Sound Advice:

db sometimes stands for dumb bastard

Back in the early 1980s while working for a sound reinforcement company, I was assigned to provide support for Back To Back, a blues band from the Springfield, MA, area. The band was comprised of a great bunch of easy going musicians and were great to work for. However, one night they got booked to play a club in Northampton, MA, which turned out to be a bit challenging.

The club was in the basement of a large building directly below a rather upscale restaurant. The only access for us were concrete steps down from the sidewalk, which made load in tough and load out even tougher. However, another challenge awaited inside.

It was rather cool and reminded me of photos I had seen of The Cavern -- the Liverpool club which the Beatles frequently played before being discovered. Other than the ceilings being slightly lower than I was accustomed to and a less-than-optimum view of the full stage, there was little that would prevent it being an awesome gig. That is until I was visited by the bar owner...

Straight-laced and all business, the guy introduced himself and handed me a document. "All the bands that play here have to sign this" he stated, adding "No exceptions". A cursory examination revealed the document was a contract wherein the band or sound engineer agrees to maintain a sound pressure level (SPL) lower than a specified db (decibel) level. "We do this because of the restaurant upstairs and lawsuits" he added in a most serious tone of voice. The owner then handed me an SPL meter, complete with calibration sticker.

It was then that I realized I was home free.

"No problem", I replied, and then signed the bloody contract, though not with my name -- instead signing the name of the owner of the sound company sans my initials. I was born at night, but not last night...

As soon as the club owner left with his silly contract, complete with a forged (illegal) signature rendering it non-binding, it was time to hatch my clever plan. By the grace of the Soundman Gods, the club's SPL meter just happened to be the exact model of my own SPL meter. And I knew that underneath the calibration sticker was an access hole for the calibration adjustment.

With my house EQ and test tape running, I brought the PA up to the level which was about right for my ears. Sure enough, the club's SPL meter was considerably over the contract-specified SPL ceiling. After carefully peeling back the calibration sticker and grabbing a miniature screwdriver from my tool kit road case, I surreptitiously adjusted the calibration control so the meter read safely below the contract-specified level. Then the calibration sticker was pressed back into place hiding "the scene of the crime" and the meter placed on the sound mix console.

Sure enough, the owner came back and yelled "It sounds a little too loud", to which I simply replied by pointing to his unofficially recalibrated official judiciary device. As he peered down at the SPL meter, first looking puzzled at, but then resigned to what he saw: a reading below the contract-specified maximum level. Looking back at me, he shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and left.

Once the band took the stage and got into their first set, the meter needed another minor tweak. I'd check my own meter from time to time just to make sure things weren't getting out of hand. As the set wore on, the house was rocked, the crowd loved the act, and much liquor was sold and imbibed.

And over the course of the evening while the band was playing, the bar owner would drift by the soundboard to take a peek at his SPL meter. The meter, of course, would be displaying exactly what he wanted to see, regardless of the actual SPL. He'd smile, give me the thumbs up sign, and be on his way.

But before he would leave, I'd make sure to smile and give him a return thumbs up sign, all the while thinking to myself, "you dumb bastard".