Why do people like loud music? Really, in evolutionary terms, isn’t it somewhat like people who like to swim in sub-zero Arctic waters? Why do we enjoy something that essentially hurts and is not good for us? Or, is swimming in icy waters the only way to get that super high harmony? Back on dry land, who cares about the harmony if the sub-woofers are kicking out 1000 watts of lower intestinal resonating frequencies?

My theory is that “mating ritual” is at the very bottom of the loud music thing.

Now, don’t take this personally, this is not about YOU, it’s about the typical interested parties: she’s cute, but there’s not a thought in her head, and the guy, well, he’s a pompous over opinionated loser who can’t stop talking…

Need I say more? In the all embracing field of really loud music, she couldn’t talk if she tried, and the volume effective shuts him up, making both of them significantly more attractive and mate worthy.

Then, sometime between the following morning and years down the road, the effect of the volume wears off, and they’re at it again. Maybe, having learned their lesson, this time they bring “protection.”

No not a condom, silly — EARPLUGS! If you’ve ever been to a rave, you know I’m right about this.

On the other hand, what about going to hear someone whose music has touched your soul, like Frank Simpson and his wife did, going to hear Emmylou Harris? And what are they to make of volumes so loud that ushers were passing out earplugs, people were leaving, and the star herself seemed oblivious to the problem, while the band and sound people overwhelmed her delicate and beautiful voice with maximum unrelenting VOLUME?

As an insider, a professional musician, and sound contractor, let me tell you what happened. Then, we’ll all have to decide what to do about it.

It’s evolution! But this time, mating is not involved. In the advancement of recorded sound and recording techniques. A template for establishing the sonic field of play that the instruments make music in has evolved. This is also called “The stereo field” or with new surround sound systems, simply the “audio field.” You with me?

First, the drums are set up, tuned and microphones are placed on each drum, and cymbal — sometimes, kick drums and snare drums receive two microphones. Then, the whole drum kit, totally mic’d, is brought up in both the studio playback system and on the recorder — at this point, usually a computer based recording program.
Once the drums are sounding good – even, balanced and in tune – the bass is added to the mix. The keyboards, guitars, other instruments, including horns (usually recorded and mixed in sections, with multiple horns sharing a relationship on multiple tracks). Oh — and the concept of “tracks” has evolved — now there are almost infinite tracks, so the era of creating a masterpiece within the severe limitation of 8 tracks (think Sergeant Peppers) is over.

Finally, the icing on the top of the cake, the vocals. Usually, for recording the basic tracks of a song, the vocal is a “place” vocal, also called a “scratch” vocal — this a track that demarks the presence of the vocal, but isn’t the final heavily produced vocal track, with every note pitch perfect (thanks to more software).

Still with me? How does all of this get too loud? Well, the same engineers who participate, or want to participate in the recording process, apply this template to live sound.

They mic and get the drums into the sound system — in the case of a recent show I attempted to see at the Mystic, featuring a famous blues guitarist, the drums were SO unbelievably loud that the mix on top of the excessively loud drums became obscene, and I couldn’t stay for the show.

Maybe it was also the sound guys pumping their fists in victory salutes, and exclaiming, “YEAH – THIS KILLS!!!” that got to me too. Honestly, I just didn’t feel like being killed.

These guys, the sound guys, are taking pride in their professionalism, not realizing that the ACOUSTIC sound pressure level of a drum set matches perfectly with a 300 watt bass rig and 50 watt guitar amps, and a 1500 watt pro sound system with 500 to 800 watts dedicated to monitors for the band.

Once the drums are in the system, the bass has to be four or five times louder than normal loud bass to keep up with the drums. Then the guitars have to be mic’d too, and cranked up to dominate the bottom end rhythm section. Then, the ice pick on the cake, I mean icing on the cake, the vocals have to be screaming like banshees over the top of the huge monster that has been created.

Can you see how this happens? With the best of intentions, and everyone on stage just wanting to be heard, the only solution offered or proposed is to turn it UP. One more evolutionary advance you should know about — instead of extremely loud monitors feeding the mix back to the band on stage, singers who otherwise would have NO chance of hearing their loudest scream have begun to use “in ear” monitors.
They receive a wireless transmitted mix of the band that significantly lowers the volume of the instruments and increases the volume of their own voice, plus a reference instrument for pitch.

This is what happened at the Emmylou Harris show. The “in ear monitors” are also an effective ear plug, screening OUT the volume of the band, and providing the singer with a nice mix featuring their own voice. I’m certain that Emmylou thought everything was fine. That’s what she heard! Music, sweet music.

OK? This is a deep subject and we’re getting to the next most important issue — what are we going to do about it? A hint: would you consider going to a show that was certified “Sane Audio”? Would you go out if you knew that the focus was on presenting a nice non-abusive audible mix — with an emphasis on hearing the music, and not overdoing it?

And for those with already damaged hearing, there could be an “almost sane audio” rating. And for those who are happy with things just as they are, there could even be an “insanely loud audio” rating. You would have to sign a liability release waiver to attend one of these show. Promise not to show this blog to a lawyer, OK?

Who would rate the bands, shows and venues? The answer might surprise you. Turns out that there are industry professionals as concerned about this trend as we are! Stay tuned for the next episode in “WHAT?”
NOTE: a big “thank you” to all of you who have responded with stories, experiences and suggestions. If anyone would still like their input included, please feel free to share it!