WHAT IS A NOISE LIMITER
A noise limiter is a device that bands/DJs are required to plug all of their equipment into - there is a microphone in close proximity to the performance area which monitors the volume of the band/DJ in the room and if the volume exceeds a certain level, it will cut the power supply switching everything off. As you can imagine, this can be rather disruptive to the performance - unless of course the band are able to continuously keep their level low enough in order to never trip the noise limiter. In theory, this is possible - but not without sacrifice.
HOW WILL A NOISE LIMITER AFFECT OUR WEDDING / EVENT?
In reality, most people don’t really know what a noise limiter means in terms of how it will affect their wedding until the band actually start playing. On one occasion we performed for a wedding at a beautiful Cambridgeshire country manor in a marquee in their garden that had a noise limiter. The bride and groom were fully aware of the 90 decibel limit and, due to the acoustics of a marquee being generally easy to work with, we were able to technically comply with the limit. Practically speaking however, our volume level was so low that we could hear guests conversations over our performance and the bride indeed came up to us in the break and said ‘please can you turn up?’ We were already on the absolute edge of setting the noise limiter off and so thus there was nothing we could do. Having seen us perform at a friend’s wedding where we were completely in control of our sound level and fully able to perform to our usual high standard, the couple on this occasion were naturally disappointed. That particular venue’s noise limit effectively ruined our performance.
That situation is something we see time and time again because couples are often not properly briefed on how much it could affect the band. As noise limiters / decibel limits are not common knowledge, couples are completely reliant on being given the right / honest information from venues.
Venues are protecting their relationships with their neighbours (and avoiding losing their license) but at the same time realise that most couples getting married want entertainment in the evening in the form of a live band or DJ and so are trying to protect their business also.
Sadly we have experienced far too many venues who state that bands are welcome and that the decibel limit is perfectly loud enough and may even go as far as to say that ‘we never have a problem with bands’ when they know full well that the noise limit is so restrictive, that most bands will not be able to perform to their usual standard when using it.
Another common misconception is the idea that ‘the limit is 90db, but a plane taking off is 120db so you can see that 90db is actually really really loud!’. What's been missed here is that decibels are measured on a logarithmic scale and so perceived loudness, or in other words what we are used to referring to as ‘the volume’ in every day life, doubles with every 10db increase. So 100db is twice as loud as 90db. 110db is four times as loud as 90db. 120db is eight times as loud as 90db and so on…
In addition to this, decibels drop off the further away you get from a music source - i.e. if you place a decibel measuring microphone next to a speaker, it’s going to be a lot louder than placing the microphone at the back of the room. If a noise limiter is right in front of the band, it will be incredibly difficult to work with. If it’s placed on the back wall then it becomes easier to work with.
CAN YOU DO ANYTHING ABOUT IT?
We’re certainly not in the habit of deafening our audiences, there are inexperienced bands out there who aren't used to balancing carefully and can often end up being far too loud for most wedding venues (and everyone's hearing in general!). However, with any live band, you do need a certain amount of volume/level to give the performance energy. We pride ourselves on a very high quality sound but if the band have to 'play down' from their normal level, the energy is lost and the whole show can suffer as a result. Indeed, some noise limits are so restrictive that, in our opinion, the space is rendered rather unsuitable for a live band to perform in at all - despite what the venue may claim.
As previously mentioned, in theory, we are able to work with some noise limiters / restrictions but unfortunately it's not always that simple. There is no 'industry standard' by which noise limiters must be set-up and calibrated - it is left up to the installation company to assess based on their best judgement. Sadly, we have encountered a fair few venues in recent years that have had noise limiters installed by inexperienced engineers and are either of poor quality/construction or have been improperly calibrated. There have been situations where we have run into problems with certain single frequencies (i.e. one particular note sung by the vocalist or a single drum etc) setting the limiter off which can be absolutely impossible to work with.
It’s for all of the above reasons that we have devised the following parameters that will need to be met in order for us to work with a noise limiter:
• For our 6 - 7 piece line-ups, we will not be able to work with any noise limits less than 90 decibels
• For our 9 - 10 piece lineups, we will not be able to work with any noise limits less than 100 decibels
• For our 12 - 14 piece lineups, we will not be able to work with any noise limits less than 110 decibels
All of the above limits assume that the limiter microphone (i.e. where the measurement is actually taken from) is set back at least 6 metres from the front of the stage. It's importatant also to state that with any noise decibel restriction, we cannot guarantee that we will not run into problems on the night even when the above criteria is met but we'll of course always do our best to make things work as best we can.
Please see below for some other things worth considering. You may wish to ask your venue for clarification on these points:
HOW IS THE MEASUREMENT MADE AND WHERE IS THE READING TAKEN FROM?
As mentioned above, if you put a decibel meter next to the speakers, it will take a much higher reading than if situated at the back of the room. In many cases, that can quite simply be the difference for whether a band can work with a noise limit or not.
Live music has a large dynamic range. There are quieter parts of the song and louder parts of the song (when everything get’s going in the chorus). As such, taking a decibel reading as an average over 10-15 minutes is a much easier method to work with as it allows for the band’s natural dynamic range.
In reality though, most venues don’t operate like this. They operate a ‘brick wall’ policy - meaning always responding to the peaks of the music resulting in a much much lower level overall.
Another hugely important point to consider is whether the decibel measurement is being taken using A-weighting or C-weighting.
The correct method for live music / concerts is A-weighting as it follows the response of the human ear. However, some venues have been known to measure using C-weighting which focuses far more attention on bass frequencies and so will exceed the decibel level far sooner than A-weighting.
Some venues don’t use a noise limiter but rather monitor the levels in the room on a regular basis using a handheld tool. They then ask the band to reduce their volume if they feel it is too loud.
Again, due to there being no legal industry standard set of tools and practises for doing this, we have had very mixed experiences with this.
The best being a professional acoustics engineer using a proper dedicated decibel meter, taking multiple readings from different parts of the room and outside the venue - averaging the readings to make a judgment on whether the band are too loud or not.
The worst (and unfortunately most common) being when a member of staff at a venue stand on the dance floor right next to the band using an app on their iPhone to measure the decibel levels and then have a ‘black and white’ attitude to implementing the level rather than taking the reading as an average over time.
It won’t surprise you to hear that the former we can work with, the latter we can not!
A decibel meter has to be properly calibrated in order to provide accurate results. A smartphone has a poor quality inbuilt microphone which cannot be properly calibrated and so should never be used in professional circumstances.
THE ACOUSTICS OF THE ROOM
If a room has a ‘lively’ acoustic (i.e. lots of smooth surfaces, wooden or tiled flooring creating an echoy acoustic in the room) then this does not lend itself well to a live band since in order to hear the definition on all of the different instruments / vocals etc, you actually require much more level to get a good balance.
You basically have a choice between a quieter band and a very mushy / echoy sound (poor quality) or a really loud but clear sound but probably ringing ears by the end of the performance. Obviously if you have a noise limit, the former is the only feasible outcome.
Marquees and rooms with carpet or some acoustic treatment actually fare much better with noise limits as a band can achieve a really good balanced mix with less level.
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY 'IN-HOUSE PA SYSTEM'
There are two scenarios involving us working with PA equipment that isn’t our own.
1) For large events in big hotels / venues, it is often necessary for the band to work with external production companies where we are required to run through the PA system being provided for the event - we are experienced in doing this. We’ll need to be in contact with the production company in advance to confirm our requirements, but usually there isn’t any problem.
2) If a venue has installed their own PA system and it is a strict requirement that the band run through it, this is usually due to all other avenues to prevent noise complaints from local residents (often including installing a noise limiter) have been explored and have failed. Indeed we have found that most venues are on the cusp of losing their entertainment license when they venture into this territory.
The way in which these systems work is that, where the band would normally bring their own PA system and connect all their instruments and microphones through it - controlling their own sound throughout the performance - with their dedicated sound engineer constantly monitoring the levels / mix and working to bring out all the key parts of the show etc, the band instead connect through the venue’s system which can cause significant problems for the performance for the following reasons:
• They are often under-powered or sized for a live band and, in almost all of the examples we have come across, of a significantly inferior quality to what would normally be provided by a professional band.
• Where a noise limiter operates by measuring how loud the band is with all of their own equipment / PA (using a microphone) and if it exceeds the limit, the power is cut out, these systems are designed to ‘compress’ / ‘limit’ the signals before they reach the speakers meaning the band have absolutely no control over the dynamics of their performance. Please see below (under ‘Electronic Compression / Limiting’ for more detail on why this is a problem.
• These systems are often setup and calibrated poorly by inexperienced engineers and as such can be very over-sensitive to certain frequencies which can be a nightmare to work with on-the-fly.
• In the case of ‘Zone Array’ systems - these are clever in that they are able to direct the sound onto the dance floor and so when you walk off, the volume drops off significantly meaning that noise doesn’t pollute outside of the venue. However, as sound is firing directly at the floor, this introduces a significant number of reflections which can make achieving the high level of sound quality we require an impossibility and that’s before the considerable level of compression and limiting present in these systems (as similarly mentioned above) kicks in. They also suck all atmosphere out of the room. Where a good band with a proper sound system creates a full and enveloping sound that pumps out energy to get people dancing, a zone array really does sound thin and lifeless - and often is controlled to such a low overall volume that you can literally hear conversation over the top of it. They work OK for DJs, but in our experience are completely unsuitable for a live band (despite what a venue will inevitably claim).
ELECTRONIC COMPRESSION / LIMITING
With any live band, it is the natural dynamics of all the instruments combined that give the show the energy and wow-factor. We have spent many years developing our performance into what it is now - the way it is mixed, how all of the musical elements are supported/re-inforced by our great sound system to channel all that energy onto the dance floor. That great 'live sound' comes from the dynamic range of the band and that is only possible because there is no overall compression involved - this means there are peaks and troughs in the music (naturally louder in the big moments of the song whilst quieter in the more gentle bits).
With a DJ, the music is compressed (from when it's mastered in the studio) so the dynamic range is vastly reduced. This makes it much easier to control the levels and so often in-house PA systems such as Zone Array systems or an AVC managed point source system work great for discos.
Sadly, they don't work well with live bands. Indeed any sound-system that the band is required to connect through that limits/compresses the levels will completely suck the life out of the band. It will lose it's 'live wow-factor' and that Pandora's Jukebox sound that our clients rave about can be severely hampered.
We do use in-ear monitoring so that we are able to control our stage noise. This means we don't need wedge monitors and our bass player doesn't need a bass amp. But we do require acoustic drums as this is the heart & soul of where the energy comes from in the band. Our guitarist also requires use of his guitar amp because of the specific sounds that it produces.
We do like to try and be as flexible as possible - we've had many an event where we've had to alter our layout to suit funny venue dimensions, squash into tight spots etc! But when it comes to the sound quality and the musical impact of our performance, we just aren't in a position to compromise as our reputation depends on it.
MULTIPLE SPEAKER SETUPS (DOTTED AROUND THE ROOM)
Many venues opt to install lots of small speakers dotted about the venue and have the system set up like that solely to control noise levels rather than for any kind of audio fidelity / quality improvement over a traditional setup using normal sized speakers either side of the stage / performance area which is far more suitable for a live band and dance floor.
No proper concert or live music venue use small speakers in this formation - they will always use a proper sized sound system with speakers either side of the stage to suit the area that it needs to cover (i.e. the dance floor). Indeed if you visit any of the top end nightclubs - they also use big PA dance stacked speakers which have very powerful bass and create a huge level of energy on the dance floor. None of them use small speakers; well, they may also use smaller speakers around the rest of the venue where there doesn’t need to be the same concentration of energy (e.g. in the bar area, entrance area etc) but these will be in addition to a proper dance floor PA system - none of those proper clubs use small speakers solely.
If you think about when you’re in a shopping centre - wherever you walk you can always hear the piped music. It’s usually really clear but at a non-disruptive volume i.e. you don’t have to shout over the music. That’s because the sound is evenly distributed throughout the whole place. So, great clear sound everywhere - but can you imagine dancing to it? A system like that doesn’t produce the energy needed to create the atmosphere for party dancing / disco etc.
Now if you imagine a stage with a band, it is usually only required to cover a much smaller area e.g. the dance floor - you would normally have a pair of larger PA speakers either side of the stage which provide the necessary power and volume to create a good party atmosphere on the dance floor. (Like I said before, not deafeningly loud, but if you can hear a normal conversation over it, it’s not loud enough).
The further you walk away, the quieter and less clear the sound will become. So if you used a system like this in a shopping mall, it would be loud for anyone walking right next to the speakers, but barely audible right over the other side of the shopping centre!
The other problem is that more speakers facing different directions drastically increases the chance of feedback from the microphones on stage. There are also some other more complex potential problems with phasing that can have a damaging effect on the audio quality.
So, in a nutshell, small evenly distributed speaker systems are not suitable for live bands covering a dance floor area.
DJs will get away with it - as it will still be louder than the average home hi-fi and compressed recorded music will sound OK coming from all different parts of the room. But pretty much every band will run into trouble with it.
We appreciate that some venues have had the misfortune of being situated near to difficult neighbours and therefore have been forced to put in place noise restrictions. We do empathise with them as it can be really unfair circumstances that lead them to end up in this situation. However, we are finding increasingly that venues that have been forced to put in place some of the more extreme noise restrictions are still advertising their venues as being suitable for live bands when, for all intents and purposes, they are really not at all.
Granted, there will be some couples who aren’t too fussed about the music element of their wedding day and might not want a particularly ‘party’ atmosphere and so won’t mind a small band or DJ being really quiet.
However, for couples who are booking a professional live band solely to put on a memorable show and create a proper party atmosphere, if the venue have not been honest/transparent about how restrictive their policies are in genuinely real terms, it will at best cause disappointment on the night and at worst completely ruin the evening altogether.
We’ve found in almost all cases where venues insist on the use of their in-house PA systems that they advertise them as ‘State of the art’, ‘The best equipment in the world’ etc etc and in almost all cases we’ve found that to be a bit of a fib!
Primarily we have found this to be due to the systems that are installed being under specced / too small for the room and so even if they are using high quality components, the result will still be poor sound quality.
We’ve found many venues are using ‘Funktion One’ and citing them as some of the best pro-sound manufactures on the planet. Funktion One have been around for a long time and at one point were the absolute top choice for high end night-clubs who play predominantly dance / house music - for many they still are. If you visit a nightclub with one of their sound systems in though, you will find they are usually floor to ceiling stacked monster systems, over-specced so that they are never driven too hard. The logic behind this is that if you put two speakers in a room and play them at half their maximum volume, it will sound much better than putting one speaker in a room and playing it at its maximum volume. A bit like a car with a 2L engine handling 70mph much more comfortably than a car with a 1L engine!
In recent years, it seems Funktion One have become more synonymous with wedding venues installing them for their in-house systems! It seems that they have tapped into this market somewhat. The installations tend to consist of lots of really small speakers dotted around the room with a couple of compact bass speakers (subs) at the back. And the whole system is normally accompanied with a Formula Sound AVC2 ‘Automatic Volume Control’ which is marketing speak for a ‘compressor/limiter’ as explained further up.
You will never find this sort of system in a proper nightclub so it’s a bit disingenuous for a venue to use the Funktion One name to market / compare their in-house PA system.
Additionally, it’s important to say that Funktion One are not known for live music. No reputable festival stage, concert hall, live music venue that we know of uses a Funktion One system. They all use industry standard manufacturers suchas D&B, L’Acoustics, Nexo, Meyer Sound, EAW, EV, JBL etc.
One thing to remember; it is highly unlikely the venue has installed their PA system in specifically to give the client the best sound system available in the world to use. After all they are not cheap, not particularly attractive and they take up space. And every live band and DJ under the sun carries their own suitable PA system and so it makes much more sense from a business perspective to have the band and DJ bring their own.
These systems are there because the venue wants you to book your wedding with them - and this way they can legitimately (admittedly often only ‘technically’) say that bands can perform in the venue.
If you are serious live music lovers - you may wish to consider choosing an alternative venue that does not have this strict requirement.