further reflections on loudness

a response to an article written by Yiorgis Sakellariou for Sonic Field (who was responding to a discussion on facebook).

Although I enjoyed reading Yiorgis’ article, I also find it amusing that someone in this day and age, in the dark depths of the ‘loudness’ and ‘attention’ wars, would feel so compelled to write “in defense of loudness” (when so many are in search of isolation and silence). This is just me of course, but I want to look at the “loudness” situation from some other angles as well. Having lived through part of the “punk” and “industrial” music eras, I associate “loudness” and music with deeper post-war themes of youth culture and “rebellion” (embellished heavily by “rock and roll”), two cultural stigmas that are now so deeply ingrained in our minds, we hardly think twice about the instruments and sounds we wish to amplify and the overall message of power that gets conveyed. Right now I won’t go into power (so much as mention aspects of control), but start off with the key word ‘amplification’. When we talk about loudness in concert or performance situations, we’re assuming that the reference is to amplified sound to a lesser or greater degree. But my question here is what exactly are we amplifying and why do we feel the need to amplify it? Are we only amplifying signals or are we also amplifying our own messages and ideas as artists? Why is there the need to re-present the loudness formula in an altogether uniquely different field? Yiorgis is specifically referring the use of field recordings or capturing naturally occurring acoustic sounds (whether mechanical in origin or not) and amplifying them in playback or acousmatic situations for imposing various effects on those who listen. As I understand his reaction was to the occasional feeling of moral assessment that the volume of such sounds are “too loud” and that it might be somehow “unethical” to play originally quiet sounds at “extreme volumes”.

For the sake of broadening this argument beyond simply a moral debate (the plague of the western intellect?), I would like to make two points on the qualitative nature of “loudness” or more precisely the nature of perceiving varying degrees of sound pressure levels.

The first one comes from the recent experience of teaching sound design to media and film students and attempting to convey even the most basic knowledge of “loudness” and levels and how essential these are to working with sound in any form whether you are recording, mixing or presenting. Although I attempt to make this as clear and simple as possible I often look out, only to notice a room of bewildered and confused faces, wondering how such an obvious thing as “loudness” can be so technical and problematic. The sheer complexity of understanding “loudness” means you also have to grasp the depth of human perception and the nature of subjective experience, that the urban iPod’ster, rural country kid and audio engineer hear loudness on completely different terms. This isn’t helped by the fact that after emphasizing the importance of developing good listening skills, knowing your “loudness” levels is primarily taken through visual cues, from watching the numbers by reading your meters. This only leads to more confusion when one realizes how many potential level adjustments can be made along the whole chain of technical filters from hardware to software. A fair dose of cognitive dissonance is always good for students, but one of the key points that discussing technical loudness raises is how subjective it really is. This is where I bring back the issue of loudness and cultural association, that by analyzing sound and amplification, we can also reveal our values toward listening as a social experience. What do I mean by this? Well for one thing amplification of sound and music has the real potential of controlling the subjective experience, or to think of it another way, “loud” concerts are loud because they increase the common or shared experience of the event (for example) and “quiet” concerts (read acoustic) are quiet to supposedly allow the intellect to breathe or think (i.e. enhance the subjective experience). But again, this subjective nature of loudness can be interpreted in many ways depending on your views. The high volume loudness of amplified concerts can also be oppressive in the way that the mass experience also erases or attempts to nullify the subjective experience. You know this from attempting to talk during such events where you not only possibly damage your hearing but also lose your voice from yelling at the person just next to you all night. On the other hand many people find little value in acoustic concert situations because, for them, music is an adrenaline rush and not at all an intellectual exercise. In light of this complex mix, the relatively new concept of “field recording concerts” places itself directly at the heart of the paradox of subjective listening. In this way, taking wide dynamic range acoustic source material and presenting it in a more or less amplified pop/rock “concert” format is bound to bring out differences of opinion (which hopefully is also the point). As Yiorgis noted, acoustic “purists” might look for “realism” in the accurate representation of the original source volumes whereas the one’s I’d call “rebels of reality” seem repulsed even by the slightest recognition of a bird or a passing car in what they hear. For them noise means noise. However we look at it, there is only so much we can due to the control the subjective understanding of loudness (as Phill Niblock faithfully does with his dB meter before every concert) apart from research the contexts in which we perform and have clear intentions of why we use loudness (or not) as an effect (as Yiorgis has stated).

The other aspect of loudness that I feel needs to be mentioned has to do with the quality of the playback system itself and the space in which we hear it. A simple example might be, insect recordings played at 110dB through an abused rock club PA will sound inherently different than when its played through a high end surround setup in an acoustically insulated theater. Even with the same source material, the two listening experiences will be very different (not to mention the seating arrangement). Any performing artist knows this and we usually adjust our standards to adapt to the situation and equipment at hand. Whereas my last point generally divides the audience, the issue of technical playback systems can and will divide the artists as well as the audience. With this issue, it’s not hard to set off some moral and ethical alarms as well. My personal view is that the use of dynamics in performances is always healthy when the artists intentions are clear, but if you’re going to play “loud” using a high quality playback system will help you be much more effective in achieving your goal. Its quite annoying to see someone using loudness for loudness sake regardless of the quality of the sound. But as we know truly good amplified playback systems and venues for wide frequency, volume and dynamic range music are few and far between (the most ideal conditions were generally the ones I set up myself). In the end, many “bad” performances are the result of “bad” unsuitable conditions for the genre. My feeling is that our values and standards are quite low in terms of adapting spaces and systems, even among producers and and those who engineer such events. There are exceptions of course, but because it unfortunately does often take considerable effort to meet the wide array of considerations of today’s sonic artists, quality is not the rule. Who is to blame when things go “bad”? Well again, with anything technical, the chain of possibilities is long and often hard to control. But here I place the prime responsibility with the artist who is the one certainly engaged to shape the sonic experience of the audience. This might seem obvious but the responsibility often extends beyond what we expect. I’ve been rather surprised to see how many “sound artists” forget a world exists outside of closed-ear headphones and near-field monitors, and acknowledge that all spaces are unique acoustic spaces and when we introduce amplified audio signals into them the very behavior of these signals changes and hence, the experience of the audience, that is, the ‘art’ extends beyond the stage. I can include myself here as well, who for many years trying his best, still thought the audience really heard the concept I had in my head or the sounds I had on my hard drive rather than the acoustic particulars of a certain space and PA. Developing an acoustic sensibility also takes time. I’ve also heard great performances dulled by excessive room reverberation and resonant frequencies (both effects severely enhanced by “loudness”) and a host of other acoustic issues. True, much is out of our control, but there are almost always creative ways of working with what we have and most importantly not to forget to listen and consider when loudness can also mean ear damaging (unless you count on successive generations of young people being your fans).

My personal response to many of these issues has been primarily to make less concert style performances over the years due to the lack of control one has over the venue and sound system (particularly at festivals). I’m not opposed to making listening concerts, but I generally like to be able to dictate things like the audience/performer/sound system arrangement and whether or not I’ll be able to make acoustic (non-amplified) interventions. On the other hand I started to explore the idea of acoustic communication and site-specific acoustic interventions, particularly as a component of workshops where listening is explored in a more active rather than passive manner, dissolving the artist/audience relationship altogether. Not only are these kinds of activities more satisfying for me, I also feel it gives a different message regarding sound in our present day consumer/entertainment oriented culture.

I dedicate this lengthy response to Yiorgis, with whom I shared a ‘moral dilema’ not too long ago, when we had to find a creative solution to a potentially “messy”  performance situation. The result was a fine listening experience (at least on my part) and a (hopefully) better performance on his.

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