Do you remember the first time you were able to put your own music on the stereo? What a thrill: finally, cultural independence, as you clutched your shop-fresh piece of plastic (vinyl/tape/CD depending on age) - your choice, your song, your expression of who you were.
But do you also remember the thrill when you turned that big dial up, and up, and up, and up, the sound level increasing to gloriously huge levels, drowning out the shouts of your parents to ‘turn that rubbish down’ until you were in your own little world, imagining yourself on stage, with thousands screaming your name as you rained down mighty tunes upon your congregation.
Volume was a drug, and it turned out that I was an addict.
Years later, during my stint in the trenches as an A&R scout in the mid to late noughties -the glory years of Britpop 2.0 and the beginnings of the dubstep era - I was out six nights a week (hey, even God got a day off) searching for the next big thing that would arrive to save the music industry. Most of the time, as is the way, in London, in the central venues and the four compass points (Camden, New Cross, Shoreditch and Notting Hill) and, as much as possible, up and down the motorways of the UK visiting the many amazing scenes which were popping up.
Three gigs a night, six nights a week, battering my eardrums, until someone noticed in the small print that, as a health and safety feature, we were entitled to ask our employers, Mr Big Bad Major Label, to sort us out some hearing protection. Off we went to HR, asking for - nay demanding - the highest quality earplugs on the market, to protect our precious, skilful, decision-making eardrums. Through fear of being sued rather than any actual concern for our health, they were sanctioned, at huge expense, and the man duly arrived, to pump our ears full of liquid plastic, to then go away with the moulds to make us our custom earplugs.
I think I used them twice. Absolute waste of time.
Why? Because how can you get into a show when the sound isn’t engulfing your entire body and slamming into your ears? Now, don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t an idiot who stood next to the speakers every night, condemned to suffer tinnitus from the age of 35, but at the same time, stood in the middle of the room, watching a band giving it their all on stage, well, hearing it on half volume was never going to cut the mustard. In a way, it’s just disrespectful.
Listening to music too quietly means you miss out on all that impact: the crack of the snare; the transient whip and deep thud of the kick drum; the rumble of the bass physically shaking your body; the sizzle of the synths washing through your ears. Amplifying sound isn’t simply a case of the volume increasing - you hear details that are lost at lower volumes. You feel things that simply aren’t there when it’s quieter.
Of course, it can be too loud. I left one gig by an experimental Japanese noise trio at the Bethnal Green Pleasure Unit which can only be described, both musically and physically, as ‘painful’, while many times did I curse the deaf soundmen who would push the system to its limit while a band played to ten people at the Camden Barfly.
But nothing is worse than too quiet - for one, it means that musical daytrippers can’t talk their way through a show, as they did when I heard two accountants discussing work during a noise-restricted Rage Against The Machine set at Reading one year (f**k you I won’t adhere to the latest HMRC regulations).
Music is a primordial force and sometimes we need to be animals; to have it screamed in our faces, to bathe in it, to give in to its power and to just submit to glorious, glorious loudness.
What is the perfect volume?
Award-winning record producer and audio engineer Rich Costey (Franz Ferdinand, Muse, Sigur Rós, Major Lazer) on the optimum amount of loudness
You can listen to music in different ways to have different effects. Listening intellectually is where your mind is kept switched on and you’re thinking about the music you are hearing. Usually, this is listening at a lower volume, while with loud music, your mind switches off and you experience a physical reaction to it. Loud music generally does sound better because of the heightened feeling of pleasure it releases in the body.
Different genres are better played at different volumes too, so ambient music is designed to be like an aroma in the room – it’s best listened at around 50-55 decibels. While rock, electronic or hip-hop has different levels – highs, lows and a body to the song. I’d say listen to it at around 86-88 decibels, which will definitely give you a body high.
With a lot of contemporary music, it doesn’t have that body, meaning that it just hurts when it’s played too loud. But, I say to get the best out of any music you listen to; go sit in your car. The car is designed to have the most direct balance for sound, meaning there is nothing in the way to block it. For me, the most pleasurable way to listen to any music is in the environment around the car stereo, without fail.
A defence of quiet music
Gabriel Szatan explains why songs that shout the least, often say the most
I had to grow a soft-spot for soft sounds after decimating my sensitive hearing. Aged 19, I was sticking my head in club bass bins. Aged 20, I was fitted with hearing impants. Trust me: live shows are less fun when the trade-off is gale-force tinnitus.
There’s an obvious reason why gentle music will never define a generation. Kicking up a din is still the best method to bleed out bad feelings, or punch out of poverty. No one ever overthrew a regime playing Brian Eno at mid-volume.
But that doesn’t mean dialling it down diminishes impact. The key is to find records that sidle neatly into the environment around you.
Early morning is a natural fit for the barely-there film scores of Toru Takemitsu, or Tor Lundvall’s sample-rich ambient tracks. From there, keep the day moving through electronic acts that paint with delicate but brisk brushstrokes. Techno artist Petre Inspirescu should fit the bill.
Collapsing by late afternoon? Great, match that mood with music that slowly does the same. A weary commute soundtracked by William Basinski’s masterful The Disintegration Loops is so hypnotic, you’ll risk missing your spot (worth it). As night draws in, go for material that feels like will-o-the-wisps glowing in the distance. Grouper is the MVP of dark lullabies - try 2014’s Ruins.
There’s a big, wide, quiet-ass world out there to explore. But seriously: grip some earplugs so you can actively choose when you want your speakers to wail. Don’t f*ck about.
The day that loudness changed my life
Six musicians on the moment volume altered their worlds
Serge Pizzorno, Kasabian guitarist
“I’ve never heard anything like the bass at Chris Cunningham’s live show – subby, to the point of almost sh*tting myself. The connection between the noise and visuals was mind-bending. It made me question our own music. You think you’ve got it, then someone makes you realise you can push it further.”
Afrobeat rapper Kojo Funds
“As a kid, I never went to gigs so the first time I heard live music was when I went on stage myself. Hearing music live and loud – my own music – for the first time was mad. When the volume’s up, you don’t just hear it, you feel it. When I played The O2, I felt a wind from the crowd singing my lyrics back to me.”
David Draiman, lead singer of Disturbed
“The first time I saw Pantera, well, I didn’t know that loud was possible. My ears were ringing for days after. Every time the kick-drum hit, I felt it in my gut. With music that loud, you feel empowered – like you have the tools to do the job, and heavy firepower behind you.”
Ten Tonnes, singer/songwriter
“Seeing Tom Petty last summer in Hyde Park was seeing one of the all-time greats absolutely smash it. You feel this weird ripple of excitement when you get to experience songs like that in their natural environment – in the flesh, live and really loud. Experiencing them how they were supposed to be experienced.”
DJ Carnage, EDM performer and producer
“The first time I saw Headhunterz was life-changing. I was 21 and it was just so loud, so theatrical, so obnoxious. If you were f*cked-up, it hit you on a whole ’nother level. EDM is made for speakers, so when you hear that kick smack harder, it just makes everything better.”
Elias Bender Rønnenfelt, lead singer of punk band Iceage
“Sometimes, a whisper can be more forceful than a scream. I saw Genesis Breyer P-Orridge give a poetry performance in New York. I felt like she was looking me dead in the eye. Afterwards, friends of mine felt like they’d been singled out, too.”
Beats 1 host Matt Wilkinson on four acts making massive sound
1. Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs Pigs
“It’s a wild name, but the music is amazing. It’s Geordie psych-metal – think Sabbath riffs and Lemmy-style vocals. Usually their tunes are about 15 minutes long, and it’s very intense stoner-rock. They’ve just released a new track called Cake Of Light, which I love. Loudness is their main thing, and it’s droney, but it has a really similar impact to dance music in the way that it becomes almost meditative. When you see this band live, they lull you into a sort of trance.”
“They’re a punk band from Bristol and their second album, Joy As An Act of Resistance, just came out. They like being in a van, travelling the country, and just playing their songs as loudly as possible. They’ve been grafting away and have had time to grow away from the spotlight. The songs are very political, angry and eye-opening. It’s been a while since we’ve had a band like that. The singer, Joe, is an absolute screamer. He uses his loudness as a tool to get his frustrations out. He’s properly retching.”
3. Amyl And The Sniffers
“I saw these guys at a music festival in Brisbane called BigSound last year. I loved the name. They’re a four-piece – three guys and a girl – and they’ve all got mullets. They look like they’ve emerged from late-Nineties’ Australia, and there’s something quite AC/DC about them. The songs hark back to no-frills punk – it’s often three chords with funny lyrics and their whole output is really intense but astute and simple. Listen to the song ‘70’s Street Munchies’ and you’ll see what I mean.”
4. Death Grips
“I saw them at The Old Blue Last in Shoreditch and it was one of the loudest gigs I’ve ever been to. I felt it in my chest. The entire room seemed to shake. People talk about bands like My Bloody Valentine being ear-splittingly loud, but this rivalled that in my opinion. It’s insane that they’re now playing to 5,000 people at Brixton Academy.”
Matt Wilkinson is on Apple Music’s Beats 1, Monday-Friday, 11am-1pm
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(Additional words/reporting: Ruby Flanagan, Joe Madden, Chris Sayer)
(Photography: Matthew Beedle, Images: Getty)