Matthew Suárez 12:30 p.m., Oct. 20
Sound Guys Sound Off, Concerts Make You Deaf, and Car Horn Fans
Soundboard Blues, Vicious Volume, & Horn If You’re Honky: Car Horns and the Honkies Who Love Them!
Soundboard Blues, Vicious Volume, & Horn If You’re Honky: Car Horns and the Honkies Who Love Them!
SOUND GUYS SOUND OFF – Jay Allen Sanford & Christie Maconnell
Self-described “sixties survivor” Billy “Jimbo” James has spent a great deal of time studying the effects of music on human hearing and perception. Currently a mechanic at a North Park auto shop, he traces his audio research back to his days as a concert engineer for the Grateful Dead in the late sixties and early seventies, helping sonic pioneers like Augustus Owsley Stanley III in designing the Dead’s wraparound psychedelic sound system.
“Yeah,” says Jimbo, “Owsley, the one who made all the acid. He was living in Watts, around ‘66 or ‘67, and the Dead came down from San Francisco to stay with him. He’d collected all this electronic equipment and he’d hook things up together in these strange configurations. He’d have, like, sonar screens and all this stuff, and the goal was to create this holophonic wall of sound. The engineer would be able to sculpt the sound and send it in any direction he wanted.”
He reports that Owsley was often addled but nearly always “Brilliantly imaginative. He talked about using microwaves to beam the rhythms directly into people’s brains or something. He studied how the percussion might affect the audience’s blood vessels. Maybe, he figured, you could connect to the vascular rhythm of the heart and affect the pulse with musical notes. Like, the music of the spheres.”
Jimbo’s own job description was grounded more in technology than alchemy. “[Owsley] hired me out of a club I was working on Sunset. What I did was create these relay pots. This was back before computers. I’d tune in a pre-set sequence that would let me pull out a specific instrument or one mike and send that sound from speaker to speaker in a loop, just by turning a knob. I could alter the volume of the signal at the same time with another knob. Some were set for vocals, some for Jerry’s guitar, and some would be set for the drums.”
“I mean, nowadays that’s not hard to do,” Jimbo says, “but back then it was like magic. To be able to build a solid sonic atmosphere like that in an outdoor setting, it was like space age technology, when most bands were working with stone age equipment."
"When Bear [the Dead’s longtime engineer] took over the sound, things got more technical and less, I don’t know, metaphysical.”
Jimbo has a decidedly new age theory, inspired by Owsley, about how sound systems should be designed for musical events. “For a perfect sonic environment, you have to consider low frequency noise that comes from sources other than the amplifiers. Ambient background noise, for instance. At an outdoor show, that can include traffic sounds from cars and planes, birds and insects, industrial noise and things like that. You have to incorporate this into the sound rather than simply drown it out. Indoors, you have to work in the low frequency hums that are caused by plumbing, electrical systems, machines, air conditioning and concrete vibrations.”
“The upper limit of human hearing is around 20kHz. Anything higher than that is considered ultrasound. But just because you can’t technically hear ultrasound, doesn’t mean that it can’t affect you somehow. It’s in the background all the time, affecting our moods and the way we hear audible sounds. When the wind goes through plants and between buildings, it’s creating ultrasound. When you’re doing sound at an outdoor concert, you have to factor that in ‘cause it’s part of the sound fabric.”
“You also have to consider infrasound, which is at the other end of the sound spectrum. That occurs at low frequencies. Our subconscious is aware of a much wider spectrum of sound than what we literally hear. Match amplified sound with infrasound and ultrasound and something intense happens, something mind altering. The problem comes when the audience provides their catalyst. I mean internally,” he says, later (over)explaining that he means psychedelic drugs.
“The Russians did experiments like that where they used LSD and music to control people’s minds. I never dropped acid when I was working. A little pot, sure, but I hate tripping and being around trippers.”
“There were times I’d be running the board and the audience would just p-ss me off, they’d be so stoned. They wouldn’t catch the rhythm. We’d take the sound up to a certain point and just bludgeon them with it. Sometimes, we’d use the soundboard like a weapon. We’d bring them close to peaking, to c---ing, then back off and then bring it back up to fever pitch. Girls would drop their clothes and everyone would sway like they were having group f-ing sex. By running the sound, we were really running the scene.”
Jeff Kelley – who has drummed for Price Of Dope - is known for the local firm he started years ago, Audio Design, an equipment rental center. He began operating sound systems for bands years ago, while still a teenager in the midwest. “I’m a musician so I was always interested in sound, in getting loud...everybody else was out partying, I was at home soldering mike cables.”
Moving to California, he met up with partner Jeff “J.J.” Jacobson and began investing in equipment. “Just a bunch of junk that hardly even worked, just garbage... I had the equipment, he had the work, we got together and started doing shows while we were working for a small rental company here in town.”
Eventually, they both quit their day jobs and opened their own store, running sound in the evenings at places like downtown’s Worldbeat Center. They weren’t making a lot of money with most clubs only paying from $50.00 to $100.00 a night to rent a tech and a sound system. “I remember when I got my first real mixer, a Yamaha MC3204. I spent like five thousand dollars on it and saved all my money up...it made the company look a lot better when we were out doing the shows because it sounded better than everyone else.”
The business grew after the addition of a well-monied third partner, Larry Ashburn. “He had done installs in Buffalo Joe’s, he had a five year contract with the Casbah, installed the system down there. He installed the system in the G Lounge. He came to us with interest in getting into the same sort of business that we were doing...then we had money so we could go out and get more equipment to get some of the bigger shows. For big shows, you need a twenty-four to thirty-six cabinet sound system, and all the power amps and everything, with each cabinet costing three to four thousand dollars.”
Kelley feels that Audio Design grew “just as big if not bigger than [our competitors]. They just have better and more accounts. We have to resort to doing more of what we use the term of sh-t work. To get the money to get those accounts...we [did] a lot of stuff for Bill Silva, Universal...symphony shows at the Sports Arena...rentals for 4th & B, bringing in drum kits, keyboards, guitar amps, stuff like that.”
Different events call for different setups. “If it’s a punk show, you know what I mean, you don’t bring nice stuff...you have people hit the mics and break the mics. We’ve had a couple of things stolen at shows....people always break mic stands constantly.”
Kelley says other common hazards include “bad electricity, speakers blowing up and buzzes from other people plugging into your electricity.”
Rock concerts are amplified very differently from, say, jazz shows. For rock, Kelley provides a “loud hurt-your-ears kind of sound system. It uses a big two inch horn that has a magnet on the back of it that weighs about forty pounds. It’s huge. It’s geared toward volume.”
He says that people don’t realize how bulky and heavy the equipment is, never consider that somebody has to haul it all in, set it up and tear it down, often several times a week. Large cabinets such as “stadium boxes” can be four feet tall, two feet wide and weigh two hundred and sixty pounds apiece.
Besides its storefront on Ronson Road in Kearny Mesa, Audio Design also once expanded into a second store on El Cajon Boulevard. “We just opened that location right next to pretty much our competitor [Music Power] that we used to work for. I worked there a couple of years, J.J. worked there a few years...[when we moved next door] they gave us a lot of grief, got in our face and told us ‘f--k you’ and all kinds of crazy stuff.”
Eric Denton, owner of Music Power back then (as well as the old Guitar Trader) differs. “I never said ‘f--k you’ to them. It’s kind of funny. J.J. was, uh, he’s starting to concern me a little bit. He’s definitely feeling very guilty about what he’s doing. It’s obvious...I took really good care of them. I mean both those guys [Jacobson and Kelley], took them out to dinner...I used to let them, for no charge, take the gear out of Music Power and they’d run off and do their shows and I didn’t charge them a penny.”
Denton says he’s disappointed in the way things went. “It’s extremely uncool to go in there and start your own business and steal someone else’s customers...obviously, he gone on to try to emulate everything I’ve ever done. When he moved in there, I thought ‘okay great’...he just wants to go in there and apparently tap off what I’ve done.”
Denton acknowledges that conflicts occasionally arose. “I don’t know if you know about ‘Pawn Detail’...whenever we buy anything used we have to hold onto it for thirty days. Take fingerprints, all that.”
In search of stolen property, the Pawn Detail, a division of the police department, does spot checks at stores in order to inspect equipment, serial number records and receipts. In the SDSU area, there are several pawn shops and music stores which bought and sold used equipment, all within a few miles of each other.
“They [the inspectors] went into Guitar Center, they went into our store, then they went into J.J.’s place [Audio Design]. About an hour later, I get this phone call, just irate, from J.J. ‘G-d--it, what are you doing, you’re pulling all this sh-t, you’re sending the cops my way, what are you doing that for?’ And I’m just, like, ‘Whoa, no J.J., you know better than that, they’re making the rounds.’ ‘No, they came out of your place, you sent them over here.’ ”
Pete Pisaturo, who ran sound for Audio Design several nights a week, said that “Between Jeff and J.J. and Eric [Denton], I think there is some ill will there...when Jeff and J.J. started their own company, they took a lot away from them [Music Power] in like their live sound.”
Pisaturo says he had no problem with anyone at Music Power himself, and that he even worked there briefly. “For a few days. It was like a menial amount an hour kind of job. Then when they found out I was working nights for Audio Design, they canned me. I asked them, ‘Is this because I’m working for Audio Design or is it just because I’m not cutting it here?’ and they were like ‘It’s a little of both.’ ”
Asked about Pisaturo’s brief employment at Music Power, Denton says “Around that time there was a lot of espionage going on, stealing of customers. We had hired [Pisaturo] before J.J. started his own rental place. And then one of my guys said ‘You know he works for J.J.’ And I said ‘Well then, this isn’t cool.’ So I won’t contest that.”
One thing many folks who work in sound seem to have in common is concern about damage to their ears. According to the watchdog organization which keeps track of occupational safety, OSHA, anyone exposed to 90 dB sound levels for as little as a half hour could experience permanent hearing loss.
Tinnitus is the auditory ailment most likely to affect people who are exposed to loud noises or percussive explosions. It’s usually evidenced by a whining buzz or vibration in the ear, sometimes evolving into a sound like bells or even (in cases sometimes linked by psychiatrists to dementia) voices.
Physicians suggest that rock musicians, like volume-inclined guitarist Pete Townshend (whose tinnitus was much publicized), suffer hearing problems which are usually the result of localized damage to the cochlea.
Jeff Kelley says that he’s definitely experienced some problems. “I’ve got to turn up the TV a lot more. I try to wear earplugs as much as I can but the volumes we’re around...you’re talking 140 dB, 130 dB every night, you put an earplug in and it’s a 20 dB decrease, it’s still not enough.”
Does he worry about losing his own hearing? He pauses several seconds. “Somewhat. But everybody gets old.”
For those undaunted by the prospect of permanent hearing loss, there are plenty of schools which offer courses geared toward long and noisy careers in sound technology. A good list of recommended colleges, internships and apprenticeships is available from the Audio Engineering Society, a group which publishes its own trade journal and “encourages and disseminates new developments through annual technical meetings and exhibitions of professional equipment.”
Roy Pritts is the chairman of the group’s Education Committee, and he’s often asked about how someone gets started in the sound biz. “Interviews with people who occupy the position you want to work toward are good for starters. Once you know the scope of the program requirements for the job, you begin gathering information from education providers to see how close you can get to a fit. Your need may be for a specialized course on a specific topic, or it may be a series of courses that will prepare you for a career change.”
A sound engineer’s training has to include detailed knowledge about the basics - tables showing amperes per 1000 installed watts and required AC service in order to avoid blowing out electrical circuits and electrocuting performers, for instance. Schools which offer advanced courses in sound engineering also have to constantly upgrade facilities, due to advancing technology.
Every few months, there are new programs and mutant “hot-wired” programs and system gadgets that even Owsley would have difficulty keeping up with. “No one can know everything,” says Pritts, “and it would be a useless effort to spend your life trying to know everything. The dynamics of change in our industry would find the rate of change faster than the rate of learning.”
Locally, media classes in audio theory and engineering can be found at San Diego City College. The single semester course includes access to radio station facilities, as well as film, television and multimedia production facilities. At L.A.’s University Of Southern California, a four year course in Music Recording will earn you a B.S. which includes emphasis in music performance technology and theory.
Serious students of sound flock to Boston’s famed Berklee College Of Music, which has an eight semester B.M. program that includes production techniques and fundamental training in acoustics, audio and midi. The school is considered top of the line for sound techs, offering hands-on production experience and access to synthesizers, sound design equipment and multimedia production facilities.
Privately run non-accredited training courses are also available, such as Music And Sound For Multimedia, a nine month program at San Antonio’s Audio Engineering Institute. Their facilities include a computer based MIDI and digital audio editing and sequencing station. The multimedia lab offers training in synths, samplers and SMPTE synchronization equipment.
Students who go through the whole course come away knowing (and understanding) arcane sounding equations such as “0 dBV equals 0.775 volts,” “0 dB SPL (the threshold of hearing) is 20 micropascals of air pressure” and “a change of 10dB equals a perceived doubling in loudness.”
But the best training, according to everyone I ask, seems to be going out and getting the experience, no matter when and where. “I mean we do this every day and night,” says Pisaturo. “We do everything, all the Adams Avenue festivals and the PB Block Party...anything and everything.”
The downside to the constant hustling, he says, is that “It sucks your life away from you. I work day and night, seven days a week. Multiple setups.”
Why is there a constant need to set up again? Why not leave a stationary sound system installed? “Stuff gets ruined, especially stuff sitting in clubs. People spill drinks all on the speakers, stepping on this and spilling on the back of the processing rack. Stuff just gets ruined.”
There are other aspects of his job Pisaturo dislikes. “A lot of times, when you’re doing a touring band...we’ll go there and set everything up and then another guy will come in and mix. There’s been a couple of times where they were driving our system too hard or had to be told to turn down. Everyone always takes an attitude. It’s like you break your back for these guys and go in there all day and set up and just try to get it to their liking and then they come in and just complain and b-tch about everything.”
Pisaturo remembers one particularly complex six hour setup at ‘Canes for Ronnie James Dio’s band. “Dio, he sounded great but his crew, his sound guy and his monitor guy, they were kind of a--holes. Just because I guess in the eighties these guys were playing stadiums and arenas and now all of a sudden they’re playing like nine hundred person venues.”
What then are the best perks of his profession? “It’s almost not like a real job. It’s a lot of hanging out. A lot of places, the bartenders will give me free drinks. There’s a lot of promoters out there who are really cool to us. They’re usually nicer to the sound than they are to the bands because the sound is like dudes they work with."
"The bands are just these guys coming through and giving everybody attitude.”
From an engineering standpoint, the human ear has more design flaws and potential for breakdown than any other mechanism on Earth.
That’s according to audiologists, whose expertise involves evaluating the nature and degree of hearing loss. Since obtaining such expertise requires a masters or doctorate degree, a one year internship, and an intensive exam in order to be certified for practice by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), I’m inclined to take their word for it.
An audiologist’s job involves performing audiometric tests on patients with possible hearing loss or damage, diagnosing and recommending medical follow-ups, damage prevention methods and rehabilitation options, as well as providing appropriate hearing aids if licensed to do so by the state.
Certified audiologists operate private practices as well as working and doing research in hospitals, nursing homes, clinics, schools, universities and elsewhere. Prospective patients can expect to have their outer ears examined and tested for functional performance in their eardrums and middle ear cavities.
Other non-invasive testing could involve having you listen to different frequency tones in order to establish your hearing thresholds (the levels of a sound which you can hear 50% of the time) but you’ll inevitably be poked and prodded with various instruments to determine things like the presence of infection or wax buildup.
All that concentration is focussed on the ear’s three main components: the visible outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. Sound vibrations are funneled by the outer ear into the auditory canal, where sound hits the eardrum (basically a membrane dividing the middle and outer ear). This causes the eardrum to vibrate while tiny hairs in the cochlea (a snail-shaped organ) in the inner ear go to work transforming the vibrations into nerve impulses which are then shot up to the brain through the auditory (cochlear) nerve. At the end of the line, the brain percieves each impulse as a specific sound and any glitch in the process can screw up the whole system.
American Medical Association statistics indicate that one of every eleven Americans suffers hearing loss, with a ratio of one in three among those over 65. The most common symptom is “sensorineural loss”, or more plainly nerve weakness, which affects the inner ear’s ability to properly transmit signals to the brain. Hearing problems can be caused by heredity and disease, side effects from drugs, physical breakdowns related to aging, and by exposure to percussion or loud noises.
High volume music is cited as a leading cause of Tinnitus, typified by constant ringing, hissing or roaring in the ears. People with Tinnitus may or may not suffer other hearing ailments as well and the affliction is rarely curable, though some treatments can help manage its effects.
“Some hearing specialists suggest Tinnitus may be a ‘survival reflex’ inherited from our hunting days, with the brain latching on to some small and inconsequential sound and insisting that it matters,” according to researcher John Billingsley, editor of the quarterly magazine Northern Earth. “Others describe [Tinnitus] as a dysfunctional response of the auditory system - even in silence, there is a constant flow of impulses arriving at the nerves of the ear and if ‘normal silence’ is not present then the brain can misinterpret the pattern it receives as sound...indeed, electromagnetic pollution may actually create a hypersensitivity to sound or certain wavelengths that may subsequently manifest as Tinnitus.”
Federal government guidelines say that Tinnitus can develop when a listener is exposed to sound levels measuring 85 dB and above. A vacuum generates 70 dB on average, a jackhammer clocks in at 100 dB and sandblasting can result in sound levels of 110 dB or more. Any loud noise can damage the hairs in the cochlea, causing Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS), a reversible loss. Permanent damage can occur due to events such as a blow to the head, nearness to an explosion or from prolonged exposure to high volume music generated by stereo and concert speakers.
Sonus treats hearing impaired clients at clinics nationwide, as well as at its San Diego facility. After testing and diagnosis procedures, their audiologists are licensed to provide hearing aids designed to improve sound pickup and perception. Conventional analog hearing aids, worn near or in the ear, have tiny microphones which capture sound. Circuits and resistors filter and compress loud noises while amplifying soft sounds in the wearer’s vicinity, electronically modifying and transforming everything into sound waves which are delivered to the ear canal.
Sonus recommends that anyone diagnosed with auditory problems should purchase a hearing aid for each ear. According to their website, “Research has shown that when there is a hearing loss in both ears and only one ear is fitted with a hearing instrument, the auditory nerve in the unaided ear can atrophy, resulting in audio deprivation effect....a significant decrease in the unaided ear’s ability to recognize speech. Studies have shown that this can happen in as little as seven months after one ear is fitted with a hearing instrument. That’s because the ear with the hearing instrument tends to do all the work, leaving the unaided ear with nothing to do. Its a ‘use it or lose it’ proposition.”
Audiologists at UCSD’s Medical Center in Hillcrest also conduct hearing evaluations, offer diagnostic advice and dispense hearing aids, at least to patients willing to wear them. “Unfortunately,” says Pat Baird, M.A., director of the UCSD Audiology Center, “some people feel that there is a stigma to hearing loss and they refuse to get help. As a result, co-workers and friends begin to talk around the hearing-impaired person because it is too difficult to get the point across. Or the person with hearing loss often becomes reclusive because he or she is embarrassed by the problem."
"The good news is there are literally hundreds of hearing assistance devices on the market and we see improvements in these devices everyday...newer models are better at cutting out extraneous background noise, picking up soft voices, and capturing sound from greater distances."
UCSD audiologists were first in San Diego to test a new high tech unit designed for severely deaf patients called the Nucleus 22 Channel Cochlear Implant, in a program directed by Jeffrey Harris, M.D., chief of head and neck surgery. Twenty-two microscopic electrodes are implanted into the inner ear, each programmed to pick up a specific frequency band. Recipients are then taught how to translate the resulting sound into understandable words and sentences.
"The cochlear implant is like a miracle for our patients who have lived in almost complete silence,” says Baird. “People are able to return to productive lives at work, school and at home.".
At more than twice the price of conventional hearing aids, digital units are now available and most specialists agree that the sophisticated technology provides exceptional results. Digital devices are categorized and described according to the number of "frequency processing channels” each features. Current models can include from two to fourteen channels but quality shouldn’t be gauged by the numbering since fewer definable channels may be more effective for wearers who don't want or need the advanced functions and potentially confusing options found in high number units from manufacturers like Siemens, Widex and DigiFocus.
Less expenesive than digital, there are some analog units offering “digital programming” of features like “multi-channel automatic processing” which tunes and divides sound into separate frequency ranges much like fully digital aids. Some models also sport an “automatic loudness adjustment” to reduce feedback common in analog units and allowing wearers to use the telephone without having to change the volume settings of their hearing aids.
Hearing loss among those aged thirty or less is attributed more often to loud music than any other cause. Researchers at the University of Florida tested a volunteer group of teenagers and found that seventeen percent already had problems hearing high pitched sounds, often an early symptom of damage.
Significant hearing loss was confirmed among students who frequently listened to high volume music at concerts, rave parties and clubs.
Studies confirming the link between amplified music and resulting hearing damage are plentiful in the Archives of Otolaryngology, a collection of published papers, medical thesis’, experiment logs and other records related to audiology. One experiment reported in its pages concerns scientist researching ear protection who force-fed loud rock music to a guinea pig for eighty-eight hours over a two month span. The animal’s left ear was intentionally blocked with a wax plug and experienced no apparant harm. The unprotected right ear, however, suffered severe damage which, in humans, would be painful, permanent and untreatable.
So music fans have reason to be concerned about hearing loss from excessive noise and loud music common in nightclubs and concert venues. Bars may even provide further risk since studies indicate the ear’s natural defense reflex against loud noise can shut down when veins and arteries become constricted due to alcohol consumption.
Could getting buzzed leave your ears buzzing for life? "Anything that alters the blood flow might also alter the person's susceptibility to getting hearing loss or Tinnitus," says Director Robert Sweetow of the UCSF-Stanford Audiology Department.
Not that Sweetow targets nightclubs as the only hot spots for hearing harm. You don’t even have to leave home or step out of your car to be deafened by decibels, he points out, thanks to advances in sound technology. "The music we listen to now is nosier. Twenty years ago when I would drive my car, I could limit the loudness of music because when I turned my music up too loud it would start to distort but now I could just keep cranking my radio up louder and louder and the speakers are so good and the amplifiers are so good, it almost never distorts."
Marek Roland-Mieszkowski of Digital Recordings, a sound engineering company, spends much of his “free” time spreading the word about how dangerous dance club music can be if played too loud. A resulting chain effect can turn non-musical sources into potential ear-busters as well, he says. "The danger is when music gets so loud that you have to shout in somebody's ears. Shouting can produce up to 140 decibels close to the mouth."
Concert patrons who feel their hearing has been damaged because of a specific show or venue have the option of filing a civil lawsuit to seek compensation. Court records show that clubs like ‘Canes, Soma and others have been sued for “personal injury” and “negligence” by customers claiming hearing loss.
Few judgments are leveled, due to the difficulty identifying one specific source responsible for an ailment with symptoms which may or may not be immediately evident.
The law provides more civil and criminal ammunition to employees working in environments typified by loud music. Federal and state regulations already recognize and address their high risk of hearing loss due to the constant bombardment of piercing frequencies and percussive vibrations.
According to The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), exposure to sound levels higher than 105 dB for as little as 4 minutes, 43 seconds a day can inflict severe auditory damage. NIOSH guidelines recommend that workers regularly exposed to 100 dB of sound or more should wear earplugs in addition to backup protection such as earmuffs.
State laws regulating workplace noise levels are enforced by The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CAL-OSHA). Those laws state that employees exposed to sound levels over 85 dB must wear ear protection and receive annual hearing exams paid by their employer. CAL-OSHA does not, however, enforce compliance by randomly testing sound levels at clubs and arenas.
“We don’t have the funding or resources necessary to keep agents in the field doing spot checks,” says Administration spokesman Dean Fryer. “Once we get a specific complaint from an employee of a business, however, then we can show up at the site, launch a comprehensive investigation, interview anyone with relevant information, measure sound levels or do any other testing needed in order to reach a judgment.”
Workers afraid of losing their job over filing a CAL-OSHA grievance can send an anonymous complaint and Fryer says the same investigation will take place. “Any employer who fires or inflicts punitive punishment on a worker just for contacting us is breaking the law and subject to severe penalties, including jail time.”
“Club owners don't give a [expletive]," according to club DJ Pete Avila. "All they want is your money. They don't care about you." Avila spent four years as music director for the Sound Factory in San Francisco. The job “took a toll on my ears," he says, and caused hearing loss which is getting progressively worse. "When there's a busy restaurant with a lot of noise, it's hard for me to hear someone who's sitting right across from me.”
Avila now wears earplugs on the dance floor but he takes them off when it’s time to start spinning discs. "It's difficult, because when you are in the club situation and in the moment, you sort of want the music loud to feel what people are feeling on the dance floor.”
Jeff Kelley co-founded Audio Design, a music equipment rental center. He’s run sound equipment at concerts for years and says the speaker configuration for rock ‘n’ roll is “designed for a loud hurt-your-ears kind of sound. It’s geared toward volume.”
Some bands want it louder still, insisting that levels be pushed past Spinal Tap’s “11” until the music drowns out Lindbergh Field.
“The Black Crowes was an extremely loud show...we’ve done some other pretty funny acts like Ronnie James Dio and some other acts that [were so loud] it was just ridiculous. Why would they want it so loud? Because they think they’re fifteen still? I don’t know, because they think they’re cool? I have no idea.”
Band manager and booking agent Tom Cantor thinks modern earplug technology should be taken more seriously by players like Kelly. “You’d expect musicians to be gung ho about hearing protection, for them and the audience. But nobody cares.”
Cantor often does extra duty running concert concession stands for bands he represents and says “I pitch T-shirts, programs, tapes, CDs and stuff like that but the first time I asked the guys in a band if they wanted to sell earplugs at a show, they looked at me like I was asking them to sell heroin! They said ‘Why the hell would we want [the audience] to cover up their ears and block out our music?’ And there’s no point even mentioning that maybe they should wear their own [ear protection] on stage.”
The people in front of the concert speakers will usually get the best aural protection from conventional foam earplugs or earmuffs. Musicians’ needs require more specialized protection since their playing and timing depends on full integration with other bandmembers’ parts.
Musician’s earplugs are not intended for maximum attenuation. Custom made earplugs are fit from an exact mold duplicating the ear canal based on an impression made by a hearing specialist, which is sent to a lab for finishing with the addition of desired mechanisms. Their design is not intended to block high frequencies but to instead attenuate all frequencies evenly in relation to hearing.
Popular models, such as the ER-15 and ER-25, cost $150.00 to $250.00 and include a special filter which lets the wearer hear a full range of music with no muting while lowering incoming dB levels to a safe range.
Of course, hearing damage or loss doesn’t necessarily weaken all musical skills or abilities. The composer Beethoven was, in the early 1800’s, enjoying his greatest success and popularity among the Viennese aristocracy when his hearing began deteriorating.
Beethoven retired from performing but most music lovers and scholars agree that subsequent compositions are among his most powerful masterpieces. During this time period, he created his Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major op. 55 (the Eroica, completed 1804), Fidelio, and the Symphony No. 5 in C minor op. 67 (1808).
Eventually, Beethoven was nearly deaf and withdrew from ALL public appearances even while increasing his work pace to an all time high. In 1818, he began complex, large scale works such as the Sonata in B-flat major op. 106 (Hammerklavier, 1818), the Missa Solemnis in D major op. 123 (1823), the Thirty-Three Variations on a Waltz by Diabelli in C major op. 120 (1823), the Symphony No. 9 in D minor op. 125 (1824), and his last string quartets. He spent virtually all his time composing until his death from pneumonia in March 1827.
Former President Bill Clinton played saxophone in bands for a few brief years during his late teens and blames that sax addiction for his own hearing damage. Clinton’s affliction makes it difficult for him to hear high-frequency sounds, a symptom common among sufferers exposed to loud noises. In 1997, the 51 year old baby-boomer was fitted with his first hearing aid, hidden inside the hearing canal and rarely visible to others. A Presidential press secretary joked at the time “Now the President can finally make out what the hecklers are shouting at him during his speeches.”
Hecklers also commonly tested the hearing of the late Ike Turner. A half century of performing caused Turner enough hearing damage to seek audiological assistance during his north county residency. “He came into our office dressed in kind of a seventies leather Soul Train outfit,” recalls one specialist’s assistant of Turner’s first appointment with her employer. “He looked a lot like that pimp from Starsky and Hutch, ‘Huggy Bear.’ The woman with him was, like, his seventh wife and I was just dumbstruck that women still want to marry the guy!”
She calls Turner “the most difficult customer, ever. I was actually happy when he flew off the handle, started swearing and calling us names and marched out the door promising to take his business somewhere else. That’s one promise we all wanted him to keep.”
Otolaryngologist Dr. Sam Levine points out that even senior citizens can recover from long-term damage and regain much of their hearing. “What happens is the hair cells are damaged, but they’re not dead. As they’re damaged, you lose some of your hearing. Most of the time, if you get out of the environment, your hair cells will recover somewhat. Each day, it [your hearing] comes back, but not as good as it did the day before. Eventually, over a long period of time, hair cells are permanently damaged instead of temporarily damaged.”
Levine explains that damaged or destroyed hair cells cause an abnormal sound which isn’t really physically created but occurs literally “in your head,” as the sound of Tinnitus.
Guitarist Pete Townshend of the Who was among the first musicians to publicly discuss Tinnitus (which he traces to an exploding drum prank played by Keith Moon during a Smothers Brothers TV show taping).
Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum alluded to his apparent Tinnitus as the band shifted toward acoustic music and modified stage equipment with protective sound- deflecting barriers placed around drummer Grant Young’s kit.
Bob Mould mentions his accelerating deafness often, once telling Rolling Stone “I know I’m reaching the end of what I can do because of my hearing.”
Lars Ulrich of Metallica goes as far as filming public service TV spots: “Three of the four members of Metallica wear earplugs. Some people think earplugs are for wimps. But if you don’t want to hear any records in five or ten years, that’s your decision.”<p>Hearnet.com co-founder Kathy Peck, former bass player and singer for the San Francisco punk band The Contractions, also has severe hearing damage. Her efforts to spread awareness about hearing protection include posting advisory PSAs on that site, taped by volunteers such as Townshend, Spinal Tap and DJ Qbert, and giving away downloads of the song "Tinnitus Sucks" featuring Herbie Hancock, the Mermen and Clayton Cameron of Tony Bennett's band.
“There’s no cure for Tinnitus or hearing loss,” warns Dr. Levine. He recommends being tested by an audiologist at the first sign of hearing difficulty or damage. “Your ears are trying to tell you something. That ringing is the scream of your hair cells dying.”
HORN IF YOU’RE HONKY: Musical Car Horns and the Honkies Who Love Them
"He musta thought his car had more guts,
as he kept on tooting his horn.
I'll show him that a Cadillac is not a car to scorn!
Beep beep, beep beep, his horn went beep beep beep."
Practically as soon automobiles became commercially available, San Diego drivers found ways to tick people off with their car horns. In 1912, anti-union activists driving together in convoys used relentless honking as a method to disrupt rallies held by the newly formed IWW, The Industrial Workers Of The World. Dozens of vehicles would drive circles around meeting places and homes of IWW supporters, honking in unison for hours at a time, sometimes tying down their horn buttons to insure continuous blasts.
Before a scheduled San Diego lecture, free speech advocate Emma Goldman and her road manager Ben Reitman were confined to their rooms by management at the U.S. Grant Hotel, as a convoy of honking adversaries encircled the building. "Toward evening," recalled Goldman in a written account, "a bedlam of auto horns and whistles filled the street. 'The vigilantes,' Ben cried. There was a knock at the door...I was wanted downstairs by the city authorities."
The two were separated and Reitman then disappeared from the hotel, never to be heard from again, as angry horns faded into the distance.
"My [car] horn isn't designed to p-ss anyone off or intimidate them, but it is obnoxious," admits Jamie Perez, a freelance writer who frequently contributes articles for the quarterly newsletter Klassic Kar Klub. Perez sells discounted new and salvaged auto parts at local swap meets and describes the sound made by his 1976 Chevy Malibu as "a sphincter splitting 'Da Da Da Dummmm, Da DUMMMMM - charge!' I had it ready to install before the air shocks and mag wheels went in, before I even settled on the paint job."
I mention this seems akin to buying a dog collar and then seeking a matching dog. "Hey, if you have a specific type and size dog in mind, and it's gonna go everywhere you go, be part of your family and cost more than a college tuition, that'd narrow down the collar you'd want it to wear."
“You are what you drive,” according to Klassic Kar Klub publisher Robert Tilton. "California car culture is entirely built around that notion. Or should I say philosophy, since cars represent a total way of life for a lot of people. Building up a dream car takes a lot of chrome and polish, but the image you project also depends on peripherals, such as the 'aural presence' you create with your [car] horn. The right sound draws attention and tells everyone something about the car and [its] driver. It announces that you're hot and horny, or proud to be a redneck, into trains or show tunes, a hard rock headbanger, whether you're married or single or even your racial background. Mexicans tend to install horns that play [Hispanic] music.”
According to Tilton, “A car blasting out 'Sweet Home, Alabama' or the 'Dukes Of Hazard' theme says everything you need to know about the driver and his roots."
Musical car horns like the ones Tilton refers to are among the products manufactured by Wolo, which lists its best selling models as the ones which play "Happy Birthday," followed by those featuring "The Macarena" or Christmas tunes like “Jingle Bell,” “We Wish You A Merry Christmas,” “Deck The Halls,” “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” and “Come All Ye Faithful.” Also popular are cinematic soundtrack slices from "The Pink Panther," "Rocky," "Fiddler On The Roof," "La Bamba," "Hello Dolly" and, for wanna-be Sopranos and Goodfellas, the "Godfather" theme.
In the weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the company could barely keep up with the increased demand for models that play “Stars And Stripes” or “America The Beautiful.”
These newer electronic horns usually offer more variety than low tech air-powered machines, often at less cost. Letters to Klassic Kar Klub from auto enthusiasts with vintage (pre-1940) make it clear that they disdain fancy schmancy singing horns, prefering to blow their noise with an old school honker. "I hit my 'Ahhhh-OOO-gaaah' blaster when I pull into traffic or as I'm parking," says vintage Cadillac restorer and collector Thad Rommel. "Unless there's a cop around, anyway. Someone told me the decibel level violates some kind of noise ordinance. I think it's a great sound...[it] harkens back another era, you know?"
Has another driver ever been startled enough by his horn to cause a near mishap or actual accident? "Well," he says after a pause, "maybe a few fellas get, you know, a wake up call...if they're doing something really stupid."
Thanks to technology, it's possible to get your own wake up call at home, at no charge, and you don't even have to leave your driveway to acquire them. Ultimatesoundarchive.com offers a library of audio files, from 7KB to 35KB, containing noises that most people would rather avoid than seek out, such as "Car Horns In Gridlock," "Impatient Driver Honks" "British Car Horn" and "Bus Horn."<p>Autospeak.com has equally pointless if less irritating WAV files, like "Miata Horn," "Beepbeep," "Passing Car Sounds Its Horn" and 8.18 seconds of "Horns, Horns And More Horns."
Actual hardware doesn’t come so cheap, but true gear heads don’t mind dishing out the bucks. Most car enthusiasts agree that, as with women's fashion, accessories are necessities. Especially if you want your car to attract and impress - or replace - those fashionable women. Some men insist that honking their horns enables them to meet and seduce women more effectively than any pickup line.
Following a lead from a mechanic, I phone “Manly” Dan Sanger, the proud owner of a 1977 Chevy van he has retrofitted into a time capsule artifact identical to the chromed and lifted love mobiles rarely seen today outside of Cheech and Chong movies and That 70s Show. His horn is the sound of a steam engine train whistle, followed by the chug-chug-chug of it racing down the track, louder and louder. “That gets me a lot of action at tailgate parties, or in the parking lots at car shows and racetracks because that’s where all the chicks are that’re into cars and vans,” he insists.
“I use the train whistle to attract girls the same way birds attract a mate, by hitting their ears with an irresistible sound even before they meet me. I lay on the horn when I’m pulling into the lot, so everyone looks at me, and then I hit it again as when I’m pulling into my space, so that any girls interested by what they heard and saw knows where to find me. Most of them usually wander past my spot a couple of times, trying not to let me notice that they’re checking me out. If they like what they see, they’ll walk right over and start flirting.”
Does Manly Dan genuinely believe there is a statistic likelihood that women in these environments are “aroused” by a guy leaning on his horn? “Hell yeah, I see it happen all the time. Not that a horn does the trick all by itself. It helps if they see you’ve got a keg of beer, or maybe some expensive looking steaks cooking on a nice shiny Webber grill. I found out that I gotta be careful what music play in the van though. Only creepy looking little vampire girls came around when I played this techno CD I picked up. I’m not into biker chicks so no more Motorhead or Sabbath. I actually like ‘em pretty young, so I play tapes I made off 91X a few years ago…I don’t know who most of the bands are but when a girl comes up and says ‘cool, you’re into so-and-so,’ I can usually nod my head and talk enough sh-t to pull it off.”
His subsequent accounts of girls who went directly from parking space to van waterbed offer no proof that honking his horn enabled his many carnal conquests rather than, say, strategically positioned beer kegs, barbecue odors or the taped music he appreciates only as bait hiding the hooks he uses to fish for females. “I’ll put it this way - my horn makes a big sound, it just plain screams ‘big,’ and girls always get turned on by ‘big,’ you know what I mean?”
Neither Sanger nor any other men interviewed for this article could provide contact with any women likely to admit that car horns made them horny, or that the sound made by their vehicles was any sort of factor in the formation of any relationship ranging from booty call to marriage.
Women informally surveyed at various bars, auto parts stores and shopping center parking lots, asked if they recall a man’s car horn ever being a factor in a positive first impression, instead only remembering honking as part of unpleasant incidents. Many describe taking walks and being mistaken as hookers by horny honkers dogging their every step.
Others recall being behind the wheel when a sudden ear-splitting horn blast apparently intended to impress or attract were taken by the women as threatening aural attacks which were startling enough to cause near or actual accidents.
Romance on the roll may well be possible by serenading your intended with the assistance of Wolo’s model 336 “Jukebox” ($34.99). One keyboard touch launches any of its thirty-four programmable songs, including ballistic blasts of romance like "Unchained Melody," "You Are My Sunshine" and the title tune from "Love Story."
Lotharios with less finesse, and less moolah, can simply announce "I'm horny" with a model 350 "Wolf Whistle" ($19.99), designed to impress sidewalk hotties with a shrill two-tone blast of love hungry lip service.
Wolo's air powered musical horns use a twelve volt compressor and several plastic trumpets to broadcast 118 decibel arrangements of top selling tunes like "Wedding March" ($89.99) and, for those hoping to win the heart of that special Klingon or Vulcan, the "Star Trek" theme ($119.99).
No less than thirty-five fully electronic and truly esoteric sounds bellow forth from Wolo’s model 345 "Animal House" horn package ($49.99). It's not impossible to imagine finding a use for "Dog," "Cat," "Horse" or maybe even "Duck" or "Rooster," but would the sound of a sheepish "Baaaaaaa" really make another driver baaaack off? And what's a motorist likely to do when confronted by a window rattling "rribbbittt"? Surely not abandon the fast lane, turn off the flasher signal or whatever action the bewildering blast was intended to inspire.
The same model comes with a microphone so the system can be used as a PA, in case the operator decides to follow up the call of the duck with a verbal prod like "Hey wimp, keep up or die!" Ten siren sounds are also included with "Animal House," none of them appreciated by law enforcement, paramedics or firefighters ("Police Car," "Fire Truck," "Ambulance", etc.).
The "European Police Siren" is sure to confuse U.K. tourists already battling their inherent left-lane instincts. "Features a volume control to allow the user to adjust to any level from soft to super loud," reads Wolo's online sales pitch, though it's unclear how drivers on the other side of the dashboard can so casually "adjust" to an oncoming Rambler pumping out "Machine Gun" sounds. More fun than an oil barrel full of Middle Eastern terrorists!
The female sales clerk at Wolo I reach through the company’s 800 phone line, while happy to extol the quality and popularity of the company’s car horns, is unwilling to acknowledge any “pickup line’ potential, even when I mention that my article research may include a product purchase. “A lot of our horns make great gifts for men to buy for their wives or their girlfriends, and that can be very romantic. I get a lot of couples looking for a particular song or a sound because it has special or personal meaning to them. I mean, we have tons of women customers…they love buying a really cool horn for their car or as a gift for their men."
"But for a man who’s mainly looking for a woman to start a relationship with, we don’t recommend introducing yourself by honking at them."
More like this:
- RIP Reader cover artist and underground comix legend Spain Rodriguez — Nov. 28, 2012
- Responding to Personal Spam, History of Personal Music Players, Soundmen Sound Off, Concerts Make You Deaf, & Musical Car Horns — June 3, 2008
- Painting Rock Stars, plus Behind the Scenes: Overheard in San Diego & Famous Former Neighbors — May 8, 2008
- 25 Local Musicians Reveal “My Favorite Twilight Zone,” plus Local-Produced Zone Comic Books — April 3, 2008
- Frank Zappa Comics And Stories, plus Top 5 Lists, Fallen Pinoy Idol — Nov. 10, 2007