Tuesday, November 05, 2019

The Music Is Too Damn Loud!

At the NJ Jewish Link... Dangerous Simchas.

I'm conflicted about these kinds of essays which appear periodically in various Jewish media.

I'm conflicted because the essential point is, of course, correct, and blindingly obvious. However, the only effect I ever see from one of these articles is a short-term increase in snide commentary and rudeness from guests at weddings/parties, often before a note is played and even when the volume is perfectly reasonable. And, as a musician who is known for being very volume conscious, I do not see our community valuing that as a priority when choosing musicians for their event.

As well, these articles elide/omit the very real issues contributing to the problem which are out of the band's control.

For example, I recently played a party at one shul in a wealthy MO community. The room felt super loud, and so I measured the volume level with a decibel meter and it was over 95dB before I ever played a note. That's the ambient level of noise with people talking in the room. It's not really possible to be heard in a room with that level of noise without being "loud", certainly for the people standing near the speakers.

Many of the venues our community uses are not sound friendly, with poor acoustics as well as room design and layout issues. If a badekin is held in a loud room with hard reflective surfaces and a noise trap skylight situation, musicians will sound loud even at low volume. A horn section playing Od Yishoma in that room, as is typical at most weddings, will be too loud even without amplification. And the sound will also be muddy/boomy and unclear.

Additionally, we make a lot of huge affairs, which necessitate corresponding accommodations. Playing music to cover a dance floor for 50 people is very different from doing so for 600. More volume is generally needed. Solutions are possible, in theory, like having extensive speaker placement throughout the room, instead of relying on speakers from the bandstand covering the whole room, for example, but these solutions can add thousands to the cost and are not always practical due to dual-use rooms/double-bookings at venues/etc. that don't allow enough time to set up and properly soundcheck such a system.

Sometimes, tables are placed directly in front of the band. No matter how careful the band is about volume, it's not going to be comfortable to sit at those tables during the dance set and try to converse. And that's true even if the band is playing at Rabbi Zahtz's recommended volume level.

The music styles popular in the community make a difference as well. Certain instruments need to be played at volume for those styles to sound correct. For instance, a rock beat played on drum set softly doesn't sound the same as one played hard. The timbre of the drums is different. And so simply playing softer doesn't achieve the desired musical result. It just sounds wrong. Solutions are possible, to an extent, like shielding the drummer behind a plexiglass screen, for instance, but this isn't always possible and it also adds cost.

It might be great if every event had an acoustic klezmer band playing nigunim at low volume, but the reality is that this is not the music our community listens to. The artists our schools and shuls bring in for special events and concerts are, in the main, contemporary music performers whose music requires this sort of approach/instrumentation to sound right. It's unfair to play Jewish pop music for the kids at our schools when the kids arrive every morning, bring those artists in for concerts and special events, have the school choir sing those songs and then be surprised that that's the music our kids know and want at their simchas. And, there is much value to that music. I'm not trying to criticize it per-se here, just point out that those sounds require specific performance techniques that can result in louder volume/more bass etc.

So although I agree with the main point, and try hard to keep volumes down wherever possible, if the past is any guide, I fear that the only outcome of this article will be more short-term poor behavior directed towards me.  I'm, sadly, not expecting more bookings due to this article. In this case, I hope that I'm wrong.