Ever wonder why rock concerts are so loud?
Sure you have -- especially on those mornings after, when you wake up and your ears are still buzzing from the night before. It probably doesn't bother you in the parking lot after the show; heck, everybody expects ringing ears after a rock concert. But when it's still there 18 hours later, even dedicated rock fans begin to wonder about the value of too much volume.
Even in the music business, most people agree that rock concerts are often ear-crushingly loud. Ask why, though, and that consensus quickly evaporates.
Some, like Jimmy Gumina of the appropriately named rock group Noisy Mama, say that equipment is the culprit. How so? Well, like most guitarists, he likes the thick, overdriven tone of Marshall amps, and you just can't get that sound at low volume. "The amp has to work a certain amount," he says. "So you do need some kind of volume."
Others, like Robert Goldstein, the president of Maryland Sound, say it's simply a matter of taste. Goldstein's firm has provided the sound equipment for tours by artists like Pink Floyd, Stevie Wonder and David Bowie, and as he sees it, "Some people will probably say it wasn't loud enough, and other people say it's too loud. I've found that even when you mix a concert [so it sounds] extraordinarily quiet, you have people complain it's too loud."
Still, he adds, "a lot of concerts are too loud. So I guess the question is, why are some concerts too loud? A lot of it has to do with the artists themselves. A lot of artists just want it really loud. The instructions to the engineer are, 'Turn it up.' "
Well, of course they are, counters Lemmy Killmister of Motorhead. "Rock and roll is supposed to be loud," he laughs. "And also, in some deep way which I don't quite understand, it's supposed to be offensive to people who don't like it too loud."
That certainly explains the T-shirts which taunt, "If it's too loud, you're too old." Volume, after all, has always been a symbol of musical potency in the rock world, and rock culture is full of loudness legends.
Blue Cheer's manager liked to boast that the band's sound turned the air into cream cheese, while Ted Nugent is reputed to have gotten so loud at an outdoor concert that his guitar sound disintegrated a passing bird. On the whole, the rock attitude toward volume recalls Nigel Tufnel of satirical film "Spinal Tap," whose amplifiers all went to 11 "because it's one louder than 10."
Some people don't find such shenanigans very funny, though. Singer David Lee Roth was sued in 1987 by a California concertgoer who claimed she suffered "acoustic trauma" while attending one of his shows; later that year, the 52-year old mother of a Motley Crue fan won a $30,000 out-of-court settlement from the group after claiming permanent hearing loss from a Crue concert in Florida.
"A lot of musicians are on power trips," said one instrument manufacturer who asked to remain anonymous. "They want it as loud as it can be, just punishing amounts of volume." Making matters worse, he adds, is that the sound engineers "are all deaf. And they're deaf because they're paid to sit in front of these speakers all the time, and the sound is too loud."
Can concert sound drive a person deaf? According to guidelines set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, damage to the human ear can occur after 30 minutes of unprotected exposure to 110 decibels of sound -- about the same volume level as a pneumatic drill. Yet arena rock shows have been known to register 120 dBs and higher.
No wonder your ears ring!
Decibel levels aren't the only factor to consider, though; the type of sound also plays a part in marking the difference between excessive volume and a comfortable roar.
"Loudness is very relative to frequency," says Goldstein. "What a lot of people object to is very harsh, distorted mid-range, and they perceive that as being loud when in fact it's really not. It doesn't measure that loud. It may measure 6 decibels less than )) what somebody else would consider 'not loud.' But it's distorted, and it hurts your ears."
(Ironically, noise abatement laws like Maryland's aren't concerned with this kind of volume. According to Jean Parker, general manager of the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, "As far as maintaining levels to be in compliance, our biggest problem is bass, because the highs have a shorter wavelength. It's the bassier elements that travel out of here and are most annoying to the community.")
Then there's what Gumina of Noisy Mama refers to as "the saturation point." "When you hit that, you really can't hear any more," he says. "Your ear actually distorts just like an amplifier does. We like it to be real loud, but we don't like it to be so loud that you don't enjoy it."
Keeping the sound level just below that saturation point isn't easy, though. Unlike classical music, which is generally performed in small halls with good natural acoustics, rock shows are most often offered in rooms where seating capacity, not sound quality, is the primary consideration. After all, nobody goes to their local sports coliseum to hear a basketball game. And that can make concert sound a nightmare.
"Sometimes you have to play over the reverb of the room," says Gumina. "Especially if you're in a big, caverny coliseum or something. If you don't play loud enough, it gets so full of reverb and echo that you can't hear anything. So a lot of sound men go for playing over the reverb of the room."
"Yeah, some people try to do that, overpower the room," admits Maryland Sound's Goldstein. "I think less now than maybe a couple of years ago. Sound systems in general are pretty good today. There are four or five companies internationally that provide excellent equipment, and have equipment that's specifically designed to deal with those rooms."
Perhaps the biggest breakthrough in sound system design, he says, is technology to keep the system phase-coherent -- that is, one that makes sure all the sound reaches your ear at the same time. "If you have a system that's not phase-coherent, there's a lot of smearing of sound in the audience," he says. "Sound systems that exhibit that problem are generally run louder to try and compensate."
Good sound doesn't come cheap, though. "Probably the two best-sounding shows we've ever been involved in," he says, "were two of the most expensive: Stevie Wonder and Pink Floyd. Both pay a lot of attention to, and a lot of money for, their sound. They put a lot of emphasis on it.
"A lot of other artists just aren't willing to do that. They'll put more emphasis on lighting or staging and less emphasis on sound. There's a lot sound companies can do, and engineers can do if they're given the tools."
What can audience members do about bad sound? "First of all, they can complain if they think it's too loud," says Goldstein. "They can ask for refunds. They can ask to be moved back to a seat further away from the stage. They can wear earplugs. And if you know an artist was obnoxiously loud the last time you went to see him, you can not go. People get the message. If it hurts them in their pocketbook, they might change their opinions."
That's assuming, of course, the sound level is a problem, which many people -- including Motorhead's Lemmy -- think it isn't. "I think there's too much fuss being made about it," he says. "If you walk down a street in traffic, you get more damage done to your ears than you will at a rock and roll concert. Because that only lasts for an hour -- traffic goes on all day and night."