Here's the first part of a three piece blog post by Craig Anderton, we will be releasing them over the next week or so. If you value your hearing, then this is for you...
Most people were blessed with a beautiful piece of gear when they were born. Backed by 300,000 years of evolution, it’s made to last a lifetime. That’s the good news. The bad news is there’s no lifetime warranty, and getting replacement parts is even harder than finding a catalytic converter for a Honda Accord.
That piece of gear is your ears, and your career depends on them. If in the past you didn’t pay attention to the importance of protecting your hearing, there’s not much you can do about it now. But going forward, you can do everything possible to preserve the hearing you have. That’s why you need to read this article. I’d bet there’s at least one fact in here you didn’t know.
It’s a Matter of Time
Potential hearing damage depends on the exposure time to loud sounds, and their loudness. Sound level meters (e.g., Galaxy Audio’s SPL meters) are your friends for measuring loudness. There are also iPhone and Android apps, but most don’t have the accuracy of pro sound level meters. However, the National Institute for Occupational Safety released the free, accurate NIOSH Sound Level Meter for iPhone. Other iPhone apps (NoiSee, the free SoundMeterX, and SPLnFFT) also have accuracy that meets OSHA standards. Just remember that lab-quality readings require an external reference microphone. Internal smartphone mics can’t measure super-high levels, and may use compression. Also, Android devices don’t have the same hardware uniformity as iPhones, which impacts accuracy.
Ultimately, smartphones apps are more like a rough guide, but even that’s educational. You can find out the monitoring level you use in the studio—and be shocked by the decibel levels assaulting your ears from jackhammers, honking horns, and passing police sirens as you walk around New York City.
You can then use sound meter readings to help you follow the CDC’s guidelines. For example, you can hang out in a 70 dB environment all day long. In the studio, you’re okay at 85 dB for up to 2 hours or so. Also be aware that taking breaks from loud sounds is beneficial. At 100 dB (indoor sports events, approaching subway), exposure for more than 15 minutes can cause hearing loss. At 105-110 dB (clubs, concerts, excessive headphones levels), hearing loss is possible in less than 5 minutes. Once you get above 110 dB, all bets are off. Pain and permanent injury kicks in around 120 dB.
Bear in mind hearing loss doesn’t mean you’ll suddenly go deaf. It can be more insidious. Those high sound levels will chip away, a fraction of a dB at a time, starting with your midrange and high frequencies. If the rest of your hearing seems okay, or the ringing goes away, you might assume all is well. It isn’t.
Little Did You Know…
Loud concerts—yes, you know about that. But scuba diving is horrible for your ears. The bubble noise that diving gear generates is way above 85 dB, often stretching into triple digits. You can try earplugs, but then there’s the serious issue of equalizing pressure within the ear at different depths. Sorry, but forget about scuba diving if you’re a musician.
Drinking alcohol can lead to temporary hearing loss, and heavy, persistent drinking can even lead to long-term hearing loss. Regular nicotine use—including constant exposure to second-hand smoke—affects hearing.
There are also the side effects of medication (read those labels). These may be subtle, but accumulate over time. Some chemotherapies lead to hearing loss. So can some antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medications. Even a few over-the-counter medicines can affect hearing. For an unfortunate few, tinnitus has been a side effect of covid-19.
And that’s not all. One musician friend had severe hearing loss in his left ear because he drove around with the driver side window open. Fortunately, the issue was discovered in an appointment with an audiologist, and addressed in time to arrest further deterioration. But the loss up to that point was irreversible.
Long airplane rides are problematic. I always use earplugs on airplane rides. However, avoid earplugs that create a tight seal—a sudden change in cabin ear pressure could damage your eardrums. The layered earplugs that are designed to attenuate noise rather than block it are ideal. If you don’t have earplugs, take one of those little cocktail napkins the friendly flight attendant gives you with your drink, tear off a piece, wad it into a ball, and put it loosely in your ear (enough to attenuate, not enough for a tight seal).
Another scary thought: current research shows a potential link between hearing loss and Alzheimer’s. The more hearing loss, the greater the risk. It’s not yet certain what the relationship is, and whether hearing loss leads to Alzheimer’s or vice-versa, but it’s yet another surprising angle on hearing loss.
But Classical Music Is Safe, Right?
No! This isn’t just about rock concerts. Orchestra members are not only subject to sounds that can reach and even exceed 100 dB, but the amount of time spent rehearsing increases exposure time. This can lead to more hearing damage than that associated with rock musicians and DJs. The bottom line is that loud music is loud music, whether it’s Wagner or the Who. So,
Here’s What to Do
Your goal from this point on should be to preserve the hearing you have. After downloading your sound level meter app (or even better, buying a pro sound level meter), make an appointment with an audiologist and have your hearing tested. If music has been your living, you may be shocked by the results—but you need to establish a baseline and know the reality of your situation. It may also be possible to identify issues that if caught early enough, can prevent further hearing loss. If you’re reluctant to visit an audiologist, remember this: Your career depends on it.
Saying “but the music doesn’t sound right in the studio unless I monitor at loud levels” doesn’t cut it. Because of the Fletcher-Munson curve, you’ll hear more treble and bass at higher levels. So, boost the bass and treble to compensate for monitoring at low volumes. This will help the music sound more alive.
I’m fortunate, because I’ve been a lifelong fanatic about my hearing. When I walk around cities, I have a pair of foam earplugs with me. When a siren goes by, I cover my ears. Back in the day, I always stuck cotton in my ears onstage. Now we have much better options—designer earplugs that attenuate sound without killing the frequency response, and of course, in-ear monitors. If you use IEMs properly—and unfortunately for some people who don’t know better, that’s a big if—they have the potential to protect your hearing.
It’s not macho to expose yourself to loud sounds without protection. It’s stupid. And you’re not stupid, because if you’ve read this far, you’re interested in protecting your hearing. So, take care of your ears—and then they can take care of your career.