Whether you’re at a friend’s party, a concert seeing your favorite band or an event downtown, there is always one main thing in common…a speaker system. The quality of what you are hearing plays a very important factor in whether you enjoy yourself or say “ never again” if you’re having to cover your ears or strain to hear. Considering your venue, amounts of people attending and amount of speakers being used are some good things to keep in mind when making this choice.
What dB level should you set your live speakers too? dB stands for Decibel, which is the intensity of a sound or the level of loudness at which you hear a sound. The wrong level will create the wrong ambiance, as music and sound controls the mood of a crowd. To keep from damaging your hearing you should have it set to no louder than 70-75dB. But, keeping it at a safe level and keeping it at a level at which your audience can hear is a tricky thing sometimes. You’ll want to consider your venue, your equipment, and your event.
To better inform you of the do’s and don’ts on that sweet new speaker you got, or the new sound system you got for your booming karaoke business, I am sharing some helpful tips for your decibel level settings. From types of events and what it should be to what your everyday things level is, use my guide as a handy tool to navigate through this electronic world of sound.
Everyday Sounds and Their dB Level
The average adult human can hear a frequency of 2hz all the way to 20000hz. We hear all sorts of sounds every day, and every sound has a different decibel level. Although anything above 70-75Db can and will cause damage, it usually doesn’t happen right away. Here are a few familiar sounds we hear every day so you can get a feel of what different decibels sound like:
- Silence– Obviously, no sound means its a 0-decibel level.
- Bulldozing Idling- A bulldozer idling or any heavy equipment like this would be harmful after about a week of exposure. The decibel level for this type of sound is a whopping 85dB.
- Headphones- Turned to maximum sound like most of us do, headphones can cause permanent hearing damage after use of 15 minutes per day for one week. This decibel level is a high one of 100dB. With most headphones going all the way up to 110, that is 100x as loud as 85db.
- Thunderclap/ Gunshot- Dogs and children will tell you, thunder is LOUD! At an extremely high level of 140 this can cause serious damage over time. The gunshot is even louder than this and can cause instant damage with its decibel level being 140-190 depending on the type of gun used.
- Home/office- The typical home or office being a fairly quiet little place with not much going on is usually a boring decibel of 40-60…perfectly safe. That’s homes without children I’m guessing.
These different Db levels can give you a sense of what different decibel levels actually mean. The numbers can seem a bit abstract, but you know what a bulldozer or a thunderclap sounds like. Use this context to set your speakers accordingly.
How Does Sound Work in Different Spaces?
Most sounds decibel levels are measured from their source. This gives you the most accurate reading of how loud the sound is. However, you’ve never listened to a bulldozer by placing your ear against the engine. The bulldozer sounds a lot louder when you’re next to it compared to when you’re across the street.
Without going into a full physics lesson on sound, let’s review the basics. Sound travels in waves, these waves spread and become less intense as they move outward. Sound waves bounce off of objects they encounter. So, something like a speaker system will be much louder indoors where the waves can bounce off the walls, the ceiling, and the floor.
You’ll want to take your space into account as you set your Db level.
Where Should You Start?
When considering what level to set your speakers to, the first thing you should do is consider your venue at where your speakers will be heard. If you are hosting an indoor event with a few guests to hear your speakers, the level should be set to a pretty low level, so the sound isn’t overwhelming. However, if you are having an event at an outdoor venue with more people, a higher Db level is a better choice.
Some things you’ll want to take into account as you set your Db level.
- Venue—indoor or outdoor and how big
- Equipment—active or passive speakers
- Event—what do you need the audio to do?
Indoor vs. Outdoor
The placement of your venue is going to have a huge impact on how loud you need to crank it. Indoor venues can be finicky with sounds bouncing every which way; it’s easy to overdo it. Outdoors you’re a little safer cranking it up, but you’ll still want to be careful of a few things. Understanding the strengths and limitations of your venue will help you get it just right.
Indoor sound systems are trickier to get right than outdoor. If you turn it up too loud in an indoor space, you’ll get distortion, feedback, and standing waves. These are all essentially caused by the sounds bouncing off the walls and hitting the microphone again or interacting with other sound waves.
The smaller your venue, the more you want to go easy on the base. Lower frequency waves travel further than higher frequency waves, meaning that if the base is turned up too high in an indoor space, it can dominate everything else.
Although knowing that 75 dB can cause damage is a useful metric to be aware of, it can honestly be easier to just listen. Try playing something at the same volume your event will be at. Make sure that the noise level is comfortable at the closest point; anyone will be to the speakers, then get as far away as possible and make sure that you can still hear.
If you can’t make the volume acceptable at the closest and the farthest points, you may need to adjust your speaker placement.
When you’re outdoors, you’re going to have fewer issues with sound waves bouncing around and causing issues with your sound. The issue you might run into is your sound waves dissipating and volume levels falling off.
You’re going to want to crank things up a notch outside. Depending on your equipment and what type of event you’re running, you may want to just crank everything up as loud as you can get it to make sure that everyone at your event can hear what’s going on. That being said, if you have to max out your equipment to redline, you may need to upgrade your equipment.
Also, when you’re outside, the sound is much more likely to carry and reach ears other than those intended. You need to be sensitive to any neighbors within earshot and be aware of any noise regulations. It’s pretty easy to find a smartphone app decibel reader. Know the legal limits and test at the edge of the property. If you’re exceeding legal limits at the edge of your space, you need to turn it down.
You can use the same trick we discussed for indoor. Check the sound at both closest anyone will be, and the farthest anyone will be from the speakers. Make sure the sound is comfortable at both extremes.
dB Level Indoors vs Outdoors
In my opinion, a small event would be better set at anywhere from 70-85 dB, as an outdoor event with more space between people and speakers should be up to 110 or 120, so that it can reach your audience in all areas. These are just some rules of thumb, however. To get an accurate idea of what sound level is right for your venue, you’ll need to set it up and check.
Active vs. Passive Speakers
Knowing your venue is important, but knowing your speaker system can be just as important. One of the major things that can affect how to set the dB is whether your speakers are active or passive.
Active speakers have an amplifier built right into the cabinet. A passive speaker draws power its power from a separate amplifier plugged into the cabinet through speaker wire.
If you have a choice of speakers, you’ll want to consider what power options you have at the venue and what other pieces of equipment you have access to or are already using.
Active speakers are generally more versatile than passive speakers. Because they don’t need to be plugged into a separate amplifier, they are more space-efficient. There’s less to set up and connect correctly, so the setup is a little more foolproof as well. If your venue is a bit tight on space, or you’re trying to tuck your speakers out of sight, active speakers can be really helpful.
There’s also just generally fewer settings and connections to fiddle with as you don’t need to mess with multiple pieces of equipment to get the volume you’re looking for.
Active speakers allow for wireless applications. Looking to run your stereo through Bluetooth? Active is going to be what you’re looking for. Active is generally more popular among professionals, while passive is used more commonly by regular consumers for things like home theater systems.
Passive speakers require a little more technicality to set up and operate as well as an additional equipment piece. Their main advantage comes from the fact that they can be placed much farther away from outlets. Speaker wire generally comes in 100-foot spools. This allows you to place the speaker a large distance away from the amplifier and the outlet.
If the source of your sound also needs to be plugged in, then you’ll end up with twice as many cables, so passive speakers really work best when something can be connected close to the speakers, like a cell phone.
Passive speakers are easier to upgrade than active. You can get a better quality amplifier and keep the same speakers or vice versa. This allows you to make incremental improvements to your sound. With an active system, it is often difficult or impossible to replace the amplifier or other components.
Be Careful With Gain
One of the most common mistakes amateurs make to crank up the volume to its absolute limits is to turn the gain way up. Many people believe that gain and decibel level are effectively the same thing. While, it’s true that increasing both gain and Db level will increase the noise level, gain is not so much volume as it is sensitivity.
Gain affects how easily the input picks up sound. A high gain will make the output louder, but it will also create a greater difference between the loudest sounds and the quietest. Increasing the gain too far creates distortion and can be really grating.
Boosting the gain will give you greater range and greater volume, but the overall quality of your audio will be significantly reduced. Unless you’re a high school garage band (and maybe even then), be sensitive with the gain knob.
What Type of Event Are You Running?
The dB level you choose for speakers is going to be determined by no factor more than what you are trying to do with your audio. If you’re hosting a rock concert, then you want everything turned up to the highest comfortable level. If you just need some light background music for some atmosphere, then you’ll want things a lot quieter.
Keep the purpose of the audio in mind as you adjust the settings and test the system. Focusing on the function of the sound will help you make other decisions as well. For your rock concert, you’ll want your speakers centered around the stage, blasting out. For a dinner party, spreading out smaller speakers can give a more even sound across the event.
If you’re going to have someone speaking over the top of the music, you’ll want to get into the EQ settings and drop the mids on the music. This will create a lot less interference between the two and allow the speaker (and the music) to be heard clearly.
The last major thing to consider, which can be easily overlooked is where to place a microphone in relation to your speakers. The general rule here is that you never want to place your microphone in front of your speakers. The louder you’ve got the speakers set, the more crucial this is.
Placing the microphone in front of the speakers will cause any sound that comes through the speakers to hit the microphone and then blast out amplified through the speakers. This creates a feedback loop. If the sound is too loud and the feedback loop gets intense enough, it can damage your equipment and the eardrums of anybody standing too close.
Simply placing the microphone behind your speaker setup will allow you to get as loud as you need to without risking any nasty feedback loops.
Subwoofer dB Level
To ensure you don’t get a horrible echoey booming sound, setting your subwoofer to the correct dB level is also very important. To properly do that, follow the steps below.
- Set the crossover- Crossover is the frequency at which your subwoofer starts to play the bass notes. By looking in your speakers’ specs, you can find the setting option for it. This helps to make sure your speakers and subwoofer aren’t playing the same notes at the same time.
- Adjust the gain/ volume- A very easy part to get wrong is adjusting the volume. The best way to do this the correct way is to completely turn the subwoofer down until you can no longer hear it and then turn it up just until you begin to hear the bass.
- The Phase Switch- If you have one, it will be anywhere from 0-180, and you can pretty much set it wherever. Just whatever sounds best to you leave it there.
That’s all there is to that. Seems really easy but it is very important to set it to the right level just as much as it is the speaker itself.
What to set the dB level on your speaker system is going to be quite subjective. You need to take into account where your venue is located, what type of equipment you’re using, and what you actually need the audio to do. Once you know what you’re working with, you can confidently set your dB level. Your speaker system will be working just as advertised and your event will go off without a hitch.
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