Time to Turn it Down: There is Such a Thing as “Too Loud”

When the sound is too loud for AC/DC, maybe it's time to turn down the volume.

Earlier this month, lead singer Brian Johnson was advised to take a break from touring. If he didn't, his doctors warned, he risked total hearing loss. Johnson opted to take a step back, and the band announced it would reschedule its upcoming tour to a later date — probably with a guest vocalist.

Rock 'n' roll is loud. High decibel levels affect both musicians and fans, who may be experiencing more ringing in their ears after shows than ever before, even in AC/DC's 1980s heyday.

“To be perfectly frank, the average rock band plays louder than all of the very loudest bands did when I started,” says Lee Brenkman, head of the sound department for both Slim's and The Great American Music Hall. “The whole world is louder … It's been irresponsible for 40 years.”

The volume at rock concerts can reach 110 decibels or higher. Permanent hearing loss can occur after extended exposure to noise levels of only 85 decibels, according to the National Institutes of Health. (For comparison's sake: Ambulance sirens are 125 decibels.) That ringing in your ears after a particularly loud show could be permanent — and even if the ringing clears, you could be hard of hearing afterwards.

Loud music is causing worldwide health problems. According to the World Health Organization, 1.1 billion teenagers around the world are at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe levels of sound.

So who's in charge of controlling the volume at shows so that you don't leave a little more deaf than you arrived? That's a difficult question to answer.

While state and federal employment guidelines limit how loud and for how long noise can be for workers, for paying audiences, there are no regulations in San Francisco on “recreational sound.” Venues have to maintain a certain level of quiet for their neighbors, but as long as the sound isn't spilling outside, a venue can get away with being as loud as it wants to be: Indoor noise for concerts is self-regulated.

Sound levels at a concert are determined between the band and the sound tech, on a case-by-case basis.

At a recent concert at the Bottom of the Hill, the opening act measured between 97 and 105 decibels on a measurement called a-scale, according to Paul Thomas, the venue's head sound engineer. The headliner was 95-100 on the a-scale — but 105-110 on another metric called c-scale. For reference, according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration guidelines, workers should be exposed to noise averaging 100 decibels a-scale for no more than two hours.

“We've kind of got [the volumes] really dialed in now,” Thomas says. “And most of the time now, if anybody's complaining, it's just because the band themselves are way too fucking loud, and it's actually not an issue of the PA system.”

But telling a band to turn it down, especially a popular band that just sold out the venue, can be tricky.

Though Thomas said that “sometimes you just have to tell them that's going to be too loud,” some bands are easier to deal with than others.

If a band is continuously playing at a volume in excess of the stated limit — such as the one included in every GAMH/Slim's contract — Brenkman will notify the night manager to contact the band.

“[They would say] 'If you don't reduce the volume on stage, and we get a noise complaint, we may have to contractually pay you tonight, but you may never work here again,'” Brenkman says. “That's the only resource they have.”

And it's hard to enforce. Brenkman says he's told venues the only way to keep some bands from playing over the volume limit is to just not hire them.

“Most bands have — as far as their contract — artistic control of their presentation,” Brenkman says. “And if they want to play so loud that it sucks, that's their prerogative.”

But it's not just the bands who drive loud music. Audiences are equally at fault.

“Some audiences, if it's not rearranging their skeleton, they can't experience it the way they want to,” Brenkman says.

And most of the time, audiences don't realize the toll that loud volumes are taking on their hearing.

“[Hearing loss] is preventable, if the bands wouldn't play so loud,” says Dr. Richard Salvi, a professor at the University at Buffalo and director for the Center for Hearing and Deafness. “And if people would wear earplugs, but they don't do this.”

Tinnitus is the name for the sensation of sound or continuous ringing in ears without any external stimuli. Many concert-goers suffer from this temporarily after loud shows.

It can have many causes — sound exposure, drugs, or aging — and results in a reduction in the neural activity in the ear.

“That's a really good warning signal, that you walk out of a concert and your ears feel stuffy and you've got ringing,” Salvi says. “You just overexposed yourself.”

In most cases, temporary tinnitus can dissipate in a day or two, but if it happens over and over again, it can lead to permanent hearing loss or permanent tinnitus.

According to Salvi, if you measured people's hearing before and after a concert, most would probably have a small amount of temporary hearing loss. If it was really loud, mild or moderate hearing loss or tinnitus could occur.

Loud noise heard at a young age could also reverberate decades later. In other words — if you blow out your eardrums at 25, expect a harder time hearing at age 50 than if you'd had a quiet youth.

“If you noise-exposure yourself when you're young, you damage your ears,” Salvi says. “That gets you a little bit closer to having severe hearing loss, and as you age, you get more and more.”

City officials have taken some action on noise. In 2000, Kathy Peck, executive director of H.E.A.R. (Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers) helped pass a citywide earplug ordnance — the first in the country — mandating venues of a certain size make earplugs available to audiences.

However, there are no official regulations in place to check if venues are following the rules, or provisions regarding consequences for clubs who do not comply. H.E.A.R. recently did an audit of clubs in the area and found that 72 percent have earplugs available.

Of those that did, 62 percent had them for free and 38 percent charged $1.

But Peck was happy with these results.

“We know that we have a good model, we know that it can go further,” Peck says. “And we'd like to see that happen.”

But there's still work to be done to keep concert-goers aware of the health risks of loud music.

“People need to know that they can get hearing protection — it's like sunglasses for their ears,” Peck said. “You need to take care of your ears. It's really important.”

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