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A Few Words About Volume

Music volume is one the most common sources of complaints about DJs. It is also part of a never ending battle for which there is no perfect solution for either side. At any given instant, some will want the music LOUDER! Others will say it is already TOO loud. What's a DJ to do?

Using the best sound system possible is a start. Distortion is a big cause of "it's too loud" complaints. When the distortion is coming from a sound system that is being asked to do more than it was designed for, the music can be both too loud, and not loud enough -- at the same time! When that happens, you lose! How many times have you heard a DJ system that absolutely stings up close, yet is nearly uninteligable from across the ballroom? It's a common problem with the all-too-popular DJ fad of putting their speakers up on sticks.

Poor tonal balance is another cause for complaints. If a speaker system reproduces one set of frequencies better than another, these will get "loud" (IE: piercing, painful) much faster. Again, the music will be too loud AND still not loud enough. For example, speakers with good tweeters and poor bass will make you want to "turn it up" so you can hear the bass, but also want to "turn it down" because the high frequencies make your ears hurt. This situation is another frequent side-effect common with DJs who put their little speakers up on poles. (Elevating small speakers reduces their already limited bass response.)

Making the tonal balance "flat," that is, equally balanced across the entire sound spectrum is the best way to reach harmony between both listeners with "loud" and those with "soft" tastes. To do this, I use an Ashly 1/3 octave graphic equalizer. (there is one EQ that is better. It is made by White, is used by the top-name concert shows, and costs about $2,500 per channel. )This has 31 sliders which allows for much more precise control of the sound. To help me set the equalizer (anyone who says they can quickly and accurately set up a sound system and EQ it to the room by ear alone is full of baloney), I use the DBX Driverack RTA (Real Time Analyzer) function, which works much like the light meter on an expensive camera to set the sound "exposure" to the proper levels in each frequency band. The Driverack automates the tuning process and can perfectly tune my sound system to any given room in less than a minute. (This process used to take 5-10 minutes depending on careful I wanted to be)

To make this mini audio seminar complete, I should touch on one other phenomenon which often comes into play in loud environments (like dance parties). That is "aural fatigue" -- or what you could call disco deafness. Simply put, when the music is too loud for too long, your ears get "tired" (numb) and you can't hear as well. Consider the method DJ, who plays the music too loud anyway, and who stands between his speakers on stands all night long. Over the course of the evening he will suffer some hearing loss. (we hope it's only temporary). But usually, he will compensate by turning the volume UP. Can you see the vicious circle that usually ensues?

To avoid this problem, I have two "secrets." The first is sensible sound levels from the start. The second is an analog Sound Pressure Level meter (SPL). This works just like a speedometer, providing me with an accurate and objective measure of how loud the music is so I don't have to "guess." [Here is an article, published by OSHA which discusses the effects of exposure to loud sounds in the workplace, and sets standards for acceptable volume, and length of exposure.]

These three pieces (1/3 octave EQ, RTA, and SPL meter) are considered indispensable by nearly all professional sound men. I have used them for years, because I consider high fidelity sound an essential part of my quality DJ presentation.


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