware that if you have been playing hard rock or metal for a number of years, your ears have probably lost a good deal of their high frequency response. Usually the first frequencies to go are 2Khz to 4Khz which just happen to be the frequencies that normal humans are most sensitive to. If you are constantly asking people to repeat themselves, but can otherwise hear fine, its a good indicator your ears are damaged in this range. It is the frequency range where consonants are generated and if you can't hear consonants then you can sometimes struggle to hear what people are saying, while still being able to hear the sound of a pin hitting the floor perfectly fine (a much higher frequency).
What this means is that while your guitar sounds more awesome than an awesome thing to you, the sound is cutting through the eardrums of your audience like a knife through butter. If in doubt, ask someone with normal hearing for an honest opinion of how your instrument sounds, even better, ask a sound engineer (they tend to look after their ears a bit better than musicians and will give you an honest opinion).

Ear fatigue can be a major problem at gigs for musicians.
Your ears are pretty clever things, and if something is too loud your brain starts to block out that frequency. If you have your guitar set too loud while you play, then your ears will progressively start to shut down during the gig. The next thing you know you are nudging the volume up a bit more after every song. Thats when the stage starts to turn into a battle zone as your bass player then turns up his amp because he can't hear any more. Then the vocalists asks for more monitors and it turns into a vicious circle. By the end of the gig, its so loud on stage your ears are just about bleeding and your sound is... well... shit.

To avoid this, set your volume on your amp at sound check and mark it on your amp with tape or a white marker. Then, don't touch it. If you can't hear yourself, then ask the things that are causing you to not hear to turn down instead of you turning up. This will avoid ear fatigue and result in a far superior sound out in the audience, where it really matters.