How Could 10 Watts Be Too Loud?

We think audiences want volume, but I’m not sure that’s really true.

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The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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I’m not just hammering on players here. The context for this is very much “pro-sound.”

I used to have this regular gig that I loved dearly. Fats Grill is now a hole in the ground, but just a couple of years ago we had live-music every weekend. The PA in the downstairs venue was anything but huge, and yet it was very, very adequate for the space. The mid-highs were mated to an amplifier capable of putting 1000-watt peaks into each box. That works out to a theoretical 127 dB SPL peak for each enclosure – if only at close range (1 meter).

If you were in the middle of the room, you were about 4 meters (or 13-ish feet) away. We’ll say that makes for a practical peak of 115 dB SPL per mid-high, although the room being tightly enclosed would make the real number around 118. Put the two boxes together, and you had a system that could deliver a 121 dB peak in the midrange, plus whatever the subs could do.

Now then.

In pro-audio terms, a 121 dB peak isn’t considered “really loud.” It’s especially not considered loud when you realize that the continuous level, or what humans hear readily, was about 10 dB below that.

But here’s the thing: My experience suggests to me strongly that most folks don’t really want their live-music as loud as “music people” might think. Even for those that love their Rock and/ or Roll, 111 dB continuous can be considered bombardment. This is especially true for the 100 Hz – 15 kHz range. (Subwoofer material is far more easily tolerated, generally speaking.)

At Fats, I very regularly had the system limited so that the top boxes hit a brick wall at their amplifier’s -10 dB point. That’s a peak output of 111 dB in the middle of the audience area, with only about 101 dB of continuous level. That still felt loud for some people. It felt loud for me at times. I wore my earplugs religiously.

To be fair, the PA wasn’t the only thing making noise in the room. The monitor rig and the band’s instrumentation could easily give the total acoustical output a shove that got you into the upper reaches of the 100 dB decade. But even so, you have to realize that 101 dB of continuous system output at room-center resulted from only about 10 watts of continuous input. Remember that I said the limiter for FOH stopped the peaks at 10 dB down. So, that 1000-peak-watt amp was now really only 100 watts maximum, with the continuous power available being 10 dB down from that.

What I’m NOT saying here is that we should all downsize our audio rigs to run on hamster wheels. Headroom (holistic headroom, that is) continues to be a very good idea. There are situations where very large peak-to-continuous ratios have to be handled. What I am saying on balance, though, is that dumping a ton of resources into system capacity that’s actually excess isn’t something I can advise. I just can’t escape this ever-building perception that what a good number of live-music audiences really want are balanced mixes which stay well under an A-weighted level of 100 dB SPL continuous. Add the subwoofer information and you might get to 100 dB or more on another weighting, but that’s a different story.

(And, of course, we have to do what we have to do. Keeping up with a band that’s running hot is a necessity. There were plenty of Fats gigs where I started opening the limiters a little. There was one night where I had to adjust my threshold up to the point where the main amp would show clipping – and then drive hard into that limiting point.)

But there are plenty of gigs that aren’t a slugging match. In those cases, 10 watts of continuous input power might be all that’s actually used. Maybe even less than that. Ten watts can be “too loud” sometimes. I’ve gotten complained at during acoustic shows that people could easily talk over, for goodness sake. I did a few nights at a place with a very nice install that you could barely use in any meaningful way; You would just start pushing some clarity past the monitor wash, and somebody would comment that the music was too loud.

A lot of us aspire to “the big rig,” and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that on the surface. I simply urge caution. A huge system can be hard to get people to pay for, requires a lot of logistical work, and may be a tremendous amount of excess capacity that never gets leveraged.