Whether you are planning a party, wedding or corporate function you may well find that your venue of choice has a sound limiter, which will ultimately restrict your evening entertainment options for live music and DJ sets.
Featured image/thumbnail, via Richard Corfield
More and more venues have to conform and have sound limiters fitted so as to not disturb the local residents with noise pollution. A common sound limiter will be set at between 90-95 decibels (dB) – similar to the level of loud applause or a loud car stereo, which unsurprisingly makes it an impossible threshold for a live band to perform in!
So what is a sound limiter?
Sound limiters are a device situated in a venue that measures the loudness of the room – both the music and the crowd – in the unit of decibels (dB). If the loudness or decibel level exceeds the limit amount the device will then cut the electricity supply to the music equipment and essentially simulates a power cut for those power sockets used to run the PA system/lights etc. Most sound limiters, if exceeded, will cut out and then return the power after a minute or so, but generally if the limiter device is activated more than 3 times it can cut the power for up to an hour!
Why is this a problem for live music?
Different types of bands will perform to a different ‘loudness’ level – such as a jazz trio or string quartet will be far quieter than a 4 piece function band or a 3-piece rock band – but depending on where the sound limiter device is situated in the venue will determine whether it is feasible for a live band to perform. Sound limiter devices can be commonly found on the back wall of the bar area (say 14 feet away from the stage area) but others may be placed in the centre of the venue or next to the stage which makes things even more tricky as they will be measuring the level of dB’s when you’re set up right next to it! Plus, bear in mind that the sound limiter not only measures the dB levels of the music, but of the room itself – so if you have a rowdy crowd, even loud applause and whistles may set it off!
The other problem is for the musicians and their equipment. It is never good to turn off electrical equipment from the mains before shutting them down properly, right? When do you ever shut down your pc by flicking the ‘off’ switch on the plug? Well that’s exactly what a sound limiter will do; cut the power supply to the sockets causing all equipment to turn off abruptly. This is a particular problem for guitarists and bassists that use valve amplifiers and may lead to these amps blowing and leaving them unusable for the remainder of the evening.
Can a band just play quieter?
Unfortunately, live bands cannot simply turn the volume down for their set. Every band sets their amplification levels to match the level of their drum kit, and at its quietest will be the level of an unamplified acoustic drum kit. A drum kit cannot be turned down in volume, and yes, you may argue that the drummer could play quieter or with brushes instead of drum sticks, but the result of this would completely compromise the bands entire performance – simply put, it would sound rubbish! The average acoustic drum kit can easily reach up to 110dB alone, so when you add in the other instruments and vocals you can expect to hit around 115-125dB.
That said, some bands have the use of an electric drum kit, and this my friends can indeed be turned down! But, you can never replace the sound quality of an acoustic drum kit, so prepare for a large compromise on those circumstances.
So what are the options for different dB limits?
90dB and lower
This is similar noise level as a vacuum cleaner. A venue with a sound limiter set a 90dB or lower will definitely strip your options of live music completely, and may also cause a problem for some quieter forms of music such as a solo classical guitarist, harpist or quiet background music.
This is a similar noise level as a truck in traffic. This dB limit is quite common for venues, and whilst it may be possible to have a string quartet or small jazz band perform, you’ll not be able to employ a lively rock or pop function band to their full potential. Those bands that are able to perform to this level have reported substantial effects on their performance and experienced the occasional or frequent tripping of the sound limiter.
This is similar to the noise level of a motorcycle. This is a workable limit for a band but will incur some harsh compromises – such as the drummer may have to play with brushes instead of sticks allowing the other members of the band to turn down their amplification levels, but the overall feel of the music may feel tame and droopy.
100dB and over
100dB is similar to standing next to a car and beeping the horn. If a sound limiter is set at this level it shouldn’t really cause too much problem for any live band wishing to perform – they may experience the occasional limiter trip when loudness peaks and may still have to take some steps to keep things a little low. Anything above 100dB is free sailing and you will find that most rock and pop function bands perform comfortably around 110-115dB with occasional peaks to 120dB with crowd noise and particular loud sections of music.
No band wants to play their music too loud – remember that their ultimate goal is for you and your guests to enjoy the music and make some memories. However, should you be looking to book a band for your special occasion it may be best you try and find a venue without a sound limiter, or talk directly with the venue staff about the device in situ and if there is anything you can do to allow a full live energetic band to perform.