Tag Archives: hearing protection

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.

Earos One

Specially Tuned Ear Protection

Experience sound as you normally would, just at a lower decibel level. Earos One hearing protection offers attenuation of 17 decibels. The soft outer body sits comfortably in the ear, even during extended use. Engineered to fit 90% of all ears, the outer edge of the product lays flush against the ear for a smooth fit, while the unique Concha Tab ensures it remains securely in place for full functionality. Each pair of Earos One comes with two ear tip sizes, small and large, and a hand-carrying pouch.

www.earos.com

hearing protection

Hearing Protection Field Test 2020 – Some of the Best Gear For Your Ears

by Todd Hobin, Member of Local 78 (Syracuse, NY)

A musician should protect their hearing as if their career depended on it

NOTE: The pandemic has caused a pause in live performances, but performing is not the only risk to your hearing. Listen up.

hearing protection

If you sit at the back of the orchestra, right in front of the percussion section, you’re a victim. Play in a rock band, you’re a victim. Drummers? Duh. But, what about the happy homeowner mowing their lawn, doing small repairs or housework? Do you ride a motorcycle, go to parties, or enjoy music in your earbuds? You are all victims. Prolonged sound over 90 decibels (dB) will cause permanent hearing damage. How long? As little as three minutes of mowing the lawn.

The tiny hair cells inside your cochlea are very sensitive. Too much volume will make them bend over and fold. Unlike some cells in your body, they will not regenerate. Long-term exposure will cause irreversible damage including tinnitus. (Musicians are 57% more likely to develop tinnitus.)

First, do no harm. Control your environment. Damaging sounds are everywhere. For example, full volume on your earbuds delivers 112 decibels. Don’t do that. Protect your hearing off the job. 

May is Better Hearing Month, so what better time to think about the value of your ears? My completely unscientific field test starts in the field outside my house. I put these popular hearing protectors up against my tractor, my chainsaw, and the tools in my shop:


hearing protection

3M EAR Classic Earplugs. Proper insertion is essential to get their full 29dB Noise Reduction Rating (NRR). Roll them up between your thumb and forefinger into a tight little barrel. Then, using your opposite hand, reach over the top of your head and gently lift up on the top of your ear. This opens your ear canal to allow the earplug to slide in right up to the hilt. After insertion, press and hold the earplugs in your ears until they expand to fill the entire canal. This will take a little longer than you think. Be patient and make sure you have a good seal. 

The most offensive sound I can think of is a circular saw cutting through a pine board. I cut through a number of boards without so much as a flinch. The EAR Classics were equally successful blocking out the sound of my chainsaw, my drill, and the massive sawmill my neighbor brought in to cut up and plank a 70-foot ash that fell in our yard. Perfect. Hair follicles saved. 

The EAR Classics are reusable and you can wash them. A little soapy water does the trick. I don’t recommend them for gig use. They cut out too much sound. My rating: safe, comfortable, and inexpensive. Highly recommended. 


hearing protection

Uline Bullet Earplugs work well, but I noticed a couple of issues. They come in a variety of colors and Noise Reductions Ratings. I used the orange 33 NRR version for my test. Many manufacturers have similar products. They are a little firmer than the Classics. Insertion technique is critical, with the pointier end going in. The longer shaft goes in deeper and in my case caused a little ear pain from time to time. After a number of days testing, I noticed what sounded like water in my ear. My audiologist pulled a nasty chunk of hardened wax out of my ear. Could that have been caused by packing bullets in my ear canal?

Be careful. I don’t recommend washing them either. The foam doesn’t hold up. Rating: safe, a little uncomfortable at times, cheap. I purchased the 200-count box. I’ll use them up.


hearing protection

Professional Safety Ear Muffs by Decibel Defense have an impressive 37dB NRR. Riding the tractor was quiet and comfortable from the start. But on a hot day I had a problem. It got sweaty. I found myself adjusting them quite a bit. I also couldn’t wear a wide brimmed hat. I’m Irish. I burn. I rate them safe when in position, semi-comfortable, and very dorky. www.decibeldefense.com.


For the gig, I chose three consumer devices to rate:

hearing protection

Earasers—The clear plastic design is unique, making them all but invisible on the gig. With a -19 dB rating, they still allow enough sound in to be of use while saving you from the big hits and overall booming sound of a rock band in full swing. My field work over the last few years involved major concert venues, small clubs, and lots of band practices. After long gigs in hot environs, I was having trouble getting them out of my ears—eventually breaking off the little wire extraction thingy. No complaints though. They served me well. Rating: safe, comfortable, not so cheap.


hearing protection

EarPeace HD Musicians Earplugs—I carry them with me everywhere I go. It’s been a constant field test in every environment from a huge amphitheater to a tiny stage in the corner of Shifty’s bar. I could hear everything clearly. It was just quieter. Sometimes I forget that I have them in. Even band practice is perfect. Hear what you need to, nothing more. Rating: Perfect. www.earpeace.com.


hearing protection

Westone makes hearing protection for shooters. They were recommended to me by a drummer. Go figure. And indeed, they have a very impressive array of products. www.westone.com. Rating: Trust the drummer.


The Best

A good musician needs a good audiologist. If you don’t have one already, get one now. You’ll want to get a baseline reading to know how much hearing you are losing over time. Find a professional audiologist near you who can make a mold of your ear canal to properly fit you with the best hearing protection for musicians. Find one at Hearingtracker.com. Rating: Pricey, but by far the best way to go.

Todd Hobin is a singer/songwriter, recording artist, studio owner, and adjunct professor in the Music Department at Le Moyne College. He has toured with the Beach Boys and the Kinks, to name a few, and has written scores for film and TV.

IEMs

Safe Sound in an Age of Living Loud: Correct and Safe Use of In-Ear Monitors

IEMsIn a loud stage environment, musicians become accustomed to hearing their monitor mix at high volume. Some use in-ear monitoring systems (IEMs) to reduce the impact, but if the volume on the device is not regulated and lowered, it’s no solution. IMEs are only considered protective devices if they are used at safe levels.

IEMs are in demand because they isolate the ear from ambient noise and artists can hear the intended signal clearly, at a much lower volume. Critical to the equation, though, says Michael Santucci, Au.D., a researcher and expert who specializes in hearing conservation, is much lower volume. It requires modifying user behavior and listening patterns.

Look no further than the iPod. Studies have shown, in case after case (especially with teenagers), that there was irreversible damage because of volume and prolonged listening. Do most musicians use ear protection? “No,” says Santucci, “Are attitudes changing? Absolutely.” 

It’s like sun exposure, he explains: it’s both how strong it is and how long you’re exposed. In music, it’s personal susceptibility, how loud, and how many hours you’re in it. “We do pit crews for Broadway plays. Is it terribly loud? Not always, but they’re doing it six hours a day.” Nowadays, Santucci frequently works with orchestras because they are featuring more pop stars. The added decibel (dB) quotient can be deafening to orchestra members. Santucci says, “Risk goes up with volume and length of exposure.”

A recent study out of Vanderbilt University showed that, regardless of whether they used floor wedges or IEMs, subjects turned them up to their usual listening level. Everybody had three days of in-ear and three days of floor wedges at different times and in different venues. Every musician turned to exactly the same loudness every day.

“If you’ve been practicing guitar for years at 110 dB with wedges, the natural tendency will be to turn your IEMs to 110 dB, even if it’s not needed,” Santucci says. “And until the audiologist says you need to turn it down to here, their brains tell them to go back to the level they’re used to.”

The good news is that the second part of the study showed that musicians can recalibrate their brains to listen at a lower level. After a couple of weeks, it becomes the norm. Santucci says, “It’s habit—like the timbre of your instrument, pitch—it’s all because you’ve done it a million times. Loudness goes right along with it.”

Adding Ambient Sound

Some musicians say they feel disconnected from the band and the crowd with IEMs. This can be addressed in a few ways. The trick, Santucci says, is to do so without compromising the isolation of the IEM system. A simple remedy is for the sound engineer to set up audience mikes to add to the monitor mix so the artist can get a feel for the room. “Some musicians take out one IEM, which is very damaging to hearing. They end up turning up the side with the ear monitor even louder, plus they have an open ear not protected by anything.”

For a natural, but more robust, method of adding ambient sound into the IEM mix, Santucci recommends 3D active ambient IEM systems that allow the musicians to control how much ambient sound is heard. “What I do not recommend is porting the earphone to let ambient sound leak. Porting effectively eliminates the benefits of isolation and cannot be controlled, it has the potential for the user to turn up the volume of the system to unsafe levels.” 

Safe Listening

For hearing conservation benefits of in-ear monitors, refer to OSHA and NOISH guidelines to determine exposure times for safe use. Shows of less than one or two hours are less of a problem. For a club band, whose shows may go on for several sets of three or more hours, volume levels must be much lower and should average no more than 95 to 97 dB.

The problem is being able to accurately determine the decibel level coming from the in-ear monitors. Currently, the only method to measure these levels is with ear-probe microphone technology used during rehearsals or sound checks by an audiologist. From these readings, a volume level can be recommended based on the length of a show.

Tinnitus and Hearing Loss

If your ears ring or if you have trouble hearing after a concert, you are definitely in danger of noise induced hearing loss (NIHL). Santucci cautions, “Even if your ears don’t ring, if you think it’s safe, you’re wrong. Research shows that, of those suffering from NIHL, only 30% experienced ‘ringing’ as a warning sign. In other words, if your ears ring after a performance, you’re too loud. But if they don’t ring, there’s a 70% chance you may still be damaging your ears, if levels exceed OSHA safe exposure limits.”

For additional information, visit the websites: www.osha.gov/SLTC/noisehearingconservation or www.cdc.gov/niosh.

Other Hearing Protection Tips:

  • Invest in superior hearing protection,
    custommade ear molds with dampening filters.
    Preferably use musicians’ earplugs, which offer flat attenuation vs. traditional earplugs, which tend to filter sound from higher frequencies, resulting in a muffled sound.
  • Protect your ears consistently every time you may be exposed to loud music and/or sounds, not just when you are performing.
  • Better yet, avoid noise as much as possible when you are not performing.
  • Invest in high-quality in-ear monitors and train your ears to use the lowest level that’s feasible.
  • Drummers should use dampening pads when possible.
  • Sound travels in a straight line so it’s louder directly in front of or behind a speaker. Spread out so you are not being blasted by the musician next to you. Move away from on-stage monitors and amplifiers.
  • If moving away is not an option, look into using baffles to protect yourself.
  • Take breaks of 15 minutes in between sets of music or rehearsals to give ears a rest. During rest periods go outside or somewhere quiet.
  • Whenever possible, practice at lower volume
    or play your electrified instrument unplugged.
  • Use smaller amps when possible.
  • Avoid ear buds and other direct-injection earphones for recreational listening, especially in loud environments.
  • Have your hearing tested frequently by an audiologist.
  • If it’s not possible to have regular professional sound-level assessments, at least use a sound meter app to check your exposure level.
  • Avoid signing up for repeated live gigs at loud clubs. If possible, give your ears some recovery time in between.

Michael Santucci, Au.D. works with the Audio Engineering Society (AES), where he is vice chair of the Technical Committee on Hearing and Hearing Loss Prevention. He operates a Musicians Hearing Clinic and works on hearing conservation through Sensaphonics: In-Ear Monitoring Systems.

H.E.A.R. Day New York Honors Les Paul

Last week on H.E.A.R. Day New York a panel of medical and health experts discussed the importance of improving hearing conservations for performers, professionals, and those who enjoy listening to music as well. This year Les Paul was honored with the H.E.A.R Leadership Award.

Kathy Peck, ED of H.E.A.R. has this to say:

“Les Paul was a friend of H.E.A.R. Les knew that further work was going to be necessary in the area of music hearing conservation. Now, along with partner the Les Paul Foundation and others, H.E.A.R. presents schools with Listen Smart Workshops and the Listen Smart Film Series that will allow us to continue our mission in providing services and educating the public to hearing conservation.”

We all know musicians suffer from a lot of hearing issues, and that’s why a cause like this is so important. To raise awareness of the real dangers and come up with ways to prevent those dangers from occurring.

Make sure you check out their site hearnet.com for more information.