BANGOR, Maine — The far-reaching notes of Waterfront Concerts have presented an increasing challenge for the city — balancing the desires of some taxpayers who want to spend quiet summer evenings on their porch against a significant economic and cultural driver that generated more than $30 million for the local economy in the past three years.
City records show that the concerts have fallen below the noise limits set by the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, but that doesn’t mean the sounds aren’t hitting the ears of people who would rather not hear them.
“For me, this isn’t about numbers, it’s about quality of life in Bangor,” said Robert Sypitkowski, a Royal Road resident who also works for the DEP, during a recent public meeting about the concert noise. He argued the concerts “trade a public good for private gain” and deprive residents of having the right to choose to have quiet or listen to music of their own.
Since the first concert of the season in May, Bangor police and city staff have received a total of 72 calls about concert noise stemming from 10 events. Some residents have called on multiple concert nights to express concerns.
The Mayhem Festival heavy metal show drew 24 complaints, with Lil Wayne drawing 14. The only show that didn’t result in any reported complaints was the July 12 mixed martial art bouts. The first show of this season, Motley Crue, was among the loudest this year, but drew just two complaints, from Third Street residents.
For everyone who calls, there are likely others who are annoyed or frustrated but don’t pick up the phone, argue residents who want quieter concerts. Residents, some as far as 8-10 miles away in Orono and Old Town, have reported being able to hear or feel the deep, driving bass notes from some concerts.
“It’s not an exact science,” Bangor Parks and Recreation Director Tracy Willette said Friday. “It’s about trying to find a balance that’s acceptable to as many people as possible.”
Most concert venues and workplaces measure noise levels on what’s known as an A-weighted decibel scale (in dBAs). The human ear doesn’t respond the same way to all frequencies, so this scale factors out very high and very low frequencies.
Last year, after noise complaints from Bangor neighborhoods, a sound engineer visited Bangor and Brewer to assess sound levels at the concerts and make recommendations on what sound limits should be set, according to Willette.
The engineer suggested measuring decibel levels at the mix tower in the center of the venue, the loudest possible spot, and setting a 105 dBA limit. If a one-minute noise measurement averages more than 105 dBA, or there are more than 10 instances where the one-minute average exceeds 100 dBA at the mix tower, then the show has surpassed its limit. The Maine Department of Environmental Protection accepted the engineer’s recommendation as appropriate and directed the city to monitor sound levels, according to Willette.
Bangor has noise ordinances that restrict decibel levels coming from bars, taverns and nightclubs; vehicles; and radios or other audio devices in public areas. None of those apply to Waterfront Concerts, but the city does have to meet the DEP regulation, according to City Solicitor Norm Heitmann.
So far, no Waterfront Concert has passed the DEP threshold. The Mayhem Festival came closest this year, with average measurements ranging from 95-98 dBA, according to data provided by the city.
Other noises that fall in that range include a hand drill, a jackhammer 50 feet away or a subway train 200 feet away, according to Galen Carol Audio.
Willette said he sometimes drives to different neighborhoods in Bangor and Brewer to check noise levels there. In Brewer, the consultant recommended decibel levels in certain residential neighborhoods not exceed dBA in the mid-50s. To this point, numbers have stayed below that level, according to Willette. During the Lil Wayne concert, Willette went to Bangor’s Little City neighborhood, about 1.5 miles to the north, and found levels in the 40-50 dBA range.
The sounds of music
Measuring in dBA isn’t the same as measuring the “loudness” of a concert, according to Eric Ferguson, a Fifth Street resident and director of the audio engineering and live sound technology program for the New England School of Communication. Measuring decibels on an A-weighted scale doesn’t factor in many of the low bass notes that carry farthest and frequently are the causes for complaints, he said.
It is those low frequencies that “might fatigue you over time,” he said. It’s not unusual for venues, states or cities to have limits on decibel levels for concerts, he said. Some are as low as 85 dBA, which is almost impossible to achieve, according to Ferguson, who has spent a career studying while doing mixes for performers and venues in California before moving to Maine a couple years ago. Ferguson said his personal opinion is that concerts shouldn’t exceed 100 dBA, which is when he perceives the music as “painful or uncomfortable.”
“Another part of the issue in Bangor is that the [musical] styles change every week, so you’re angering one neighbor one week and another one the next week,” he said.
John Thompson, a professor in physics at UMaine, said low-frequency waves are able to pass over and around buildings, trees and other large objects, whereas the higher frequency notes are more likely to hit those objects and bounce off or deflect.
Ulrich Regler, a 27-year-old Orono resident who lives on Broadway near the Penobscot River, said Friday that he could feel and hear some of the concerts, especially the low bass notes during the recent Lil Wayne performance. He said he watched the puddles as they rippled in rhythm with the bass beats. At times, he could make out lyrics if the wind was blowing the right way, he said.
The sounds, both high and low frequency, can flow freely and unimpeded up the Penobscot River. With the right wind and weather conditions, the music can cover a lot of ground, Thompson and Ferguson said.
Waterfront Concerts erected a permanent stage this season, but reoriented it so that it is aimed toward Bangor’s downtown, rather than the West Side neighborhoods. With that move, more sound was directed along the Penobscot River.
Waterfront Concerts Promoter Alex Gray has said that sound walls could be installed around the venue or trees planted at its borders, but its unlikely they would prevent the escape of the prominent bass notes. The only “magic bullet” would be a roof over the venue, an expensive project that neither Waterfront Concerts nor the city could afford in the near future, Gray said.
Telling performers to “turn it down” or not curse likely would encourage most of them to curse more and play louder, as many performers view it as part of their artistic expression, Gray has said. Ferguson also said that artists take offense to being told how loud they can be.
“On an otherwise perfect Maine evening, with temperatures in the high 70s, [my wife and I] had to retreat inside the house and close the doors and windows,” said Walter Street resident Michael Gleason in a July 12 letter to City Manager Cathy Conlow. “With windows and doors closed, we could still hear the concert noise over both our own television and the fans we had running, trying to escape the concert noise.”
Gleason said he can’t complain about airplane noise, fair noise or train noise — because all those existed before he moved into his home in 1976 — “but the concert came to us, whether we like it or not.”
Willette said the city will continue to try to find a balance between the desires of taxpayers who want quiet and the concerts that serve as economic drivers for area businesses and fans of all music genres.
“This is still a work in progress,” Willette said.
An earlier version of this story said John Thompson is a professor in physics education. He is a physics professor.