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Home » Resources » Health » Sound Check: Using IEMs and Retraining Your Brain to Hear Safe Sound

Sound Check: Using IEMs and Retraining Your Brain to Hear Safe Sound


A post-pandemic return to live music is an opportunity for musicians to re-evaluate hearing health—and to modulate audio levels to reduce the inherent risk of hearing impairment.

After more than a year away from a typical concert venue—amid virtual performances—musicians have naturally adjusted their volume to a controlled listening regimen. According to Michael Santucci, Au.D., a researcher and expert who specializes in hearing conservation, now is an ideal time to make a change and modify onstage sound to more judicious levels.

“It’s a new normal,” he says. “This return from a year of downtime gives our industry a unique opportunity to include hearing in our expanded health consciousness. This is our ears letting us know it’s OK to dial back the audio levels.”

With huge PA systems and wedge monitors on stage, everything is cranked up. Before concert halls and stadiums begin to fill up, it’s time to turn down the sound. Santucci regularly works with musicians on custom-fitted in-ear monitors and earphones to protect hearing, allowing artists to achieve optimal richness in sound at safe exposure levels. “Today, we have the technology to let every musician and engineer hear in high-resolution detail at lower audio levels,” he says.

These days, in addition to rock musicians, he counts among his clients a number of orchestra musicians. Whether it’s creating impact with louder fortissimos or to entice new listeners with pops and Broadway music, orchestras have become louder. The added decibel (dB) quotient can be deafening to musicians, and Santucci says, “The risk goes up with volume and length of exposure.”

Personal In-ear monitors (IEMs) deliver exceptional sound quality. Properly fitted IEMs offer significant isolation from unwanted ambient sound, reducing the noise floor (background noise and noise that equipment naturally creates) and allowing the monitor mix to be heard with full clarity. Using IEMs also puts monitoring level control in the hands of the performer. Santucci says, “When things get too loud, there is no excuse for not turning monitors down to a comfortable level.”

According to National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH), workday exposure levels above 80 dB(A) can cause long-term hearing injury. Higher levels reduce the amount of time before that occurs. For every additional 3 dB, the safe exposure time is cut in half. At 100 dB(A), safe exposure time is only 15 minutes—a definite threat to hearing health.

Use Isolating Earphones

Personal In-ear monitors can go a long way toward saving your hearing, but only when used properly. Monitoring at lower levels is the key, and this is accomplished through adequate isolation and smart volume settings. Used correctly, professional isolating earphones, combined with audiologist consultation, offer the best possible solution for musicians interested in protecting their most valuable asset—their ears.

Use Both Earphones

One distressingly common practice is using only one earphone, leaving the other ear open. Performers have several excuses for this, such as not wanting to feel “removed” from the audience. But the fact is, our ears are designed to work together. By removing one earpiece, the other one sounds 6 dB quieter, which usually results in the performer turning it up. At the same time, the other ear is completely unprotected. “From a hearing health perspective, wearing only one earpiece is a disaster,” notes Santucci. “Always use both earphones, which will enable overall lower listening levels while delivering full stereo sound.”

Keep the Limiter on

Unexpected sounds— someone unplugging a phantom-powered microphone or a blast of RF noise—can cause a near-instantaneous peak in excess of 130 dB SPL, the equivalent of a gun shot at your eardrum. A brick-wall type limiter can effectively prevent these bursts from reaching damaging levels. For this reason, your personal monitor signal chain should always include a limiter at the receiver. A well-designed limiter will not adversely affect the audio quality, as it only works on these unexpected peaks.

Listen to Your Ears!

Hearing issues after rehearsal or performance are warning signs of overexposure. Common examples are:

  • Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS) —a “stuffiness” or compressed feeling, as if someone stuck cotton in your ears
  • Tinnitus—a persistent ringing or buzzing in the ears

These are the ear’s way of warning you that your hearing is in danger, although hearing injury can also occur without them. Hearing issues often start off as temporary, but are more persistent over time, eventually becoming permanent. The good news is that changing listening habits can keep the damage from getting worse. Performers who regularly experience the above effects are definitely monitoring too loud. They should see an audiologist—and turn it down!

Have Your Hearing Checked Regularly

The only way to know for sure if your listening habits are safe is to get your hearing checked regularly. The first hearing test establishes a baseline that all future hearing exams are compared against to determine if any loss has occurred. Musicians should have their hearing checked at least once a year. If hearing loss is caught early, corrections can be made to prevent further injury.

The beauty of personal in-ear monitors is that you can turn the volume down while getting improved sound quality and convenience, putting you back in control of your sound—and your hearing wellness. This year’s post-pandemic return to the stage is the perfect time to make a behavioral shift.

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