I had been wondering whether something about my hearing had changed over the years. Modern PA loudspeaker systems are so sophisticated these days, and if they don't seem to me to be quite as satisfying as systems I've heard in the past, then surely it must be my fault.
To be sure, the clarity of modern PA loudspeakers is amazing. Much depends on how the system is set up, but intrinsically the loudspeakers are capable of getting every syllable of a song's lyrics all the way to the back of the auditorium.
And they can certainly go very loud. Go anywhere near a modern PA stack and your ears will be fried to charred crisps (bacon flavor).
But I have long felt that there was something missing. Hearing loudness in the ears is one thing, but feeling it kicking through your entire body is entirely another. And this is what I find is often absent these days.
But just last weekend, there I was calmly driving along my local country lanes when I spotted a small, hand-painted sign by the roadside.
'Arcane Festival' it said.
Hmm, hadn't heard of that one, so I drove into the field, which was sparsely populated with cars, and there was a stage at the opposite end.
With music already playing to the small and scattered audience, I walked the last couple of hundred yards (183 meters) right up to the single speaker stack.
To hell with stereo then, although there were a few more speakers on the stage.
As I got closer and closer, I could feel the beat hitting me in the upper abdomen, and at close-range I really could feel it in my entire body.
And now the amazing thing… my ears felt perfectly OK! The sound was LOUD, but it didn't tear at my ear drums. It felt great.
You may notice in the photo that there's a guy lying on the grass just in front of the stack. I did think that despite the pure quality of the loudness, he might possibly have been at risk of damaging his hearing.
I thought it best not to interfere though, my advice might have fallen on deaf ears. (!)
The system had good intelligibility too. The music that was playing at that moment was clearly interval music, but then I saw a guy sporting dreadlocks and a microphone at the mix position. Whether he was rapping, chatting, MCing or spitting I don't really know, not being expert in that genre. But every syllable was clear. Deriving meaning from those syllables was something that somehow I lacked an ability for – too much time spent out in the country I suppose.
To give a little additional context to this, quite a few years ago I had some small involvement with people who worked with 'sound systems' in West London, where there is a significant West Indian cultural influence.
I put 'sound system' in inverted commas because it is a very specific meaning of the term.
What I learned from my contact with West Indian-influenced sound systems was that technical accuracy was definitely not a factor in how they were assembled. Everything depended on the sound, and much of the equipment was home-made.
So, if you wanted more bass in your sound system, then you would craft a couple more bass bins in your back yard, hook up a couple more amps and the system has more bass. Still not enough? Then pile it high – as high as you can, then put it on the back of a flatbed truck.
And then you can take it to a sound system competition! When you have the opportunity to hear several sound systems in close proximity then it becomes clear that there is no one 'right' way to build a PA.
Of course, there are drawbacks to systems having their own characteristic tonal quality. But the time I spent in that field listening to great sound, of a kind I hadn't heard for a long while, was a truly enjoyable experience.