Live music is finally coming back—and, as performers and audio engineers at concert halls and live event venues worldwide start the “check one…check one-two…,” they’re finding some significant changes and opportunities in post-hiatus live music.
Shure and Sensaphonics believe this post-pandemic return is “an opportunity for performers and audio professionals to adjust their listening behavior to reduce hearing-damaging audio levels.”
“Daily assaults on hearing health with 100-plus dB monitor levels are neither healthy nor necessary,” the joint announcement says. “After over a year away from typical concert volume levels, the hearing of band members and sound engineers has adjusted to a controlled listening lifestyle.
“This means that ‘getting the band back together’ will require some extra care when it comes to the ears,” the announcement says.
“When athletes come back after time off, they have to condition their bodies back into playing shape,” said Dr. Michael Santucci, audiologist and founder of Sensaphonics. “Musicians are no different. Just as an athlete will use the best training methods to enhance their performance, we now have a unique opportunity to use our technology and techniques to monitor at safer levels.
“So this return from a year of downtime gives our industry a unique opportunity to include hearing in our expanded health consciousness,” he said.
Santucci has made it his mission to help musicians and others take care of their hearing. Sensaphonics offers state-of-the-art, personalized and custom-fitted in-ear monitors (IEMs) and Musician Earplugs for up-and-coming musicians in the school band and some of the biggest names in the industry.
They are also a preferred provider of custom-fit sleeves for Shure earphones.
Prolonged exposure to high sound pressure levels can cause hearing to deteriorate over time. In preparing to return to the stage after more than a year, many industry veterans are voicing surprise at how loud the audio levels seem to be – even though they are at the same settings they were at prior to the pandemic.
“Our bodies are talking to us,” said Santucci. “This is our ears letting us know it’s OK to dial back the audio levels. Back in the day, stage volume got out of hand due to huge PA systems and wedge monitors.
“Post-pandemic live sound is a fantastic opportunity to eliminate that interference, reducing the noise floor instead of turning up the levels. The good news is, we have the technology to let every engineer and musician hear in high-resolution detail at lower audio levels,” he said.
Properly fitted in-ear monitors offer significant isolation from unwanted sound, thus reducing the noise floor and allowing the monitor mix to be heard with full clarity. Using IEMs also puts control of the monitoring level in the hands of the performer, making that decision a personal choice.
According to NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health), a workday of exposure to levels above 80 dB(A) can cause long-term hearing injury. Of course, 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.
“Hearing conservation is important to everyone in the audio industry,” said Nick Wood, senior director of wireless products for Shure. “We want to help ensure that all performers who use our equipment are able to use it for a long, long time.”
Here are a few suggestions from Shure and Sensaphonics for musicians to help protect their hearing, including the role of in-ear monitors.
Use isolating earphones
In-ear personal 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.
Use both earphones
This common practice involves using only one earphone, leaving the other ear open. Performers have several excuses for this, such as a dislike for feeling “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 open ear is completely unprotected.
“From a hearing health perspective, wearing only one earpiece is a disaster,” said Santucci. “Always use both earphones, which will enable overall lower listening levels while delivering full stereo sound.”
Keep the limiter on
Unexpected sounds, such as those caused by 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 should not adversely affect the audio quality, as it only works on these peaks.
Listen to your ears
Hearing issues after rehearsal or performance are warning signs of overexposure. Here are a couple common examples: Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS) is characterized by a “stuffiness,” or compressed feeling, as if someone stuck cotton in your ears. Tinnitus is a persistent ringing or buzzing in the ears.
Symptoms like these are the ear’s way of warning that your hearing is in danger – although hearing injury can also occur without them. Hearing issues often start off as temporary, but typically become more persistent over time, eventually becoming permanent.
Changing listening habits can keep the damage from getting worse. So performers who regularly experience the above effects are definitely monitoring too loud. They should see an audiologist – and learn to turn it down.
Have your hearing checked regularly
The only certain way to know 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.