A performing artist or DJ can only be as good as the sound that is coming out of the speakers. This makes the sound engineer a critical entity to any event one might experience. For all of us familiar with going to see our favourite artists, the thought of a sound engineer is somewhat mystified or perhaps non-existent. As we are all well aware, the performer is responsible for entertaining the audience, but what’s not mentioned is the sound engineer and their task of setting up and operating PA systems. Whether it be a system engineer or live sound engineer, both have an immense importance in how a venue sounds.
These sound wizards make sure our ears aren’t going to explode and that the overall power and volume give the performer full capability whilst keeping a crisp listening experience. They help keep the sound as consistent as possible whilst trying to accommodate as much of it as possible so we can all enjoy those bangers and we all know there is nothing worse than a track you like being brought in but for some reason the kick sounds like a wooden spoon on a saucepan or there’s a crackling coming out of the left speaker hitting away at your eardrum.
The importance of the effects of sound on our ears should be taken into account here. We love house and techno music and their exhausting number of subgenres, but what we fail to take into account is that the venues that tend to play our beloved music could also potentially fall short in delivering a safe sound. You know that ringing in your ears after a night out? Well that is damage caused by long exposure at high volumes.
Read; Tinnitus: the last thing you want to hear…HERE
One of London’s sound engineers who was part of the charity party ‘Dance For Humanity‘, Lorenzo Stucchi Prinetti, had more to say on the issue.
“Unfortunately most people, when talking about dance music, want a really high volume…which to me reflects the way individuals approach a party. They want to escape and let loose especially after a week of hard work.”
A perspective that couldn’t be more true today, the volume in techno events is a crucial aspect to enjoying the experience. “When I go to a party my main interest is to listen to the music and be able to enjoy it for what it is, without any distortion.” Except maybe some bunker techno where distortion can be a major aspect.
Ainsley Adams, a double Latin Grammy winning sound engineer now living in Berlin, had a more technical response.
“If we’re talking about avoiding any kind of hearing damage, the ideal volume would depend on how long the listener is continuously exposed to loud music. So for 97dB, you’ve got about 30 minutes before some kind of damage occurs. This also depends on the quality of the sound system and the the frequency content of the music. High frequencies are what you need to watch out for because that is what we’re more sensitive to. The key to safe clubbing in terms of hearing is wear earplugs; don’t stand too close to the speakers; and take breaks.”
The sound engineer and performer should clearly have a strong understanding with one another in terms of what is going to be played. Which prompts the question, how close should the relationship between a live performing artist and their live sound engineer be? According to Lorenzo,
“The communication between the artist and their sound engineer is very important, but many times it’s not sufficient, doesn’t take place at all or worse, DJs just don’t listen to a sound engineer’s advice because they don’t care. Red lining is also an issue, in my experience 9 out of 10 DJs do not care about red lights and distortions, which is partly due to PA systems not being able to accommodate a sufficient power level for the size of the venue.”
Drawing upon his experience at ‘Dance for Humanity’, Lorenzo states how he had to make adjustments on the levels of the crossover when Craig Richards and San Proper started to play after Unai Trotti, Geddes and Voigtmann because of the different kind of music that was played that day. “These are the little things that make the difference to me if we want a good sound from start to end.”
“Very Important!” according to Ainsley, upon being asked the same question.
“The engineer needs to understand the artist’s music and their sound very well. Everything the engineer does is to make the music sound better… Performances need to have a few ‘venue rehearsals’ before the sound engineer can fully grasp how to deal with it.”
It seems that more needs to be done to ensure all of this takes place, awareness is one thing but technical ability and application is another. The current situation is poor and things should be done to improve the conditions so we can all make it to sixty and still be able to hear! Of course there are some obstacles to overcome and the music community needs to do more to inform themselves and each other of just how much damage is caused.
Ainsley continues, “At the end of the day you can’t tell people what to do, especially with club music, people really want to feel the vibrations of loud pumping bass, it’s part of the experience and it’s fun. The problem is a lot of people don’t realise what they are doing to themselves until it is too late. Our ears can recover from a night out, but if we go too far, hearing damage becomes permanent.”
All too true and quite eerie! Lorenzo believes the acoustics of a venue deserve a lot more attention than is already given,
“I definitely think that there should be a better collaboration between promoters, owners and sound engineers to make the right choices; and it’s worth to invest more on the acoustics of the room and a good sound system rather than decorations, lighting and video which have an immediate effect on the crowd. Finally, the sound engineer needs to be good and passionate about what they are doing so they will always try to get the best out of it.”
I think we can all agree that there is a gap in the understanding and more efforts should be made to minimise the issue, we can do more to enjoy loud music without the expense of our hearing. It’s madness, let’s stop it.
Words by Alexander Fetokaki