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Why does sound engineering have to be so LOUD?

Put a microphone, amplifier and loudspeaker into an ordinary person's hands and that person can easily become a volume–crazed lunatic...

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"Why does it have to be so loud?" a TV interviewer once asked of Pink Floyd's Roger Waters. "It doesn't have to be loud." came the answer. "We just like it loud."

Yes, that's true. We like it loud. That's why we got into music and/or sound engineering in the first place.

WE WANT LOUD!!

Would we have gotten into music or sound engineering to do things quietly and on a small scale?

No.

I mean...

NOOOOO!!!!!! WE WANT IT LOUD!!!!

In the context of rock music, loud is good. There's no problem with that. What would be the point in quiet rock music?

But sometimes, quiet is better. Sometimes, yes really, quiet is good.

Three examples...

The two-ton celeste

I once found myself, purely by accident you understand, in the audience at a performance of The Nutcracker, a ballet with music by Tchaikovsky, in a prestigious venue in one of the world's major capital cities.

The Nutcracker is famous for The Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy. This is a beautiful and delicate piece played on the celeste (or celesta) with a very light orchestral accompaniment.

The celeste is a smallish keyboard instrument with an ethereal sound. The keys cause tiny hammers to strike metal plates, which ring out like little bells. It is quite beautiful really, and its very occasional use makes it all the more striking.

However, the production company clearly had not seen the benefit of hiring a real celeste for the job. Instead they used an electronic keyboard with a celeste program.

Actually, the sound was quite realistic. But the volume, oh the volume!

The sound engineer had made the instrument HUGE. I know the venue, and I know that the stage crew also do lighting and they also do sound. Clearly, the person who cared most about sound wasn't on duty that evening.

The 800-pound nightingale (crossed with a gorilla)

Just a couple of days ago I was pleased to listen to a radio program comparing a number of recordings of The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi.

Curiously, the original score of this piece, completed in 1924, at one point calls for the sound of a nightingale (a tiny songbird) played from a gramophone record.

Having the chance to hear several recorded versions of the same section, I came away with one distinct impression - that, contrary to my previous assumption, nightingales are fact huge and must weigh at least 800 pounds (364 kilograms). That is the only that way surely that they could produce the massive volume of sound necessary to drown out a full symphony orchestra.

On most of the recordings, the nightingale would have been perfectly clear a good 20 dB lower in level.

The airborne piano

How they did it, I will never know. It's a theatre musical show with a small unamplified orchestra. And there's a piano. Hang on... there are two pianos. While the rest of the orchestra is down in the pit, where they should be, the two pianos are curiously suspended at about half the height of the proscenium, hidden behind acoustically transparent drapes at each side of the stage.

At least that's what it sounded like. And although the pianist played with skill and delicacy, sometimes a 12-foot Steinway concert grand (or two of them) is simply overkill for the purpose.

An examination of the orchestra pit during the interval revealed all - the 'piano' was an electronic piano. And the sound engineer had taken the short cut of amplifying it through the house PA system, and at rather too loud a volume.

It should be blindingly obvious, perhaps deafeningly obvious too, that if the rest of the instruments are down in the pit, the piano should create its sound down in the pit as well! Even a simple keyboard combo amp would have done the job, compared to the illogicality of the mid air twin piano sound we were given.

So, and I need to shout at this moment...

PLEEEAAASE!!!

Please Mr. Show Producer, hire sound specialists to do the sound. We care.

And please, anyone with their hands on the faders, take a moment to consider whether quiet would be better than loud. Sometimes, often in fact, it really is.

By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006
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