How Loud Is Too Loud?

If you’ve ever been to a Motörhead concert you know what it means to be assaulted with so much sound you feel like you may very well die. And chances are you’ve played a show before where you were asked to turn down so low that it felt like you might as well be playing a retirement home. Finding that sweet spot where everyone is getting really into it without requiring ear plugs or running for the door is the goal of every musician. So how loud is too loud?

HearingMost rock concerts fall in the 130db range, which is the point where you will get permanent hearing damage after 30 minutes. This can vary from concert to concert and your location to the sound system but nowadays even country concerts can get up to 130db near the stage. In that range you reach the maximum volume that is really enjoyable and get near the threshold of what is considered painful.

This brings us to another topic, how much are those sound waves dispersing over distance? Say that big old JCM 800 is right behind you and you are just a couple feet in front of it, and the sound pressure level where you are standing is 95db. Those audience members six feet in front of you dancing to your rendition of “Fortunate Son” would be getting a respectable 82db of sound pressure.

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One way to determine if you’re too loud is to make sure you aren’t crossing the threshold of human pain which is generally in that 130db range. Another final consideration: have you ever noticed when you start listening to an album it’s loud and you are really into it but after a while you end up cranking the volume up more to get the same effect? This phenomena is called sensory adaption, so you might consider keeping an extra notch for the final encore.

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And let’s not forget, we’ve all been on the receiving end of a knock on the door from the local friendly sheriff’s department. The same can happen when playing a gig and the sound exceeds 80-95 decibels from the point of measurement (which is usually right in front of the club, not in front of your amp.) You’ll find that the accepted levels drop way off after around 10pm for most cities (usually to around 60db).

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How loud do you play? Do you tend to crank it up and not worry, or are you more methodological on finding the right volume for the gig?

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  • paul

    My singer/ sound engineer usually try to keep our band around 110db. My bogner alchemist head switches from 40watts to 20 watts so with the matching 2×12 cab and pedals for all my dirty sounds I can strike the right balance of making the amp sound good and blending with the group. Though, if getting my amp in the sweet spot volumewise means I’m too loud and overpowering the group, I turn down and deal with it. In fact the gig I had the most complements for good tone was one where I was most frustrated with my tone being thin because the amp was so quiet. Usually it isn’t a problem though, I try to position my cab where bar patrons aren’t being hit directly by the speakers, we all know the best tones don’t come from the center of the speakers. Right? And I set my cab in such a way that it acts as my personal monitor. This way my monitor mix doesn’t over shadow everyone else if the don’t want. As far as front of house mix, the mixing guy takes care of me via an sm57 in front of my cab.

  • Honda Boy

    I play for praise and worship at church, where cranking isn’t an option, mostly because I don’t like other people doing it, but now I run my HD500 DI’ed into FOH and have an inear monitor. If I want my tone, I’ll run it through my DT25… and maybe crank a little, but it’s nice not having to take much gear.

    • http://www.guitarsightedinstruction.com Alex Flores

      Oh yeah, playing for church this issue comes up all the time! For a time when I worked as a Chapel Director, our school principal would bring in a db gauge to ensure the band never exceeded a certain limit. I’m happy to say it never did but it can be very tricky to please people in rooms where everyone isn’t there for the music and the acoustics of the room change dramatically based on seating locations.

    • Fred Durst

      I feel like volume is an issue faced by almost every guitar player in pretty much every church. Apparently they missed the bit about making a loud noise in Psalms.

      • Honda Boy

        Probably more accurately, EVERY electric guitarist ;-)

  • https://www.facebook.com/PatrickShaneDurham?ref=hl Patrick Durham

    saw Dinosaur Jr in a small club and J Mascis was running two 100 watt Marshall stacks at ear-bleeding level. Ouch.

  • Bunzi1964

    We play a lot of small and medium venues. I have my 100 watt Marshall TSL combo amp right behind me on stage on an angled stand pointing right at my head. I have the volumes just loud enough so i can hear it good. This allows the sound dude to mix the volume coming through the the front PA system. If the stage sound is to loud, the mix is uncontrollable. I do turn up some towards the end of the night, but not crazy loud. I have to admit though, I do the urge to put it on 10 and blast some Eddie, Stevie, or Angus!!! Yaaaaa!!!!