Being predominantly a musical theatre engineer, I have occasionally found myself being asked by members of the public to turn the orchestra down. This always comes as a great surprise to me (unless they are sat on the front row over the orchestra pit) as i’ve often had the sound designer telling me that I’m mixing his show too safely (probably due to receiving these requests!) and to decrease the difference between the band and vocals. Agreed with the designer, I do mix rather vocal heavy for theatre shows but I find that most of the time i’m forced to in order to keep the public and producers happy.
My gut feeling is that the general public don’t know how to ‘listen’ to things anymore. We are being desensitised by an ongoing ‘loudness war’; a phenomenon which can be tracked back to around the 80s.
With digital mastering came the challenge to ever increase the loudness of records by increasing the compression ratios and EQ to maximise the level of the entire track which removes the dynamics and therefore the emotion of the piece. This has unfortunately been transferred to television, film and now to live theatre. Add to this the volume at which many people have their television set, just to watch the news for example; everything is shouted at you. As a result, I feel many people cannot focus on picking out parts (such as vocals) within a mix unless it jumps out and bites them in the ear.