Stage Volume – How loud is too loud?
I will be the first to admit that playing loud is fun. After all, back in the 70’s I had a wall of SVT bass cabinets and heads behind me for my left hand key bass, and a 250-watt super Leslie I built with bi-amped power amps and Gauss/JBL drivers. My guitar player at the time had a hot-rodded 200-watt Marshall head. It ran so hot that we literally melted solder in the tube sockets, and once even melted the glass envelope of one of the 6550 output tubes. And no, I’m not making this up. After all I was a 22 year old design engineer and invincible (remember those days?). And yes we not only played out with this gear, we practiced with it in a living room sized space with all the speakers pointing at us in the center of the room. I didn’t realized how loud it was until later, when I actually metered it.
This seemed normal at the time since walls of guitar and bass cabinets often formed the backdrop on stage for many artists at concerts and television. But after any practice session or gig I couldn’t really hear for a day or so. Again, we all assumed this was temporary and just part of playing in a rock band. However, everything changed when OSHA came to my day job and I was assigned the task of using a B&K recording SPL meter to gather noise information in the packaging plant where I was a design engineer. So here I was dutifully putting up posters about wearing hearing protection, and using a SPL chart recorder to determine what machinery was too loud for unprotected ears. All the while I was playing in my band so loudly that I was learning how to read lips since I really couldn’t understand a lot of what was being said in a normal conversation.
My epiphany occurred when I had the bright idea to take the B&K SPL meter home for the weekend to see just how loud my band was. Now this was strictly for bragging rights, not with any hearing safety thoughts. At my rehearsal that night I measured 115-120 dB SPL A-Scale/Slow in the middle of the room, with is close to the threshold of pain for most listeners. But again, I was interested in bragging about this number, not worrying about it. So the next day I took the SPL chart into my boss as work, who happened to be an audiophile and an electrical engineer. He looked at the chart for a minute and asked a few questions about the position of the test mic, where I was standing, etc… After telling him that I was standing right in front of these speakers he noted something really profound. He said that I was going to be deaf in a year at this rate and I needed to turn down the volume. However, he had turned his head a bit and I couldn’t read his lips, so I just said “Huh” and asked him to repeat himself. That was the moment I understood just what an idiot I was being about playing so loudly. I was going to have music, one of the things I love most in life, taken away from me because I was playing way too loud on stage and ignoring the warning signs of impending hearing loss.
In a minute my plan was formed. I would replace all our loud stage gear with really small amps and speakers, and create a large PA system for everything to run through. So my four SVT cabinets became sub-woofers for the PA system. Instead of a 200 watt Marshall guitar stack I designed a tube pedal-board with presets and a speaker emulated DI output driving a 30-watt monitor amp and a guitar wedge with a 12” guitar speaker. Now remember, this was in the mid 70’s before any of this stuff existed. So I went to the county landfill and ripped transformers out of old television sets to make my DI’s. I used nichrome heating elements from stove tops for power soaks, and hand wired my own electronic crossovers to drive Heathkit and Dynaco power amps I built from kits and modified with extra cooling to survive the rigors of live sound reinforcement. I stapped a pair of 8 and 12 channel Peavy mixing consoles together to get enough inputs. And finally, the stage volume went from 115 dB down to 85 dB SPL. So low that we didn’t have to close-mic the drums and settled on a 3-mic setup you now see from Earthworks and DPA.
So was this easy? No it was not. I went through multiple guitar players, bass players, drummers, and singers, all of whom complained they couldn’t hear what they were playing unless the sound on stage was at least 110 dB. But after I found the right musicians everything just seemed to click. We could play at 85 dB on stage and turn the FOH speakers up to anything the audience wanted. And we were forced to become better musicians because we could hear all of our mistakes.
Fast forward to 2016 and I see the same problem, but now even bigger. While a PA system of 70’s was as Kustom 200 head with maybe 100 watts (no kidding), nowadays you can easily afford 1,000 watt floor monitors and a 10,000 to 50,000 watt PA for a small room. I see this in churches all the time where the sound spilling off the stage is over 100 dB in the room even before the PA system is turned on. Again, playing loud makes for deaf musicians who then need to play louder to hear what they’re playing. And this has consequences for the hearing listeners in the room itself.
Here’s two brief stories to illustrate my point. I was teaching a sound mixing workshop in South Carolina at a church with an enormous PA system powered by at least 40,000 watts for the main speakers alone. And they had every safety limiter bypassed so that all the amplifiers were peaking in the red. Back at the mixing position in the rear of the room it was so loud I couldn’t hear myself think and so I told them they were probably at 115 dB and needed to turn down the volume before they all went deaf. They didn’t believe the SPL number until I got my dB meter out of the truck and sure enough it was 115 dB Slow/A-Weighted at the console position. I knew it was 115 dB since I was feeling that same pain I used to get when practicing at the level back in the 70’s. And the really scary part was the bunch of parents holding their babies who were standing right in front of the FOH Main speakers. It had to be at least 125 dB up there, and would soon cause permanent hearing damage, especially to the infants. But they wouldn’t turn it down since they said they couldn’t hear the music at a lower volume. Of course, that’s because they were nearly deaf already.
My second story is a woman who attended one of my surround mixing seminars in New Mexico. I was discussing the importance of limiting monitor volume in the control room to protect our hearing when this woman asked a question about her own children’s hearing. She was a Dead-Head hippie from the 60’s who had followed the Grateful Dead Band around for years. She often stood right in front of the Main speakers while holding her infants, and her now adult children all had hearing problems. She wanted to know if standing in front of the Grateful Dead loudspeakers for months on end had damaged their hearing. I said that yes, I was pretty sure that’s what caused their hearing damage. However, she responded “But the music was so good, how could it hurt them?” Now I don’t care how good or inspirational or religious the music is. Loud is loud, and a steady diet of 100 dB plus sound is going to damage your hearing, especially with infants.
So is all lost? No, since there’s lot of modern gear that can be used to create an 85 to 90 dB stage that’s safe for playing on for hours a day if you want to. And once you get over the shock of actually hearing what you sound like, you can become better performers on stage. And making is great music what it’s all about.
Join me for the Semi-Silent-Stage ™ project, where we discover and demonstrate how to control the stage volume of electric guitars, bass, drums, keys, and everyone else. See you there..
Copyright 2016 Mike Sokol
Semi-Silent-Stage ™ 2014