You all know that feeling, you walk into the venue and get greated by the manager who speaks those words that no band wants to hear:
We have a noise limiter here
At this stage you can do one of two things, get annoyed and convince yourself that this gig is going to be one of those to be forgotten or start to plan how you are going to beat the limiter. Now its important to understand that any limiter set below 95db will mean the band will have to make big compromises. The drummer may need to play with pads or mufflers as well as using practice sticks to minimise the levels. The whole band will need to turn down and be aware of their levels throughout the whole gig, ultimately the whole vibe of the performance is going to need to change. It may also be worth, at this stage, informing the client of the restrictions so as they are aware that you will be playing a less energetic set otherwise your sound guy is going to be inundated with guests asking for the levels to be turned up. This is worse case scenario and in practice venues with a limiter set below 95dB can’t really expect a live band to be able to play there without compromising their sound considerably. I found this article which covers how limiters work which is well worth a read
So the limiters set at 95dB so what then? This is an interesting one as I engineered a gig recently where this was the case. Whilst setting up we played some tracks through the PA loud and were finding that this was only triggering the traffic light limiter green and occasionally amber which was all good. I then got the drummer and bass player to give it some and the same applied, still mainly in the green. I knew the rest of the band would make a difference but I assumed that these would be my main obstacles in not triggering the limiter.
So the band arrived, got set up, were made aware of the limiter and we were all set to go. It was at this point the manager informed me he didn’t really want the traffic lights going past the green. This is where you need to use a bit of diplomacy and explain that you will do your best to keep it all as low as you can but it’s simply not feasible to control the levels to that degree but of course you’ll do your best. Remember that these venues may book you again or recommend you and often it is the council who have installed these and not the owner, in this case it was noise complaints from a neighbour. In practice noise limiters won’t make much difference to the neighbour as they’ll complain anyway and the noise will travel if amplified at all but that is unfortunately how it is.
So I took my place behind the sound desk situated directly under the noise limiter so I could monitor what was going on and to begin with everything was going ok, limiter was mainly amber, occasionally going to green which was ok considering. Then the vocalist began to sing and I saw the limiter peaking in the red for the first time. These limiters are set up only to cut off if the limit is reached for a continuous amount of time but even so I was aware that I’d have to try to do something to contain the vocal.
It would appear that on this occasion the limiter was collaborated to peak when certain frequencies peaked not the overall noise which defeats the object of the limiter in the first place. If they are installed due to neighbour complaints they should be set up to be triggered by the low-frequency drum and bass waves that travel the furthest and which will ultimately upset next door. So what I was left with now was a vocalist that I couldn’t push above the music without peeking the limiter so I just had to sit him as high as I could and then do some eqing to get his vocal to cut through the rest of the music. It took a bit of time but I eventually got the levels so they were manageable and the band still sounded good and the clients were happy but it was a challenging evening. Having said that it was also rewarding for me as an engineer to have battled the limiter and won, there were no cut outs and in the end everyone was happy.
Noise limiters are unfortunately an easy way to compromise for venues with difficult neighbours as installing one means they can continue with live music legally provided the noise limiter is adhered to. I’ve seen a lot of posts recently encouraging bands to bypass the limiters but in effect this doesn’t work. As soon as the venue’s owner or manager is on to you they will cut your set short and that will just antagonise and lead to bad feeling amongst everyone. If the noise limiter is set below 95dB then you may have to try to figure something out beforehand with the owner as feasibly this will make it almost impossible to play. Noise limiters are frustrating for everyone, the owner doesn’t want them, the council who install them often don’t collaborate them properly and the neighbours will still complain regardless but it is more important to be professional and make the most of the gig. In effect if you can beat the limiter it is a good sign that as a band you can adapt to situations and still give the clients what they want, the venues and owners will be more likely to book you again or recommend you and the difficult neighbours complaints will fall on deaf ears.
I’d be interested to know what you guys think so hit me up with a comment and lets get a discussion going?
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