Wait, wait, wait, WAIT!
Before you bail on this article because you’ve already heard a million exhortations to “turn down,” I want to make something clear:
This article is not about letting the audio human control your sound. That’s actually not even a universally desirable thing, especially if the noise-management creature du jour is grossly inexperienced, malicious, stupid, or just plain absent.
This piece of writing is not about the economics of selling food and drink, and how that requires people to communicate with waitstaff. You already know all that.
This missive is not about safety and career extension via the taking care of your ears. You’ve had that talk so many times that you can quote all the major themes from memory.
This article is about psychology.
In this business, we talk about so many things at a “mechanical” level, as I referenced above. We talk about technical reasons for things. Business reasons. Safety reasons.
But a theme that I’ve started to see emerge in the last few years is a topic that is rightfully taking its place in the list of Things That Music People Need To Think About. It’s the issue of the audience’s emotional involvement. The audience’s emotional involvement with your tunes is probably THE driving force behind a career that satisfies you. It’s probably THE propellant that fires a live show into the stratosphere.
If an audience isn’t emotionally engaged with your songs, what’s the point? The most awkward and depressing shows are the ones where the musicians and the listeners fail to connect.
And I can tell you with a great deal of certainty that volume causes a disconnected audience (or an audience on the fence) to disconnect MORE. They are getting something they do not want, and they are getting it in quantity. That’s not a good situation.
The Objection and The Rebuttal
Whenever I talk about “loud,” there’s almost always some pushback. The most relevant pushback in this case goes something like this:
“I was at a show for [National Act] the other night, and nobody told [Famous Musician] to turn THEIR rig down. Everybody was loving it.”
The unspoken assumption is that the Sound Pressure Level (SPL) of the show created excitement in the crowd, and that same amount of overall level at any other show will help to create the same excitement.
The people at that show were already “amped up” BEFORE a single note was played. They were excited enough to experience live versions of beloved tunes that they stood outside in uncomfortable temperatures, so as to have the privilege to fork over tens of dollars, so as to have the privilege of being in the crowd. That’s what the all-important emotional connection does.
And yes, they did “like it loud.” They liked it loud because they already liked it. The pre-existing emotional connection was in place, and a bit of extra level acted as a sort of flavor enhancer. The audience had ordered up a scrumptious musical meal of all their favorite comfort-food songs, and they got heaping portions of it all. Of course they were happy.
The analogy holds when things are going the other way, too. If somebody is served a meal that they aren’t particularly interested in, or worse, that they just don’t like, is the answer to serve them more of it? Is the answer to hold them down and spoon it all down their throat? If that were you, don’t you think that you’d just get more and more pissed off at the jerk who was forcing you to eat?
That’s what happens when you’re too loud for your audience’s pre-existing acceptance of you and your music.
Offhand, I don’t have any scientific studies to cite in defense of my position. What I have is the veracity of my analogies, my own experiences, and the experiences of others that have been related in various ways.
I recall a story told by an engineer who worked on (what I believe) were Tejano shows. The crowd was so into the music that they weren’t satisfied with the level until the system was driven to audible distortion.(!)
Another audio craftsperson related the story of a show played to some older folks. Whether it was the break music or an earlier act is something I can’t remember, but I do remember that the music wasn’t what the crowd wanted. They kept demanding that it be turned down, and turned down, and turned down. The engineer assumed that they just couldn’t handle the level. Then, the main act came on, which was big-band music that the crowd adored. Suddenly, people in the audience were complaining that it wasn’t loud enough.
I once worked a wedding where the mother of the groom was very upset at how loud I was playing the dance music. It ended up being so quiet that a couple of people were standing next to one of my main loudspeakers and easily holding a conversation.
I once ran Front Of House (FOH) for a local pop-punk band that was giving a farewell show. The kids in the audience were ecstatic to be at the gig. I got a mix going, and it was very much at “rock” level. I was glad that my earplugs were in. A camera operator got my attention, and I assumed that he was going to tell me that I had gone too far. What he basically said was, “Man, it needs to be WAY louder.” We were in the very back of the room, and the entire band was clearly audible over the crowd.
Loudness as an experience enhancement is a special privilege that is not granted easily. If 90% of a crowd is unambiguously begging for more volume, then it’s okay to give them a bit more level. (Not too much, though.) If the previous sentence is not what you’re experiencing, then don’t take the risk of alienating the audience. Too much level can quickly turn the listeners into your enemies.
Loud doesn’t create excitement. Excitement, on the other hand, will sometimes allow a bit more level to be acceptable.