An increasing number of sound technicians are raising concerns that the rules around noise levels are unclear, leaving them, their staff and audiences at risk. David Walker says this has to change, and soon
How loud is too loud? It is a question that has dogged venues across the UK for decades. But when technical managers ask for specifics in a council-owned venue, the silence is deafening.
Technical managers do not want to talk about it, at least not publicly, because of the fear of recrimination from their council employers. Yet, the cap on decibels in a venue is currently a grey area and is becoming an increasing problem. The mumblings have risen to a roar, and one manager talked me through it, though on the condition of anonymity.
He is the technical manager of a venue in the south of England that has different companies and bands coming in regularly, with different requirements for their shows. As part of his ongoing risk assessment duties, he recently decided to undertake an in-depth analysis of the operation’s fire detection and fire prevention procedures.
The premises’ licence, issued by the local council, is more than 10 years old, so when he approached it for new guidelines, he found no department or person would take responsibility to provide clarity over the current rules and regulations. Instead, the council asked the venue to take charge and come up with a set of guidelines it would then agree to.
Bemused, the technical manager investigated to try to ensure he was still compliant in all areas under his remit, which, among others, included noise regulations and this is where the issues mounted up. It turned out his current licence allows anyone using the venue to run an average of 104 decibels through a performance, about as loud as a jet taking off – with a peak of 140 decibels – about 10 decibels louder than had been the average at his venue.
Going that much higher than the average in his establishment is potentially damaging, but it’s hard to police. On more than one occasion when asking a visiting console operator to turn down the volume during a show, he has been dismissed, with the respondent saying they were “within limits”.
So who is right? A number of respected audio engineers he has spoken to all say they have experienced issues with this, and the grey area they are stuck in helps no one.
There are no definitive health and safety rules in relation to sound levels experienced by an audience member. No one knows the regulations and this can cause problems. During a children’s show an audience member recorded sound levels of 100 decibels on their iPhone, and criticised the venue, wrongly, on social media for breaking the upper limits. The spread of disinformation caused damage to the venue.
Separately, a venue should look after staff members under the heading “duty of care”. Given that we have a rising compensation culture, if an audience member complains to management that a performance has damaged their hearing, what happens next? How is a venue able to defend itself? The biggest question here is, does a venue need to adhere to a regulation or recommendation to protect itself?
It would certainly seem that for council-run establishments across southern England at least, technical managers are facing an uphill struggle to get definitive answers from those who are meant to issue the rules.
Most say that despite having a good relationship with their local authority, the council is clueless when it comes to providing them with the correct information needed within their venues. Is it because no one wants to take responsibility or that they don’t know?
Ben Bennett from Pro Live experienced that when setting up for an event at London’s Royal Horticultural Halls. This venue is within a built-up neighbourhood, so due diligence meant a local council enforcement officer was stationed at the event.
The officer’s remit was “to ensure a level of not more than 85 decibels was kept”. However, through the lack of understanding on how to monitor average sound levels, he treated the unamplified peak level of 87 decibels much the same as a speed limit. Therefore, forbidding the acoustic set up to be further amplified, despite a lower average and protests for common sense to prevail.
If one venue holds 150 people and another holds 1,200, where do you draw the line? The obvious answer is a good sound engineer will adjust the level accordingly depending on the performance. But given there are currently no clear definitions when it comes to working out the maximum sound level in a venue, there could be serious implications to staff and audiences alike.
A heavy metal rock concert for example could be held in a smaller establishment and considerably damage the hearing of everyone in the building. It also raises the question: how did the council draw the conclusion of providing specific decibel levels to be included in this technical manager’s licence?
Most technical managers will ensure their crew, as well as other key personnel, such as ushers and bar staff, will have suitable protection in place to look after everyone under a standard duty of care.
The ongoing case of musician Chris Goldscheider, at London’s Royal Opera House, only serves to highlight the issues when it comes to hearing damage. Here, Mr Goldscheider sued his employer, the opera house, after he was forced to give up his musical career following an incident during rehearsals in 2012.
For the technical manager who spoke to me, in the case of his fire regulations, the onus seems to land solely on his own discretion, as everything is down to risk assessment. Providing that he has an adequate fire detection system in place, and has assessed the risk of his own prevention measures, then the council seems happy with that. However, he would like to see greater transparency from councils on that, and other issues such as sound levels, and believes the licensing officer at his borough council may simply not have sufficient knowledge on the subject. This sentiment is echoed by other technical managers.
Given that in this case the licence hadn’t been updated for such a long time, it poses questions. How many other venues are in the same boat? And are their current rules fit for purpose?
For those seeking some bedtime reading, the Health and Safety Executive has published a 144-page online booklet, first published in 2008, called Sound Advice: control of noise at work in music and entertainment.
However, this only provides practical guidance relating to controlling sound levels across the entertainment industry. It doesn’t go far enough to work out how to obtain maximum decibel levels from venue to venue.
As a footnote to add, the HSE gives guidelines when it comes to running an “event”, stating you can run at an average of 107 decibels with a peak of 140 decibels, which, of course, is close to the guidelines in our technical manager’s performance licence. But this poses yet another question: how do you define the word ‘event’? Is it a theatre performance, concert or outdoor festival?
Maybe the councils should look at those. Given that it’s a decade since the guidelines were first published, perhaps it’s time the whole thing was looked at again.