Thursday, 24 September 2009

The Silence of Sound

The concept of the silent disco is gaining ground and business is booming for several UK companies at the forefront of the technology. The concept is simple: DJ equipment is wired not into speakers, but into a radio transmitter which broadcasts to multiple sets of radio headphones worn by the audience.

The practical advantages are several – no complaints about sound levels from neighbours being the most obvious, which allows the party to continue well after normal licences for music events expire (most famously exploited in late night sessions at the 2005 Glastonbury festival which launched the concept of the silent disco into the public eye). Individuals can also alter the volume of their headsets allowing a customised experience, and headphone volume can be limited to conform to emerging standards for safe listening (although this might be seen as a disadvantage by hardcore clubbers). The most intriguing advantage is that the provision of multi-channel broadcast and reception technology means that two or more DJs can play to the same audience, who can flick a switch on their headphones to select which DJ they want to hear at any given moment.

My recent experience of silent DJing at the Off the Tracks festival suggests that this provides a new twist to the old DJ tradition of the ‘soundclash.’ This originated in Jamaica but also became central in American hip-hop as the ‘battle,’ in which two separate soundsystems or DJs alternate tunes, fighting it out to win the approval of a crowd. Similarly, at the silent disco a friendly rivalry emerges as each DJ ties to capture the audience, although canny programming - which for best effect puts DJs playing radically different music together - means that the audience don’t really see it like that, and simply enjoy the fact that they can switch back and forth between different styles as their mood suits.

Potential disadvantages include a loss of the physicality of sound: dance music is designed with a strongly visceral experience in mind, in which sub-bass frequencies are felt in the body rather than simply heard through the ears. Interestingly, an obvious further worry - that the communality of the listening experience, in which crowds enjoy a transcendent togetherness, might be eroded by the isolating effect of headphones - proves misplaced: it seems that the mind quickly ‘edits out’ the headphones and a powerful sensation of shared sound persists, with the twist being that you are not sure if your grinning companions are actually dancing to the same thing as you! Additionally, the headphones seem to have a disinhibiting effect, with an enhanced willingness to sing along in evidence (it is quite a strange experience to enter the room without headphones and to hear people singing along to two different tunes at once in an otherwise silent space, whilst they dance out of synch with each other to the beat of different drummers).

Technical issues for the DJ include above all the challenge of mixing in headphones (normal beatmatching technique involves listening to the front-of-house tune with one ear whilst a headphone cup delivers the next tune to the other ear, allowing for the synchronisation of the incoming and outgoing tune). However, it is possible for the DJ to use a small personal monitor speaker as a workaround for this problem, although this does somewhat undermine the purity of the silent concept, and some DJ mixers already allow a ‘split-cue’ in which one ear cup plays the live tune and the other delivers the cue. A more subtle issue is that it becomes harder to respond to the dancefloor - trying to work out how well your choices are going down, and in what musical direction to travel next is complicated by the difficulty of knowing who is grooving to which DJ. In practice, as the set goes on, it becomes possible to attune yourself to that segment of the audience dancing to what you are playing through an attention to the rhythm of their dance – or, easier, the sound of any singing or whooping along that might be in evidence if you remove your own headphones.

(photo credit: damian scott, creative commons)

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