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Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Does sound always have to be loud?

How loud is loud enough? Will 'painful' do?

By David Mellor

I am of course referring to electronically processed sound. There isn't much in the way of natural sound that I ever find too loud. Only the irritating tick of the clock in my Rolls Royce. Kidding!

I went to an amateur dance show in a local town last weekend expecting a lot of enthusiasm, an impressive amount of talent, the occasional slip-up, and a good time being had by all. Oh, and a raffle. Everything was in the aid of a hospice care charity.

I also expected the sound to come entirely from playback. The days of dancing to real instruments, or even a piano, seem to be largely in the past, unfortunately.

The biggest drawback to dancing to playback is that the dancers have to follow the music rigidly, whereas with live music there can be a degree of give and take. A conversation I had with a top-notch ballet conductor some years ago confirmed this for me.

But the other drawback can be the quality of the sound. Looking at the loudspeaker installation in the small, publicly-funded theatre, I didn't hope for much. Oh well, I know that sound is always well down the list when it comes to allocating budgets.

What I didn't expect however was how ear-blastingly loud the sound would be, even from a seat much closer to the back of the room than the front.

It wasn't that the decibel level was too high in itself, but the combination of a high level and the very harsh sound from the speakers made the experience extremely unpleasant.

I am of course aware that as one ages, one's tolerance for harshness in sound diminishes. So I took care to canvass a much younger person's opinion. She disliked the sound so much that although invited to attend the second performance, she decided not to, because of the sound.

Why did this happen?

My feeling about how this happened is not that the sound operator (probably amateur) intended to distress his audience. But he assessed the quality of the sound he was reproducing from his listening position - right at the back of the auditorium. So what sounded loud enough to him was louder for everyone in the audience, and very much louder for those at the front.

One of the most important rules of live sound is to 'walk the room'. A wise sound operator will listen during rehearsals and sound checks from every possible audience location in the room. They will make sure that everyone gets a satisfactory - and not painful - experience.

Apart from having equipment that works properly, I can't think of anything that will make a bigger difference.

So in rehearsal or sound check, get the sound approximately right from the operating position, then walk the room. Come back and make adjustments and walk the room again. Your audience will not thank you for it, but they would do so heartily if they knew what the alternative might have sounded like!

Publication date: Tuesday November 29, 2011
Author: David Mellor

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