Excessive sound levels at ceilidhs and other folk events - letters from Tony Garton and Erica Hickson in S&TS magazine May 2012.
I have a quite a bit of sympathy with Steve Wozniak in his campaign against the 'sound engineers', but I think he may be mis-stating the problem. Some sound crews have awful ideas about what makes good dance music, and most of the people who do it badly do it too loudly, but loudness in itself is not necessarily what is wrong. Can I firstly make a few comments on the technical and legislative points that Steve raises.
It is unlikely that anyone will suffer permanent hearing damage from loud music at a dance. The effect is a cumulative one and short (a few hours) exposure to loud music is not going to have very much effect. It will however almost certainly produce temporary hearing loss which will probably last a few hours but could be a bit longer. The problem of the prematurely deaf young is more associated with MP3 players with headphones.
It is correct that there is no legal protection for customers at a dance. They have the option of leaving and asking for their money back - and more importantly not going back. Workers (including stewards and bar staff at ceilidhs) who don't have that option are given legal protection, but would need to be exposed to the noise for quite a long time for the limits to be breached.
With a well set up system the level in a hall does not vary very much apart from very close to the speakers. Many systems are too directional and can give rise to the levels being too loud in one part of the hall and not clearly audible in other parts. In a tent at a festival the levels away from the speakers may be much lower because there are no normal reflections from the walls.
Environmental Health Officers do not measure 'average sound levels well away from the speakers': they do not measure levels affecting customers at all. I have not come across any disco (much less a folk dance) where the EHO has approved levels inside the hall. In fact, I cannot think of any legislation that would allow them to restrict it except for the effects on the staff. They will be concerned with the noise that escapes from the building and affects the neighbourhood. Licensing conditions could be used to protect children from excessive noise - or if the noise was so loud that it was considered to affect public safety.
The problem is mainly with ceilidhs because that is a style of dance where the punters really do expect - and want - louder music. This does not mean infinitely loud is OK: it just recognises that that is the style of music that is expected. Playford and similar dances are probably not affected by loud music but some contra bands also turn up the volume knob a bit. It is in part a question of what level of sound the punters want and expect and what level the organisers think the punters want. If a ceilidh was run at the level of the average Playford ball, there would be complaints that it was too quiet. I don't think that a test can be whether a normal conversation is possible or not. After all, when the music is playing you are dancing, aren't you?
I think that there are some people who run sound desks for ceilidh bands who know what they are doing and some who are just wannabe roadies. Even the best of them can have a bit of a problem when setting up in an unfamiliar hall and ideally they would have a set-up using more but smaller speakers properly placed in a hall to give better sound. In practice, they arrive at a hall that they may not have seen before with a few big speakers and have to make the best of it. Some do a good job: others don't.
It is usually more of a problem where there is no sound desk in the hall and the band control their own amplification. It is true that such bands do not normally have it turned up quite so loud, but also they do not know what it sounds like to the dancers in the hall and can thus produce some really awful results.
Some of bands and their sound engineers have the wrong idea that making a sound louder makes it clearer. My purely personal opinion is that the level of the sound is less important than its clarity and the intelligibility of the callers words. Many of the sound systems are operated by the poor sound crews beyond the linear range of the amplifier. It sounds awful not because it is too loud but because it is totally distorted. It is possible to turn it down to the linear range and it will not destroy the balance and, if it has been set up properly, the quieter instruments will be better audible, and furthermore the whole thing will sound clearer.
Finally I would like to come to the defence of Steve Heap. It is true that the Ceilidh Tent at Towersey has loud music, but in my experience of dancing there the sound quality is very good and it is not too loud - except when trying to order a pint.
Stephen Wozniak, in support of my letter against excessive amplification, makes some pertinent points, particularly with regard to hearing damage. However, he states that this 'is not usually a problem at folk dances and especially not in village halls'. Not so, Stephen! These are precisely the venues that I attend and already some dancers are dropping out of certain clubs because of the level of noise. Do bands and callers wish to drive dancers away? Let's hope that this message is heard loud (but not too loud!) and clear.
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