“Why Is It So Loud?”

(As featured in the 5 Towns Jewish Times,  11/1/18)
By Gershon Veroba

Unlike much of the music business, this question has unfortunately not changed at all over the years. Very often, impatience and anger is the reaction to loud and noisy sounds, which has actual scientific support, since sounds above certain levels can physically result in accelerated heart rate, raised blood pressure and other biological changes.

Accomplishing good sound is not always simple, so both guests and performers need to acquire some understanding from each other. I have watched many bandleaders try their best to please people, but I’ve also seen some that didn’t care enough. Since people tend to jump on the negative more than the positive, many treat the band as an opponent before they even hear them.

The Civil War of Music
The expectation of dangerously loud music is nothing new. Clients continue to hire bands they fully expect to be loud, so much so that they hand out earplugs in pretty little baskets. In my opinion, this is not charming, it’s ludicrous.

I’m always amazed to see a client hire a band they are positive will deliver bad sound, while there are so many great bands that care.

Bands like these foster resentment and distrust from guests and potential clients.  As a result, it makes it harder for me to fully earn trust from a client who is interested in our work.

Even after being hired, innate distrust causes clients to often arm themselves against a perceived “musical abuse,”  questioning musician choices, making conclusive decisions from trends and rumors or by reducing band size, which ironically can increase sound problems, as I will explain shortly.

Recently, a client called me from a large wedding where a large band was apparently performing very loudly, though there was a sound company. Of course, I wasn’t there to see the actual problem, but the bottom line was that he was angry. He said he escaped to the lobby with a headache and he called me to reassure him that this would not happen at his daughter’s upcoming wedding. 

I actually have a cousin who’s so fed up with loud music he enjoys antagonizing the band as soon as he walks in the room by walking up and showing them his earplugs. No “looking forward to hearing you” or anything, just the earplugs. He also has hearing problems, which often include frequency imbalances that make certain instruments and music very irritating to the listener. Unfortunately, some listeners are poised to blame it all on the band, rather than on the sensitivities of their hearing condition.

As a musician, I wear earplugs because I’m always inside the band and on a constant basis. People can benefit from this as well. If you work in the city or around construction, travel mass transit, attend shows, listen to music in the car or on headphones, then your ears deserve a rest, even when the band is within acceptable sound boundaries.

This is an issue that requires understanding on both sides. A band certainly has to bring the skills necessary to operate the sound through the PA (Public Address) system with all today’s digital options that enhance the sound so people can enjoy the music. A PA that is improperly operated can result in sound that irritates or even scares people, since hearing loss is a clear issue. For the most part, the responsibility for proper sound is on the band’s shoulders.

Volume may not be the problem.
Now, wait… Hear me out. This is where the core of the misunderstandings occur. For most events with bands of up to 6 or 7 musicians, the bandleader has most often been the sound engineer. A very hard job, since he’s already playing his instrument, choosing songs, leading the band and helping manage the event. Now he’s running the PA system as well. When a sound complaint comes, I’ve watched less-technically-able bandleaders in the past either tell musicians to play softer (not easily done) or they immediately lower the overall volume slider on the PA, only to find the sound is still not good. Pretty soon the band has been lowered so much, we can hear the guests’ feet hitting the dance floor.

When the sound is “killing” you, it is most likely the tone that is the actual problem, not the volume.

Tone is controlled by an equalizer (“EQ”), which is simply an elaborate tone control. Your stereo has “bass” and “treble” knobs,  which is 2 “bands” of tone control. Others have 3, 10, 15, 31 or more, targeting more precise frequencies (see photo for a quick lesson).  Knowing how to use an EQ and detecting which frequencies are affecting the sound requires certain  listening skills, technical knowledge and experience.

Most people can’t tell why the sound isn’t good, nor should they. It’s what we’re paid to do as professionals, but even some musicians can’t tell what’s making the music sound “off.”  When the violin sounds like a siren, when the vocalist feels like he’s screaming in your ear, when the bass drum hurts your stomach or if the bass notes are making your head hum, lowering the volume may not solve much.

Special effects are not always cool.
Another culprit is often an over-use of the reverb (echo) or delay (repeating) effects. Some instrumentalists, leaders and vocalists insist on it to making them sound more polished and impressive, but if those effects are not customized properly, their sound can often linger too long, causing notes to collide with each other, clouding up the music. This can be very irritating on the brain when a person naturally wants to dance, sing or listen along, but cannot because the song has become audiologically “blurred.” When you hear people say “this isn’t music, it’s noise,” they probably have no idea how technically correct they are.

When technology takes control
Clients and musicians have done their best to benefit financially from newer technologies providing large sound with fewer instruments, but that comes at a price. I’ve used the word “skill” and “experience” a lot and for good reason. We use these attributes the best we can to satisfy our clients and their guests, while their general confidence in technology’s ability to compensate for a band’s shortcomings actually makes the job more difficult, so
if we are good at what we do and we work a little harder, the music survives. 

Clients need to understand a basic fact when planning a band. The size of the hall, the type of music planned and the amount of people in the audience requires a band of a certain size. This provides a natural presence that requires only a little help from technology to enhance the the instruments enough to circulate it through the room. This is why it’s called “sound reinforcement,” since it simply reinforces the sound that’s already there. It’s also why the big bands of the 40’s and 50’s sounded so great even with minimal amplification.

My observation is that problems often begin once the band’s optimal size is reduced.

I understand that we can’t all afford to have the full sized band we wish for, but if the recommended size of your band is eight, you cannot make a 6-piece band sound like 8 without some kind of help. When the band’s proper size is compromised, so is its natural presence and the sound it was originally intending to provide. To compensate for the missing sound, we add artificial amplification with the PA. This increases the need for artificial volume and tone control. The more the sound is amplified, the more crucial that control becomes.  On our bandstand, guitar amps are placed on tilt stands so the sound hits the player ears before the guests’, so if it’s too loud, he’ll be the first to know. Without the tilt stand, the guitar player can’t sense the sound he’s sending to the guests, unless he has ears in his knees.

In the last 50 years, the influence of rock and pop music has brought more originality, expression and excitement to Jewish music, but with that came the growing role of amplification. Before that, acoustic (non-electric) guitars, basses and keyboards didn’t require it and drums were rarely given more than one or two microphones, if any.

Increased control over amplification is why you see more professional sound companies at weddings today. Their engineers are proficient at studio-level parametric equalizers, multi-band compressors, delay, reverb, microphone placement, in-ear monitoring systems for all musicians, multi-track recording, 32 to 50+ channel sound mixers and more, supervised every minute with iPads for remote adjustment as room activities and crowd flow changes. This provides full time control and accurate sound, even at lower volumes. It also has the potential to register on the Richter scale, so with power comes responsibility and that requires experience, consideration and customer preferences..

For a drum set alone, a sound company configures as many as 10 microphones to control and tailor the drums for concert and studio standard sound.

Each horn, violin, voice, keyboard and guitar get a channel. If you pay attention, you may even catch a band that has no amplifiers. This happens when the decision is made to plug everyone into the main sound system, so every instrument can be controlled from one place. This method still has its opponents, like guitarists, who often rely on their favorite amplifier to accurately deliver their performance and the guitar’s unique sound in a way the PA system may not be able to duplicate.

With increased control comes increased chaos.
Skilled sound engineers can only work with they are told and what they are given. Even in a large band with mic’d drums, I have often shut down microphones on the guitar amp and on the trumpets because the natural sound was sufficient.
Using judgement for each instrument is essential. Many pickup devices violinists use for connecting to the PA sound like nails on a chalkboard, so we set up regular microphones. Setup is at least 3 hours before the event, so sound can be tested per instrument.

Some of my best customers were impressed more by well-controlled sound than our musical performance, which is a bit disappointing, but sensible. I’d like my artistry to be appreciated, but “it’s all in the delivery.”

Many people come prepared to hate the band because of a previous band experience, which is a mistake. You are more in control than you may realize. Whether shopping or listening, take the time to discuss their views on music and sound control.  They need to be able to identify with your sensibilities, as well as the concern for your guests, who you know best.

If you’ve enjoyed the band’s sound before, then they certainly have proven the ability to control it. If you didn’t like the sound, you can ask them about it. If the response in unsatisfactory, you can always hire someone else who will give you your money’s worth. 🎶

Gershon Veroba has lived in the 5 Towns/Far Rockaway area for most of his life. A producer, songwriter, musician and singer since childhood,  Gershon has been featured by most major wedding bands since the 1970’s. As a solo artist, he’s performed on stage and in the studio with virtually all the top Jewish performers. He has produced & appeared on over a hundred albums, including over a dozen of his own and in stage appearances around the world.
GV’s company, Town 6 Entertainment Corp, provides audio and video production worldwide, vocal training and now features G-Major Events, an event planning and music company for personal & corporate occasions.
He served as owner & editor-in-chief of the 5 Towns’ first Jewish Community Magazine until 1995 and is now a contributing writer for 5TJT.   Visit gmajorevents.com for information, videos & social media. For more on Gershon, visit www.veroba.net.

What do you think?