What? Not enough watts, Part 2
- From: "DGDevin" <dgdevin@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
- Date: Fri, 9 Jan 2009 21:45:24 -0800
Come on, feel the noise
Going up to 11 has long been a badge of honour in rock music. But there's a
price to pay for those decibels. Mike Barnes talks to musicians about the
perils of playing loud
a.. Mike Barnes
a.. The Guardian, Friday 9 January 2009
'I want to ask one fundamental question," said Hans Keller after Pink
Floyd's performance on BBC2's The Look of the Week in 1967. "Why has it all
got to be so terribly loud?" "I don't guess it has to be," Roger Waters
replied. "But that's the way we like it. It doesn't sound terribly loud to
The Austrian-born musician and musicologist's attitude to the group -
severe, like a schoolmaster telling off naughty boys - made him look like
the quintessential square on the wrong side of the generation gap: he just
couldn't get the high-volume psychedelic sounds that the kids were digging.
Wind forward 41 years to the Roundhouse, London, and My Bloody Valentine are
about to play You Made Me Realise. Guitarist Kevin Shields gestures for his
already fearsomely loud guitar to be turned up - into uncharted territory
way beyond 11 - and midway through the song they launch into the 20 minute
"Holocaust" section of guitar noise and trouser-rippling sub-bass. At this
point, the plastic beer glass is buzzing in my hand and I am nervously
recalling some of the known physical effects of sonic weaponry on the human
body. I prod my earplugs in further and wondered what Keller might have made
of it all: why has it all got to be so terribly loud?
From prehistoric ritual to the symphony orchestra, people have alwaysengaged with loudness, but the 1960s was the first decade when sheer volume
became an essential part of youth culture. This was the time of the Who's My
Generation, with its famous lyric "I hope I die before I got old" drawing a
line between young and old, a line often drawn in sound. The Who went on, in
1976, to become officially The Loudest Band in the World at 126dB(A) (The
"A" signifies an average or typical decibel level over the period of a
performance). Since then, the group's Pete Townsend has suffered significant
hearing loss, although he actually blames that on headphone usage.
Bands viewed volume as a mark of connection to the primal forces of rock. By
the late 70s, the pro-hunting, gun-toting, heavy rock guitarist Ted Nugent
told his fans: "If it's too loud you're too old." Nugent has admitted that
the story of how he killed a pigeon with a power chord at an outdoor show
was apocryphal, but even so he is now partially deaf. The experimental metal
band Sunn0))) spoke in an interview in the Wire magazine, with apparently
straight faces, of their desire to play so loud that the audience would be
lifted into the air by a carpet of volume.
It's not only the myths about volume that have increased, however; so has
the actual noise at gigs. By 1994, the heavy metal band Manowar claimed a
reading of 129.5dB(A), at which point the Guinness Book of Records decided
to stop encouraging such activity and abandoned the category, not that it
has changed the attitude of noise mavens. In an admittedly statistically
non-significant poll conducted for this article, around 100 musicians,
journalists, PRs, photographers and regular gig-goers - from their 20s to
their 60s - were asked to name the loudest band or DJ set they had
experienced and whether they had incurred any hearing damage. Some
interesting testimonies emerged.
One respondent said of a 90s gig by Tackhead: "Loads of hissing in the ears
for an eternity ... but felt more like the spoils of victory." Others
likened the experience of extreme volume to a rite of passage: that ringing
in your ears could be likened to a bonding experience, recounted with the
same sort of jocularity-in-adversity with which you might discuss a hangover
with fellow sufferers. But if the inner ear is damaged, the next-day
ringing - temporary threshold shift - may become tinnitus, a hissing or
whistling sound in the ear, which can be permanent. One guitarist and DJ who
has tinnitus reckoned that it was as much "a badge of rock'n'roll honour as
my Chelsea boot-squished toes or impaired liver functions".
Certainly once volume exceeds 87dB(A) - significantly quieter than most rock
gigs or clubs - there is a possibility, at least, of hearing damage. And
with improvements in PA technology producing less distortion, that live show
or DJ set can be cranked out at higher and higher levels. More bad news is
that smoking and consumption of alcohol and drugs have been proven to
increase the chance of incurring permanent hearing damage. This is not so
much because a gig-goer might be trashed and put their head in a bass bin -
although that certainly wouldn't help - but because intoxication impedes the
protective mechanisms of the inner ear.
Dr David Baguley's two favourite gigs were high-volume affairs by the Jesus
and Mary Chain and Joy Division. He freely acknowledges the excitement of
experiencing loud music, but 20 years of research into it - he's the head of
audiology at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge and professional adviser to
the British Tinnitus Association - have shown him the downside.
"In my clinic I see some people where one concert or clear sound event led
to them developing tinnitus. Last time that [Bob Mould's 90s power trio]
Sugar played in Cambridge, I saw two patients who had permanent tinnitus as
a result. I see other people who have been exposed to noise for some time
and it's seemed to make them vulnerable to developing tinnitus later. These
days, I think it's a false dichotomy that those of us who are saying take
care of your ears are being over-protective or conservative."
Some of the musicians polled had damaged hearing, and not necessarily from
years of standing in front of a wall of Marshall stacks. Bob Stanley of
Saint Etienne, hardly a band associated with extreme volume, has tinnitus,
which he puts down to going to loud gigs in the mid- and late 80s - and to
DJing without earplugs, which he now wears when playing. His story also
exemplifies a current line of research: that some people are genetically
more disposed towards hearing damage.
"When I'm in bed at night, especially if I'm in the countryside, I become
very conscious of ringing," he says. "Otherwise, loud pubs and restaurants
can be physically painful, creating a mild nausea. I think it's something
other people don't like to talk about as it makes them more aware of the
problem - I mean, it is possible for me to go a while without even thinking
about it. Nobody else in Saint Etienne has a problem."
It's true that one's "level" of tinnitus partly depends on how it is
perceived: writing this article has made me more aware of mine. As did my
exposure to the winners of the Loudest Band accolade in the unofficial poll,
My Bloody Valentine. They beat Motörhead into second place, with other
nominees including the Who, Black Sabbath, industrial dub band God, MC
Hammer, Kaiser Chiefs, REM and, somewhat surprisingly, Malian singer Salif
Baguley is dismissive of My Bloody Valentine's use of extreme volume. "The
attitude that 'the louder the better' is very last century and I'd expect it
from Ted Nugent, not from artists that aspire to be groundbreaking," he
The stance of My Bloody Valentine's leader, Kevin Shields, comes over as
somewhat paradoxical: unapologetic and yet concerned. He played at levels
that forced some people to leave the venue; but the band also made earplugs
available at the door for all who wanted them. He's a tinnitus sufferer
himself - "I got tinnitus falling asleep listening to mixes of [their 1991
album] Loveless," he says. "It was only for about two hours, but when I woke
up I could hear a high-pitched sound but wondered where it was coming from."
He is also aware of how volume can affect the organs that control balance,
and can in turn be used to create a state of disorientation. "We play with
low frequencies that are nothing like anyone has ever heard before - it's a
chaos that sets off a kind of inbuilt alarm system. We use psychoacoustic
effects so it sounds louder than it actually is in sound pressure levels.
When we played at The Roundhouse we were hitting the resonant frequencies of
some parts of the building and so things were rattling and shaking, and dust
and plaster falling down."
But is he not concerned about using potentially harmful sound levels? "It
does bother me, that's why I made sure earplugs were available and that we
play within tried and tested sound pressure levels with a limit of 119dB(A).
We also never overdrive the PA, which can provide spike of distortion up to
130dB. We'd like to say that it is cool to wear earplugs; it's not cool to
get your hearing damaged. And anyway, feeling the music is a great
Some poll respondents who saw MBV in 2008 thought it was the most amazing
thing they had ever seen, others were physically distressed and left.
Afterwards I felt exhausted and was yawning constantly. The only thing I'd
ever experienced like it was a drum and bass club set that left me feeling
like I'd been beaten up. Describing their noise section as like a jet engine
is more than fanciful journalese, as 119db(A) is, indeed, the sound pressure
level of a jumbo jet taking off experienced at a distance of six metres.
It is also way over the suggested limit of exposure to the audience of
107dB(A) in the 2005 Control of Noise at Work Regulations. But those were
put in place to protect employees working at music venues and only serve as
guidelines for the audience, whose exposure is deemed to be voluntary. Given
the ignorance of what to expect and the likelihood of staying to get your
money's worth, that is surely unsatisfactory. One employee of a major London
venue - presumably wary of litigation - complained that their responsibility
to people coming to see loud bands was unclear, and that the whole thing was
a "dodgy" area. He refused to be quoted on any aspect of their policy
regarding noise, even though the venue in question has put up warning
notices and made earplugs available.
The management of the Roundhouse was more forthcoming - even though the My
Bloody Valentine gigs provoked the first complaints to the venue about
noise. The Roundhouse is keen to provide information in order to allow
people make "an informed choice" about whether to stay for the whole gig, by
displaying warning notices about volume at the venue entrance and on tickets
if exposure is likely to be continuously at a level of 96dB(A).
Professor David McAlpine, Director of the Ear Institute at University
College London - who developed noise-induced tinnitus after a pub gig in
Sheffield - feels there is a need for professionals to supply information to
work towards a reduction in sound levels that would make a difference in
reducing the numbers of gig-goers who suffer hearing loss. The problem, he
accepts, is that most punters probably wouldn't notice, and if they did,
they'd pay little or no attention.
"If you say, 'Hey kids, don't go out, stay at home, go to bed early,' -
that's never worked for the past several thousand years, so it won't now,"
he says. "Sometimes you've got to protect people from themselves without
being finger-wagging about it. But a lot of people can't make their minds up
because they don't have any information.
"My view is, would you go to a nightclub where they were shining extremely
high-powered laser lights into your eyes, so you could see spots that would
not go away? I don't think you'd do it. I don't think that people take their
ears so seriously."
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- From: DGDevin
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