How Loud is too Loud, Part 1

First Published on the Audio Undone Website, November 2010
I was fortunate enough last month to be asked to head out to Berlin to meet up with the chaps from Underworld. We were to play Berlin’s newly erected O2 World arena. It’s a big old place (a capacity of 17,000), but actually the sound of the room wasn’t too bad considering it’s a bloody great airline hanger with a bit of decoration. The show was called ‘We Are One’, which has something to do with Paul Van Dyk who I thought was Dutch but turns out he is actually from Berlin. The PA was a Nexo GeoD system, which some of you may know is a line array type of system. I,am not the worlds biggest fan of line array, but I’m there to do a job so I’ll always do it the best I can. On the other hand, we did have an XL3 at FOH, and some nice little toys in the outboard rack that really did set us up for a good show. Initially, we ran the sound up and it appeared to be what can only be described as rubbish. The typical bite you get from these PAs that I was expecting, just wasn’t there. For a big hall like that, with a full dance floor, the system would really need to have that harshness to cut though later, but would be softened when the audience was there. The sound was very flat and uninspiring, no real clarity in the mids, and basically no low mids which meant that the drive of the sound wasn’t really there. On the bright side there was, loads of sub. Well, when I say loads of sub, it was all in the middle and not a lot at the sides. Where do you start at getting this right?  We played around with the graphic for a while to see what exactly we were missing, then went to ask what EQ they had over the whole system. Now, when I saw the EQ for the whole system I was horrified. There was a massive scoop over the entire top-end, and another scoop over the top of the other one at about 4-5kHz, reducing it to next to nothing. This is where all the harshness had gone. The reason behind this was that the audience was going to be in the venue for about 10 hours. Which is an awfully long time to be exposed to a constant noise level. The engineers needed to decrease the exposure to high frequencies for the length of time, but in doing so sacrificed the sound of the whole system. The noise limit had been set at 99dBA over 30 mins, which is ok, but in the world of dance music is fairly quiet. You could take a stroll down the road to any of the other Berliner clubs and find systems pushing 110-115dBA for exactly the same period of time. So my question is, how loud is too loud?