Certifying Outdoor Live Music Venues

This is the result of an idea I had while thinking about the concept of certifying sound engineers to work live music venues in an effort to help control community noise.  This idea was presented by the Live Music Task Force last November in their Overview and Recommendations Report.

My intention with this article is to generate discussion.  I feel like I might have a good idea here, but I could be missing something very important.  So please, share any thoughts you have.

I do, actually, like the idea of training sound engineers in acoustics.  I think giving them a better understanding of acoustics on a scientific level will help them understand how music from their venue travels to their neighbors, and things that can be done to mitigate it.  I don’t know that a training or certification program is necessary, however, to accomplish the goal of increasing harmony between music venues and their neighbors.  I think money and time might be better spent analyzing and certifying the venues themselves.

Address the Noise Issue Before the First Band Takes the Stage

In some places, when a new outdoor venue is built, or when an existing outdoor venue is modified, an acoustical analysis is performed to determine whether the new or remodeled venue will exceed noise levels specified in ordinances or agreements between the venue’s owners and the city or county or neighborhood.  When I worked in California, I performed several of these analyses, including one for the proposed (but never built, as far as I know) new State Fairground amphitheater in Sacramento.

It makes a lot of sense to do this type of analysis before spending a lot of money on a new venue.  A venue that undergoes an analysis by an acoustical engineer (either by contract or through the city) can provide a sort of guarantee to the surrounding community that, during normal operation, they will not exceed specified noise levels.

It is almost always easier and cheaper to avoid noise issues up front than to fix them after they occur.  There’s a very real and relevant psycho-acoustical concept: once someone is aware of a noise, it is almost impossible to quiet the noise enough that the person won’t hear it any more.  Likewise, once a venue plays music that is too loud and annoys the neighbors, it becomes difficult or impossible for the venue to operate in a way that does not generate more ill will from the surrounding community.

Special Live Music Venue Noise Limits

The A-weighted levels that appear in virtually every noise ordinance are meant to act as a catch-all, and aren’t well suited to music in particular.  dBA are much better suited to broadband noise sources, such as machinery and highway traffic. Using the same A-weighted limits for all types of noise is sort of like hammering a nail with a wrench: it works, but there’s a better tool for the job. Since a live music venue produces a very specific type of sound, a separate set of noise level limits could be developed that apply only to permitted venues.

The Hollywood Bowl has a special set of rules for property line noise that was developed in an agreement between Los Angeles County and the surrounding neighborhood.  Recogizing that music is dynamic and tonal, the crafters of this agreement created a very fair and well thought out system.  Rather than a single do-not-exceed level, there are 4 different levels that trigger depending not just on whether they are exceeded, but for how long they are exceeded.  The highest level is not to be exceeded, the second highest level can only be exceeded a few minutes every hour, the third highest level can be exceeded for around 10 minutes per hour, and the lowest level can be exceeded for up to around 20 minutes per hour.  This keeps the majority of noise below the lowest limit but offers some leeway for the dynamics that are inherent to music.

A system exactly like the Hollywood Bowl’s might be too complicated to apply to every outdoor music venue in Austin, but the idea is still sound.  When a permit is issued to a venue, that venue becomes exempt from general limits in the noise ordinance, and instead becomes bound by a set of limits designed around live music. This is fair to both the venue and the neighbors around it.

Every Venue is Different

Each venue has its own characteristics.  Different equipment, different stage location, different natural features, different paths and distances to neighbors. Instead of a blanket policy that applies blindly to all venues, each venue should be set to operate to a set of limits that are specific to its situation. An analysis by an acoustical engineer could determine the maximum sound pressure level (SPL) generated by the venue, as measured at the mixer, that would not impact the neighbors. Any sound engineer working at that venue would be made aware of the maximum level and, using a sound level meter at the mixer, could set his PA volume confidently, knowing levels at the neighbor’s house will always be acceptable.

Perhaps some venues are in neighborhoods that are more amenable to the sounds of live music in the air at night.  Through negotiations between the neighborhood and the venue, higher levels could be agreed upon.  Maybe these agreements could be attached to the properties involved in the negotiation, like a sort of “sound easement.” There are a lot of ways this could go, and as far as I can tell, it will always result in a more equitable arrangement than the blanket 85 dBA at the property line system that’s in place now.

Make it Part of The Permitting Process

To get an outdoor music venue permit, the owner would need to demonstrate that, during normal operations, music from their venue will not exceed the applicable limits, as measured at the nearest residences. This could be accomplished through an actual physical demonstration, or it could be accomplished through analysis by an acoustical engineer.  The acoustical engineer could be a third party, hired by the venue, or perhaps there will be an acoustical engineer on staff at the city.

After the city reviews the analysis or demonstration, a permit could be issued that is particular to that venue, including specifications for noise limits at the nearest neighbors and sound level limits at the mixer.  If a venue makes a significant change to their equipment or orientation, they would need to have a new analysis performed a provide a new demonstration to renew their permit.

If a venue is found to be in violation of the limits specified in their permit, the permit could be threatened, suspended, or revoked.  The potential for loss of a music permit is likely a much stronger deterrent than periodic warnings from police officers.

What About the Cost?

Hiring an acoustical engineer is not inexpensive. Neither is the process of acquiring all of the other permits and licenses needed to operate a venue.  At first glance this seems unfair to the venue owners.

If the analyses could, optionally, be performed by an acoustical engineer on the city staff, this work could be done on a non-profit cost basis.  A permitting fee of, say, $500, could go a long way towards covering this. We often hear that live music is a $1-billion dollar industry in Austin.  In comparison to that figure, the cost of keeping a single acoustical engineer on staff at the city seems pretty small.

Some of these costs would also be offset through the reduction of the indirect costs.  Equipping and training a police force with dozens of sound level meters and deploying officers for every noise complaint is not cheap.  Also, owners would save money by avoiding noise issues through intelligent venue design, rather than expensive fixes later in the process.


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