Human “Ears”

What happens when you expose your ears to loud music?

When you are listening to your Hi-Fi system in your home or working in your recording studio sitting behind your recording console or even on stage if you are performing live.  What is the one important judgment that makes your job easy to communicate with? Even when your are singing, playing the Piano, Guitar, Drums, Audio Recording or working on your Final Mix. “It’s Your “Ears”. Yes?

There is no substitute for good natural hearing. Without a healthy condition ears, a career in or even the simple enjoyment of music would be impossible, even with today’s digital hearing aids.  And if you do not protect your ears from the early stages, your chance of a long, prosperous career as a musician / singer or music lover could easily be ruined. At very least, you could become problematical with hearing and you might have to always ask people to repeat what they are saying; in some of the worst cases, you could live the rest of your life with a constant buzzing or humming noise, called tinnitus, in your ears. Hearing conservation is a serious issue for music professionals and general hobbyists; you need to understand how your ears work and how to protect them.

Understanding Human Hearing
Generally speaking you would know by now that sound is nothing more than waves of energy. The strength of those waves is called Sound Pressure Levels, or SPL’s, which are measured in decibels (dB). The higher the SPL, the louder the sound, and the worse it can get for your hearing. The frequency spectrum of sound waves can be understood very simply: the slower and more widespread the sound wave, the deeper the sound; the higher and tighter, the higher the frequency. Frequencies are measured in hertz or cycles. Human Ears can only pick up a limited range of the aural spectrum generally 20hz (very low bass) to a max of 20,000hz ( 20 kHz to 20.000khz), but in general most of us are unable to hear past 16khz as we reach our adulthood.

Sound comes through our ear’s canal as waves of energy, where they meet the eardrum, which is very similar to a stretched drum head skin on a drum kit. The eardrum causes the bones of the inner ear to vibrate, which in turn causes the cochlea, or inner ear, to vibrate. The cochlea is filled with tiny hairs, and when the fluid in the inner ear is vibrated, the energy is transferred to those hair cells, which translate the vibration to electrical energy which can be sent up the auditory nerve to the brain. I hope it is not complicated but you will find it amazing in the end.

Hearing Risks
Hearing loss can take place from various reasons. In fact, hearing loss can be a common birth defect, about one in every 1,000 babies are born with some degree of hearing loss. While we naturally lose a degree of hearing as we age, the most prevalent reason for losing hearing in today’s age is overexposure of any kind of loud sound. Remember this simple modus operandi, time + exposure = loss.  , you damage the tiny hair cells inside your inner ear. Sometimes this damage is temporary if the exposure was limited for a short time. Have you ever had your ear’s ringing for a couple days after attending a loud rock concert?. So if this happens too many times repeatedly over a long period of time, then that’s where hearing loss comes in and sits for a long time.

How to Protect Your Hearing
To begin with always limit your exposure to loud sounds. At most rock concerts, you will experience SPL’s of about 110 decibels or greater, depending on where you are sitting or standing. At 110db, OSHA (the Occupational Safety & Health Administration) recommends only a half hour of exposure per day. You can further help your cause by wearing earplugs; reducing the SPLs by even 10db to 15db can allow you to listen to a concert without risk of hearing damage for up to 2 hours. A number of companies now offer custom-fitted musician’s earplugs with a filter to allow unattenuated high frequencies to pass through, presenting a much better listening experience. Earplugs cost about $120 plus a visit to your audiologist, but you can purchase budget universal-fit versions for as little as $25 to $50.

Secondly, if you are a lead guitarist or keyboard musician, there are a couple of things you should do. To start with always turn down your amplifier. No one really needs their amplifier to be cranked to volume “10”, do they?  It’s not a pleasing experience for any audience sitting in the front row or for your eardrums to have loud amplifiers on stage competing for volume with other musicians. Leave it to the mix engineers to do a mix for the front house speakers that audience will enjoy. Good live music mixes should sound as if it is coming out from a CD player. Always strive for that satisfying hearing level, healthy balance on stage is extremely important, and leave that vital sound mixing to your live mix engineer.

New technology In-ear monitoring has been the choice of concert touring professionals since its introduction in the mid 1980’s. This reduces the high level exposure by using your monitors in your ears instead and not through the loud floor speaker wedges. These are good options of keeping your EARS healthy and still perform live without any EAR problem issues.

Finally, see your audiologist for routine hearing tests regularly, at least once a year or twice a year if your livelihood depends on your ears being in good health. If you don’t have health insurance (like a lot of musicians and freelance engineers do), consider your options: a hearing screening test can cost around $120/-, which is a small investment for a lifetime of listening. Also, check with your local universities and teaching hospitals close by for a free Ear checkups. You might be lucky and have an audiology clinic nearby that can help you meet your needs. Very importantly is, always use your common sense at all situations. By keeping your ears healthy it will prevent you from being one of the many Singer, Musicians who after years of exposure to live music is still healthy without using hearing aid. Be aware of your noisy surroundings and your options, and you too can have a long, prosperous Audio career making and enjoying your quality music.

Alphonso Soosay

Audio Recording Engineer

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