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Putting a Lid on Loud Music? : Rock World Sounds Off on Concert-Volume Case Now Before the Supreme Court

Is there any such thing as quiet rock music?

--Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Feb. 27.

“I don’t think rock has to be loud,” said Benmont Tench, keyboard player for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers on Wednesday when told of the question Justice Marshall posed as the U.S. Supreme Court considered New York City’s right to restrict noise levels at Central Park concerts. “Some of the most rocking stuff there is is really quiet: Elvis Presley’s ‘Mystery Train’ and ‘That’s All Right.’ Those are quiet, and yet the tension they have . . . they sound like they’re going to explode.

“Still I love it loud. Just to be able to play a chord and shake the stage is a liberating thing. You can’t take that away. No, no, no, no, no!”

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For 35 years the debate over whether rock music must be loud has raised almost as much of a din as the music itself. But it has now reached the Supreme Court, as representatives of concert promoters and artists argued that volume is tied to freedom of expression, while civic authorities maintained that excessive noise infringes on other people’s rights to peace and quiet. No matter what the court’s decision, which is expected by early summer, it probably won’t bring an end to the issue.

For every parent who has ever asked a teen-ager to turn it down, there is a record album emblazoned with the legend “Play Loud"--ungrammatical as it may be. The band the Who always seemed proud of the spot it has held in the Guinness Book of World Records as the loudest rock band for a 1976 concert level of 120 decibels a full 50 meters from the sound system. (A thunderbolt has about the same dB level at close range. Industrial regulations generally require protection at anything higher than 90 dB on the logarithmic scale.)

Metal bands such as Motley Crue often stage concerts in a manner that glorifies their mega-watt sound systems, even throwing in a loud explosion or two to heighten the effect.

Neil Young was once quoted as saying that he wanted his late-'70s “Rust Never Sleeps” tour to be the loudest thing people had ever heard. And the main claim to fame of the fictional heavy-metal band profiled in the rockumentary spoof “This is Spinal Tap” was that it was the “loudest band in rock ‘n’ roll.” (Remember the Spinal Tap guitarist’s amplifiers with volume controls that went to an imaginary 11, because the conventional 10 wasn’t loud enough?)

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Why?

Simple, said 18-year-old heavy-metal fan Ariel Asconio: “The louder it is, the better it sounds.”

To the Arcadia resident, who said that he attends “every big heavy-metal show” that comes through town, it’s just not real rock ‘n’ roll unless it’s really loud. “With a band like Metallica you don’t get the full potential unless you play it loud, all the aggression and feeling.”

Is there any such thing as too loud?

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“Yes, there is, it just depends on the band,” said Asconio, a business and music student at Pasadena City College. “But with Metallica, they can go beyond loud and it would just sound better and better.”

Another music fan, Katherine Koebsell, also understands the appeal of loudness.

“I agree that it is up to personal taste how loud it should be,” said the 32-year-old, who attended concerts by country-rocker Hank Williams Jr. and suave-rocker Robert Palmer last year. “For the full effect of rock music, some people feel they hear more of all the aspects of the music when it’s loud.”

But Koebsell also brings another perspective to the concerts: She is an audiologist on staff at the Los Angeles County/USC Medical Center, where she said she is seeing a generation of rock fans damaging their hearing.

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“More and more I see young adults with high-frequency hearing losses, previously limited to older men who had spent years working around loud machinery,” she said. The irony, she added, is that some of the people most affected by this are the very sound engineers responsible for controlling the level at concerts.

“They’re mixing it to the level of a hearing-impaired person,” she said. “It’s like the blind leading the sighted, or the deaf leading the hearing.”

Moss Jacobs, who as general manager of Los Angeles-based concert promoter Avalon Attractions attends more than 200 rock shows a year, has also observed that.

“We joke that the sound guys have been on the road so long that their ears are shot and they can’t tell how loud it is,” he said. “It’s a joke, but it may be the truth.”

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One local concert audio engineer who is acutely aware of the problem believes that it not only damages hearing but also the music and the career of the bands.

“From a nightclub point of view, it’s better to scale down your (equipment) and play with dynamics instead of just volume,” said Ira Malek, who has headed the Roxy’s sound team for seven years and has also worked on the road with several bands. “If they don’t, then by the first 15 bars all you’re hearing is unintelligible noise. These bands will never get signed. . . . They’re stupid.”

Avalon’s Jacobs concurred. “A good example was the band the Bulletboys recently at the Santa Monica Civic,” he said. “Lots of gear, big sound system, but they could play loud or soft. When they needed to they could roar like a lion, but they could be quiet, too.”

For Jacobs, the issue isn’t just one of aesthetics but of business. Several outdoor facilities he works with are subject to community restrictions over sound levels. At the Santa Barbara County Bowl, he said, there is a schedule of fines imposed on the facility’s operators for transgressions against noise restrictions. But those fines, Jacobs said, have had little effect, as they have just been incorporated into the operating costs of the bowl. Sometimes, he said, application of the restrictions has stepped into the absurd.

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“In Santa Barbara one year, on the Fourth of July, I had Tears for Fears playing at the Bowl and there were forest fires in the hills above Santa Barbara,” he recalled. “Planes carrying fire retardant were flying overhead at regular intervals. Every time one went by, the sound meter went off the scale and we got fined for sound going on around the concert.”

Jacobs also claimed that the restrictions are sometimes unfairly directed at rock music, noting that football crowds can often cheer as loudly as a rock band can play.

For himself, Jacobs generally wears ear protection at concerts, as do engineer Malek and audiologist Koebsell, who recommends soft-foam ear plugs for most concert conditions. It’s not a solution any of them enjoy, but unless the Supreme Court deems that rock can’t be loud, it’s going to remain necessary.

Said Jacobs: “Some bands just sound like the end of the runway at LAX, which has its attraction to the audience.”

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But musician Benmont Tench has what he thinks is a reasonable compromise:

“How about rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be loud if it’s bands that I like?” he joked. “They can play loud any time I want.”


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