Monday, November 01, 2004

sound effects

by bPositive ~ Imagine it’s the weekend and you’re out at your favorite club. It’s got a hip, mod decor, the latest lights and a huge, boomin’ sound system that is tuned to the “nth” degree. The DJ is dishing out some tasty platters of your favorite tracks. Yet, there are, at most, 15 people on the dance floor and as the night goes on, those numbers gradually dwindle. This scene has been played out in Kansas City quite regularly in the past six months.

What’s behind this recent epidemic of half-empty dance floors? There’s probably not just one cause. For one thing, the club scene, in Kansas City at least, had such success in 2003 and early 2004 that clubs now have a lot more competition. There is not much that can be done about that. But, there also seems to be a surprisingly simple, and addressable, reason that might explain some of this lack luster dance floor action: sound levels have simply become so loud it is chasing people off the dance floor!

It’s no coincidence that several clubs that are experiencing this phenomenon have just recently installed new sound systems with massively upgraded speakers and amps and are now capable of producing much better quality sound. Unfortunately, the increased amplification available means these systems are also capable of producing much louder sound. Without the telltale sounds of overdriven speakers to signal that sound levels are too loud, often DJs and club owners keep turning the sound ever higher.

Many people equate louder sound with better sound, but fail to understand that people enjoy being able to talk to each other while dancing, especially early in the night when the dance floor is just getting started. If there are any lulls in the DJs set, dancers will quickly notice any unpleasant loudness and leave the dance floor. Once a dance floor is empty, sound levels become even louder and more likely to annoy patrons, creating a situation where people will then be even less likely to return to the dance floor.

One club in Kansas City has already keyed in that loudness is a problem. Their staff is on board with keeping the levels reasonable. However, many DJs will push a system without being aware of it's effects on the people dancing in front of them. After all, they are standing behind the speakers. They may not realize that sound levels have gotten past the comfort levels. This is where it behooves the conscientious club owner or promoter to let the DJ know. A compressor or limiter might also help but is not the total answer as DJs can still push the sound levels via the mixer.

No DJ likes to play to a half-empty dance floor. It’s counter-intuitive, but I have a strong hunch that when people can hear themselves talk again on the dance floor and don’t get ringing ears just from walking in the room, people will begin dancing more again and will stay at clubs longer rather than leaving well before 3:00 am like they have been lately.

If clubs and DJs don’t figure this sound level thing out, I predict, there will be some that don’t survive. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the single factor that killed the club scene was sound systems that were too good!

And, let’s not forget the most important reason for keeping sound at sane levels – our hearing! All this overly loud music can cause hearing loss over time. And, as I am fond of saying, who wants to be too deaf to hear their favorite music when they are 50 or 60?

According to an organization called H.E.A.R (hearnet.com), if you have to raise your voice to be heard by someone less than three feet away you should be wearing hearing protection. When was the last time you didn't have to raise your voice to be heard by someone right next to you on the dance floor at almost any club or even bars in Kansas City? It’s obvious that hearing damaging levels of sound have been emanating from most clubs and bars every weekend, a trend that has been steadily increasing over the past year. As evidence, I routinely wear hearing protection, and my ringing ears testify that sound levels have consistently grown louder in the past year and are now routinely exceeding the level of safety.

This upward trend of ever louder sound levels can’t continue forever. If the clubs and bars want to continue to thrive and prosper, they will need to achieve a healthy balance between sound levels and the safety and comfort of patron's hearing. I’d love to hear any comments on this issue, or ideas for how we can get sound levels back to a happy balance.

Sidebar from HearNet.com:

“Here's an easy, safe and effective way for musicians and fans to check to make sure loud concerts aren't hurting your ears.

Before the show, set the volume of your car radio to a level where you can barely hear the words. A talk show works best, as sometimes it is hard to understand lyrics in music. After the concert, turn on the radio to the same setting.

Can you still hear and understand the words? If not, you're experiencing a form of short term hearing loss called temporary threshold shift. When this happens too many times, the damage can become permanent.

If you notice these early warning signs, or have any hearing difficulties, get your hearing checked by an audiologist or physician. Other signs of possible problems can be acute or chronic dizziness, pain, discomfort, and drainage from you ears. If you have any of these symptoms, consult an ear specialist.”

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