David Scheirman's Response to "Why are audio engineers the enemies of our ears" :

Introduction

I received a response from David Scheirman to my essay "Why are audio engineers the enemies of our ears? " that included the note "PRIVATE MESSAGE TO YOU - NOT FOR PUBLIC DISTRIBUTION ". It was such a beautifully composed summary of my essay and the responses to it that I pleaded with David to put his summary and any additional thoughts in a form I could post as part of the Quest for Audio Excellence section of my site. My plea: "You'd be doing a great service to the audio world if you allowed me to post your intelligently articulated, experienced reflections on the audio scene. For better or worse the future of a significant percentage of large public music presentations will be directly tied to the artistry of young audio engineers. High quality guidance is in very short supply. Is it possible you could edit this [your] response into a form that would be appropriate for posting? Please consider doing so. Given the numerous email responses to that essay I'm certain many aspiring and relatively new audio engineers are visiting this section of my site. They would benefit tremendously by the positive influence of your thinking."


To: dsound@seanet.com (David Scheirman)
From: Ron Pellegrino
Subject: Re: Message for you to post re: Sound Levels
Date: August 25, 1998

David:

Thanks for the statement. Because in terms of information quality, coverage, and articulation it stands far above any other response I've received to my essay "Why are audio engineers the enemies of our ears?" it'll be posted as a feature of the Quest for Audio Excellence section of my site with links to it from the essay and other pieces on my site. Of course, since it's a gem and it belongs to you, you can use it again in any way you like.

During the past few weeks I've received a barrage of responses from audio engineers to that essay. Many of the exchanges are full of valuable information for anyone interested in the field of audio engineering so I plan to add a subsection called "Conversations with Audio Engineers" which I hope will become an educational resource. I'll link to your piece from that subsection too.

So as not to impede the flow of your statement I won't use the usual email exchange procedure of responding to your thoughts in the body of your message. Instead I'll just touch on a few points as an introduction.

  1. Because it's too familiar and the feeling has drained out of it, I never use the expression it's "too loud ". Instead, for the purpose of a fresh and pointed revisit to the old problem of "too loud " I use expressions such as "destroying the hearing of the audiences" ", "they will crank up the sound level to compensate for their hearing loss ", "that cranked-up sound level will overdrive the unprotected normal ears ", etc. In fact, often the overall level is not excessive but certain frequency bands are. Two examples from the essay:
    1. "if those audio engineers have worked numerous rock, pop, and jazz venues, you can be certain that they have also suffered some hearing loss from 5 kHz to 20 kHz, the top end of the human hearing range. Consequently, normal unprotected ears (those of the audience) will definitely suffer hearing loss in that range too as partially deaf audio engineers crank up the level to compensate for their hearing loss in that frequency band."
    2. "The least required intensity is in the range of 1.5 kHz to 5 kHz because the auditory canal acts as a resonator to reinforce amplitude levels of the frequencies in that band. If you live the high amplitude life of a normal working audio engineer, chances are that you have significant loss of sensitivity in that band of your hearing."
  2. I have no quarrel with what you're saying about noise in the late 20th century. But sometimes noise is appropriate and sometimes it's not. When it's not, those who both know and care need to rise to the occasion. I offer my Ali Akbar Khan audio review as an example. Plus, noise is not a very good argument for more noise.

The above said, your statement is a piece that deserves multiple readings, some time away from it for reflection, and a return to it for more readings. Thanks for making this contribution to the audio engineering world.

Ron Pellegrino


>Ron,

>Thank you for the time & effort you've put into posting responses to your
>Essay on the topic of Live Event Sound Levels. While your title,
>("...Enemies of Our Ears...") will probably not endear you to most persons
>who operate sound systems, there is unfortunately some truth to what you
>say.

>Having started as a professional recording & concert performance musician
>25 years ago..then having mixed live audio for nearly 3,000 live shows
>throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and North America...and now
>working for a leading loudspeaker manufacturer, I have a varied set of
>experiences and perspectives on the topic that you address in your essay.

>Are today's Live Shows "too loud"?

>Well, perhaps the real question might be, "...is there too much noise
>pollution all around us?". You see, many audience members who are aged
>15-50 today have grown up with blaring TV sets in the home, booming car
>stereos on the street, squawking public address systems at school, non-stop
>programmed music in elevators and restaurants and shopping malls...and a
>generally commercially-oriented, media-crazed environment all around them
>from early childhood on. And many assembled crowd scenes...whether sports
>events, auto races, live musical shows and now even religious
>services...feature some sort of amplified music...recorded or live...that
>is intended to have an "impact" on the audience.

>Think about it: If daily life is "loud", a live concert will certainly be
>"louder".

>There is, therefore, an assumed cultural expectation that oftentimes leads
>to "loud" sound being focused into an audience area. Is it exclusively "the
>fault" of the sound system operators? While the overall volume level of the
>sound reinforcement system is certainly almost always in the hands of an
>operator who could choose to "turn it down", there are oftentimes a variety
>of reasons that someone in the audience at a show, such as yourself, can
>judge things to be "too loud".

>Poor room acoustics (the presentation of amplified music by event promoters
>in venues that were designed to support natural sound from the stage)...
>unreasonable talent managers and/or other persons who are charged with
>"presenting" a show...older persons with more sensitive hearing being
>surprised at the way a particular entertainer's show is being presented
>today ("uh-oh, my career is tanking, better do a disco hit and crank it
>up!")...the lack of adequate tools to do certain sound jobs due to budget
>constraints...and, yes, the lack of experience or training on the part of
>the system operator(s)...all of these can lead some audience members to
>feel the sound is "too loud".

>There is no "exact level" at which point the majority of listeners think a
>particular program is "too loud". We all hear things differently. But a
>responsible sound system operator will strive to "make the sound system
>disappear"...i.e., have the sound be so transparent, so natural and
>seamless, that the audience focuses on the SHOW, instead of being
>distracted by the Sound of the show. It takes a lot of real-time
>experience, and the cumulative knowledge based on many different
>shows...good ones and bad...for a sound system operator to intuitively
>"know" when the level is "right", or not.

>For most of us who have made a living as event sound operators, there has
>been no formal training in audiology, electrical engineering, acoustics or
>music theory and composition. It's been an on-the-job learning experience,
>and without the hundreds...perhaps thousands...of dedicated sound system
>operators around the world, our society would not be able to fully enjoy
>the musical programs at assemblies of any type...political rallies, sports
>competitions, musical concerts, religious services, civic ceremonies,
>business meetings and such.

>Without all such sound system operators, the Live Entertainment Event
>industry would grind to a halt. Why? Once you get beyond 25-50 people in a
>small room, any acoustical source (one person speaking at a podium to a
>commencement ceremony, or a 15-pc. Rhythm & Blues act playing golden oldie
>hits to a crowd of 25,000 after the ball game) requires at least some sound
>reinforcement to get the "sound of the show" across to the entire audience.
>It's simple physics: the unamplified sound can only carry so far. Without
>the sound system, the audience hears very little. And every system needs an
>operator. One hopes he or she both understands the sound system in use, and
>knows how to properly blend and balance the music being put through it.

>But, Ron...you ARE right in many instances. Events around the world often
>are "too loud", for all the reasons stated above. Whether it is actually
>too much sound pressure level...too much audible distortion...or a poor
>spectral balance that empasizes some frequencies over others...I concur
>that a large number of events don't sound as good as they could...and
>should.

>However, don't blame the entire community of "audio engineers" for all of
>it. In amateur or semi-professional situations, such as can be found at
>many live music nightclubs around the globe, where entry-level folks on the
>"earn-while-you-learn" program are "pushing" a P.A. system as if it were a
>hot car to be revved up, and end up serving you distortion, unbalanced and
>unmusical audio, boomy, bass-heavy mixes and generally Bad Sound...well,
>you're often right. But the rigors of the professional entertainment
>industry will weed out those offenders...they'll go back to their day jobs
>flipping burgers or mowing yards, and the world will be a better-sounding
>place because of it.

>What does a sound system operator actually have to contend with, in order
>to end up sitting at a mixing console for the hour and a half that it takes
>to blend the sounds coming from the stage for the benefit of you, the
>audience member?

>(1) PRECIOUS LITTLE TIME TO FINE TUNE THINGS: 90% of the job is about
>logistics & politics : finding and keeping their job, maintaining a
>tempramental sound system, often suffering through tedious travel, getting
>enough sleep and (mabye) a shower, equipment setup and takedown and
>breakdowns, loading (and driving) trucks, etc. There is precious little
>time for "tuning" and/or optimizing a system for a given acoustical space
>for a specific program event.

>(2) THE GUY WHO PAYS THE CHECK WANTS IT LOUDER: The Employing Party (a
>band, a concert promoter, or a venue owner) often demands high sound levels
>due to a competitive sense ("our club's PA has gotta be louder than their
>club's PA").

>(3) HEARING LOSS IS A CRITICAL ISSUE: A large number of sound system
>operators, who practice their craft for pay on a permanent basis, and have
>done so for more than a few years, do have at least some hearing damage
>and/or loss but are not aware of that fact. To admit this can be damaging
>to one's future career...and as one gets older, and spends more time being
>exposed to high sound pressure levels, the hearing loss is accelerated.

>(4) SHOWS HAVE GOTTEN LOUDER: Some rock-music concerts have gotten so loud
>recently that the sound system operator will actually wear ear plugs during
>the show they are responsible for...thus distancing themselves from the
>results of their labors, and preventing them from experiencing the same
>pain and discomfort they are causing audience members. (Wear ear plugs?
>YES! when you are exposed to noisy setup environments, random environmental
>noise or another sound operator's work...NO when you are responsible for
>setting the levels that an audience listens to).

>So...where do we stand today on this issue, as an industry, as we provide a
>necessary service to society? The operation of powerful sound reinforcement
>systems is in the hands of a large number of experienced but mostly
>untrained people. We are mostly males aged 25-45, who have social ties to
>production managers and/or bands who will employ us on a per-project basis.
>Too many of us treat sound systems like teenaged boys treat souped-up cars.
>Only some of us are sensitive to controlling a show's average sound
>pressure levels. Only some of us pay attention to audience reactions to our
>excessive sound pressure levels. Only some of us know that young children
>should not be put in front of speaker enclosures, and few of us carry
>inexpensive foam earplugs to hand out as a courtesy to people who are
>suffering at a show due their perception of our own work being "too loud".

>Nearly ten years ago, a technical paper presentation at "INTERCON" (the
>International Conference on Noise Control Engineering) stressed that if the
>live sound industry did not learn how to police itself, and pull in the
>reins on excessive sound levels, that civic bodies and government agencies
>would ultimately step in and do it for them.

>Thanks again for raising the issue, Ron. It's an important one...not just
>for audience members, but for all the working professional sound system
>operators who want to be able to hear well enough to earn a living with
>their ears in the future...and hope to be able to hear what their
>grandchildren are trying to whisper to them.

>For those persons interested in this topic, and able to attend the upcoming
>Audio Engineering Society Conference in San Francisco next month (September
>'98), I strongly urge you to attend the scheduled Special Event,

>"It Doesn't Have to Hurt: SPL (Sound Pressure Levels) and Psychoacoustics".

>Moderators Mark McLean (Publisher/Editor of Live Sound magazine) and Fred
>Ampel (Editorial Consultant to System Contractor News) will host a panel
>made up of audio equipment manufacturers and sound engineers.

>Date: Saturday, Sept. 26
>Time: 3:00-5:00PM
>Place: AES Convention, Moscone Convention Center (San Francisco, CA)

>Best Regards,
>David Scheirman
>Age: 45
>Affiliation: Director of Tour Sound Marketing, JBL Professional
>Past Chairman, Pacific Northwest Section, Audio Engineering Society
>Member 1996-97, Board of Governors, Audio Engineering Society
>Program Co-Chairman, First International Conference on Sound Reinforcement
>(Nashville, TN 1989)


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