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  • Adam Tews

Background Music

Background music is a large, yet largely unnoticed part of our daily lives. If we're not playing it ourselves while doing chores, we're hearing it from many other places; video adverts, animations, movies... And, especially, in public spaces like bars, restaurants, and stores. Appropriate background music sets a mood and energy level; in the dentist office you might hear calming music. In a grocery store, it might be more up-beat. A restaurant, depending on its theme, could choose any number of genres and moods, from soft, solo piano, to jazz, or even to country.

When you decide to deliver background music to your audience -- be it dinner music at a wedding as a DJ, or a playlist at your new restaurant -- there are a few things to consider about HOW you deliver that music, in addition to what program material you want to run.

"What? I can't hear you."

In any setting, background music is just that: the background. It's not primary content as would be, say, a live musical performance. Because it's the background, it needs to be treated as secondary to the primary content, which usually is conversation. Your first consideration is your sound level. Music that's too loud, obviously, cannot be talked over. It's a balance, of course; in a trendy bar, you may want the energy you get with louder, upbeat music. In any case, your audience must be able to hear each other over the music. Let's look at some ways to control your sound level.

Volume Control

Of course, this is the obvious one. Just turn it down. But this is actually one of the less important parts of the story!

Speaker distribution

When I bring sound to a wedding, I usually set speakers up next to the dance floor area, which is adjacent to dining tables. During dinner, I run a dinner music playlist at a low volume. This isn't ideal, as the tables close to the speakers will hear the music louder than tables farther away from the speakers. In a portable situation like this, it's difficult to achieve good sound level distribution across the audience. More speakers could help achieve this, but that's quite a bit of extra equipment and setup time for something used only for a short time. In this case, we mostly just roll with the shortcomings of a two-speaker setup.

In a bar or restaurant we have more options. The system will be installed, so no extra effort or equipment is required beyond the initial installation. In this situation, we can run many speakers at a lower volume to achieve an even sound level across a large space. Typically, when running more than four or so speakers, 70 or 100v transformer systems are used. This allows one amplifier to run perhaps dozens of speakers at a low sound level, and reduces electrical losses from very long runs of speaker cable. The most common amplifiers I see in these installations are made by Toa and are fairly simple affairs. However, there are better amplifiers for distributed background music, such as the Mezzo and Unica lines of amplifiers from Powersoft. More on those later!


Were you expecting this one? If you've listened to AM radio, you've probably noticed that it's better suited to speech than music. Its limited bandwidth makes music sound dull, but voices come through perfectly clearly. In radio, we consider the "voice band" to be 300 Hz to 3 kHz -- this is where most of the human voice lives.

When mixing music, you need to "make space" for some instruments. When you have two sound sources producing sound in the same frequency range, they become less distinct from each other. If voices become less distinct, it becomes harder for us to make out what's being said. We wouldn't ordinarily consider background music to be "mixing music" but in fact, that's what's happening! Music is being combined, acoustically, with voices. And to "make space" for peoples' voices, we need to carve out a frequency band for them from our background music. It's pretty simple: Drop 300 Hz to 3 kHz by about 6 dB. Yes, it will sound a bit quieter, but you can then turn it up a bit if you want that energy. Just a few decibels of cut in that voice range makes a huge difference for vocal intelligibility!

When you have the right equipment, this is easy to do. DJ controllers and mixers, unfortunately, don't often have a suitable EQ. In case your mixer DOES have a swept midrange control, you want to center it at 800 Hz (logarithmically, the halfway point between 300 Hz and 3 kHz). If it has a bandwidth or Q control, set your Q to 1.

Bring it all together

For installed background music, if you give it proper attention while building out your space, you can achieve excellent results. The Powersoft amplifiers mentioned above have sophisticated onboard DSP that allows your integrator to measure the frequency response of your speakers and smooth that out. Once that's done, they can then add an additional EQ filter to reduce the level in the voice band, and perhaps add a little extra bump in the bass if you want that. North Sound Audio can perform this system tuning.

For most spaces wanting installed background music, the Mezzo line from Powersoft is ideal. Like other distributed-sound amplifiers, these amplifiers can be set up with multiple zones for differing volume levels or program material. Unlike those other amplifiers, the Powersoft amps expand the number of zones by adding more amplifiers, and share program material between each other via Dante audio networking. You can control your system via basic knobs on the wall (like many other systems), a wall-mount touch screen (our favorite!), a mobile app, locally-hosted web page, or even integrate the Mezzo amplifiers with Control 4 systems. At North Sound Audio, we really like the wall-mount touch screen because it also serves as the host for the local web page and for the mobile apps.

Larger spaces, such as venues that host live music, should consider the high-powered Unica line of amplifiers for driving their stage PA. These state-of-the-art amplifiers are worthy of powering the most world-class stage sound system, but that's not all -- they also integrate in with the Mezzo amps driving your background music. You can thus play background music through your PA system, too, with appropriate volume and EQ adjustments tied to a scene that can be recalled with a touch of your wall-mount touch panel. When the set break is over, switch the scenes back over to live performance mode to mute your background music throughout the house, and bring your amplifier power and EQ back to performance levels!

North Sound Audio is an authorized Powersoft dealer, and we'd love to discuss your installed music needs.

For portable background music, as with any music, speaker quality, choice, and size all matter. Even with a basic DJ set, we bring a digital mixer with onboard facilities for system tuning and EQ; so background music can be just that. Of course, we bring high quality speakers appropriate to the venue and the event, and we tune them to the room to provide smooth sound without any distortion or harshness that could prove distracting or irritating.

We'd love to talk to you about how we can help you with your installed sound system, or DJ sound system setups!

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