Turn It Down, Sonny!

Listening at the right volume levels

This article first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk!

I’m 42 (45 now but I think I’ll stop updating this) years old, and although that’s not old, I admit to being a little crotchety (aka sensical) about certain things.  Listening level is one of them.  Turn it down! You’re too loud!  Get off my lawn!

It’s a topic oft-covered, especially if you read or take a course about mixing, but it bears repeating, since we’ve been talking about monitors and acoustics this month.  The question is, how loud is too loud, and why?  After all, aren’t listeners generally listening to the final product loudly?

Well, actually no.  Not as loud as you.  And if you watch life go by, you’ll notice a whole lot of music being played at low levels so that people can still talk to each other, so your mix needs to sound good at that level.

Partially to that end, it’s common (and good) advice to mix at a low enough level that you can still hold a conversation.  Said with numbers, that might be around 75-80db in a small room, and maybe about 85db in a larger control room (ie: sitting farther back).  There are actually several reasons for this:

  1. Fatigue.  Your ears and also your whole body tire quickly when listening at high volumes.  Your length of session and effectiveness thus decreases.  Bad decisions get made earlier.
  2. Long term hearing damage.  You want your hearing to stay with you as long as possible.  Very loud listening is damaging over time.  We tend to lose high frequencies as we age anyway.  You don’t need to speed this process up.
  3. SHORT term hearing damage.  Listen loud enough, and you could actually damage your hearing NOW.  That’s hard to fix, and it can cut your musical career short.
  4. The Fletcher-Munson curve.  Basically, this curve describes a phenomenon of human hearing where perceived loudness changes per frequency as volume changes.  That means that the balance of a mix sounds different at different volumes.  In practice what this ACTUALLY means is that if you achieve good balance at a low to moderate volume, your mix will continue to sound balanced as it’s turned up, but the reverse is not true.  If you achieve balance at a high volume, your mix will tend to fall apart at lower volumes.
  5. Monitors can be damaged at very high volumes.  This is expensive and time consuming.

Now you do need to check at various levels.  Personally, I mix mostly at a low volume, one where I can still converse.  Early on, I crank it up for very short periods of time to get the subwoofer pushing so I can really understand what’s happening with the bass.  It IS actually easier to hear problems with low end mud at a higher level.  Then I turn it down again.  Late in the mix, I turn it up again for a short bit to check for harshness that would annoy or hurt a listener who wants to crank it up (this often appears somewhere between 2 and 5k).  Then I turn it down again.  Then at the end, I listen loud once through the whole song, just to get happy and have fun.

Of course mixing isn’t the only place where this comes into play, and I get even more persnickety in a live scenario.  Guitarists, I love you, but turn your amps down.  Yes, as your amp gets cranked up, it has a moderately different tonal character.  However, that character difference isn’t worth the sacrifice in mix quality in a room that’s properly manned by a front of house engineer.  If you turn it down, she can control it in the mix, make your vocal shine, give each player exactly what they need in their monitors, and actually make your band sound good.  Otherwise everyone keeps saying “I can’t hear the vocal! Where are we in the song?”, and your audience thinks you’re mediocre, which is wrong, because you REALLY ROCK.  Right?  Turning your guitar amps down is the number one way you can help the sound person help you.

Ok, now that you’re off my lawn, I will admit that cranking a great tune is about the quickest way I know to get to musical euphoria, so I get it if you want to give it a crank every once in a while.  I do.  Every mix, at the end, when I’m done making decisions, and often in the car.  But as a professional who relies on his ears, I keep it below the pain threshold – ALWAYS.  And when I’m working, I’m working, so I keep it where it needs to be for me to make the best decisions, achieve the most sonic control, and have the most energy at the end of the day.  I also take earplugs with me everywhere just in case, especially for concerts, which are pretty much always too loud.

Thanks for reading.  I’ll go back outside to my rocking chair now.

If you want to talk to me about this – well find me on Facebook @AaronJTrumm! 🙂

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