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Musical Space

When Subwoofers Attack

laffy4k / Flickr / Creative Commons

As I’ve talked about before, the Fletcher-Munson curve warps how we hear music depending on how loud it is. Low volume equates to less “fullness.” That’s why we like to turn up the bass.

Cheap stereo equipment hypes the bass. So do those overpriced, trendy headphones with the famous name. There used to be a built-in limit: too much bass on a vinyl record would make the needle jump out of the groove. CDs changed all that, and styles like Electronic Dance Music - EDM - have tested the limits of how much low-frequency is tolerable. This is great at dance clubs, where the beat is impelled by thunderous bass drums pumped up with megawatt subwoofer systems. You could say that this kind of exaggeration distorts the music, but the physicality of the experience is undeniable. Awesome, even.

With all this extra low-note horsepower, though, things can get out of hand. I've seen this get in the way of live sound. Lots of clubs now treat a band like a dance track. Live jazz, country, even rock is getting off-balance and thumpy. The bass drum of a jazz trio, for example, is meant to punctuate, not to stun.

It’s all about context. Sometimes the bass drum should be a boom, and sometimes just a bump.