DDJT Platinum Group member Joe Simpson writes: “The venue manager texted me right before a gig to mention their location has a limiter and he’s not sure what it’s set to. After pressing him for more details, he thinks it is set to 85dB, so no tunes tonight that make guests clap, stamp, or sing!”
“To avoid this situation in the future, a few questions came to mind: Do people refuse to play if the limit is below a certain dB level? How can I make venues admit they have them?”
Digital DJ Tips Says:
Normally, “limiter” refers to a processor in the sound system effects chain that controls volume based on a set maximum level – hence, the “limit” in limiter. If a sound goes past the set maximum (known as a “threshold”), the limiter kicks in and clamps down on the level of that sound. It’s there to protect the gear from redlining DJs.
However, the limiter you are referring to here is a special kind of limiter installed by the venue that has a microphone which measures loudness (in decibels, referred to as dB), controlling sound levels based on a previously set maximum level and length of time. This type is to protect the ears of the crowd or the sleep of the neighbours, and usually installed at the request of the local health and safety agency.
For example, if the music and crowd noise exceed 85dB for ten seconds, the limiter circuitry kicks in and cuts the electrical supply to the performers equipment. It can take anywhere from a few seconds to upwards of a minute for it to go back to working order. If this happens multiple times within a short period, the down time can take even longer… excruciating at a gig!
The limiter generally displays warning “traffic light” style visuals, placed somewhere the performer can monitor. They’re easy enough to understand: green means good job being quiet! Red means a ticket to silent town. Somewhere in the middle is perfect, too.
On average, venues set limiters between 80 and 100dB, so how does this limitation measure up for a DJ event? To put in perspective, 85dB equals the sound of applause or loud traffic. 100 is for blenders and motorcycles. Ever hear a crying baby? Yeah, that’s close to 110. Unless you’re a classical harp player (a DJ/harpist duo would be pretty cool), you’ll have difficulty staying within those confinements. If the crowd claps, stamps, and sings while you play a peak time track, that limiter will shut down the fun.
Why do venues like them?
Although it might seem otherwise, venues don’t incorporate limiters to irritate all involved. They’re probably not big fans of them either, yet forced to comply with local noise ordinances. They have an environmental responsibility to maintain or else face revoked licences and penalties. Another matter for concern is health and hearing. While they don’t have a legal obligation to protect people there for fun, owners are required to protect their staff and contractors. Lastly, limiters offer the venue some automated control over the performance noise level.
I ran sound during a Persian New Year event where the DJ refused to turn down on his end, his mixer level meters glaring at me in red. To protect our equipment, I had to lower the volume until the sound barely output through the PAs, making the noise primarily come from his personal monitor. Despite my reluctance toward limiters, it would have helped in that situation.
Limiter settings can vary venue to venue, often set to unreasonable amounts, and there’s no guarantee it is installed, maintained and operated correctly by a qualified Sound Engineer. DJ equipment requires an uninterrupted power supply and sudden powering on/off can damage your gear. The event atmosphere is ruined by unpredictability and sound interruptions while the crowd blames the DJ. Definitely all causes for concern, so what can be done?
Things DJs can do:
- Include a minimum dB level in your terms and conditions, refusing to play anywhere below. 95dB is workable, but anything over 100 should be fine
- Ask the client directly. Don’t expect a straight answer as they want to avoid losing performers for their venue. That’s why you…
- Go to the venue ahead of time while another DJ plays. Monitor the sound level on a somewhat accurate smartphone app and see if the sound cuts at any point in time. Ask other members of staff for their opinion. Honest bartenders and security guards will do the trick
- Play at venues with adequate soundproofing, meaning less noise will reach the outside and hopefully result in less restrictions
- Keep booth monitor levels down or avoid having one altogether, mixing exclusively in headphones. Unfortunately this adds to the noise. Stay off the mic, also…
- Constantly worrying about a limiter instead of your audience will negatively affect your performance. If possible, communicate your concern with the owners, and try to convince them to set it higher
Ever had noise level issues at any of your gigs? Have you DJed a party or rave that was just too noisy that the cops arrived to shut it down? Share with us in the comments!