The Uninsured Musician’s Guide to Not Going Deaf

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Although an ear infection can lead to deafness if left untreated, it’s relatively rare for Swimmer’s Ear to cause more than a temporary hearing loss in industrialized nations.

In countries like ours, the number one cause of permanent hearing loss is prolonged exposure to loud sounds – and you might be surprised by just how low our thresholds are.

Both The House Research Institute and The Center for Hearing and Communication estimate that over 37 million Americans, or roughly 12% of the population, suffer from significant hearing loss. Look at adults over age 65 and that percentage skyrockets to near 33%.

Ironically and sadly, that figure is likely even higher among musicians, audio professionals and music fans – Precisely the people who value their hearing the most.

To help us retain our hearing Marilee Potthoff, Director of Outreach and Education at The House Research Institute, says that her organization recommends we significantly limit our exposure to sounds exceeding 85 dB in level.

At 88dB, guidelines from House Research and The Center For Disease Control recommend no more than 4 hours of exposure. At 91dB, they suggest a 2 hour maximum. At volumes approaching 100 dB, they recommend just 25 minutes per day to avoid long-term hearing loss, and at 105 dB, no more than a few minutes is advised. Most troubling of all, at 115 dB – the volume level of a typical rock concert – Potthoff says there is no length of exposure that can be deemed safe.

If you’re one of the 50 million Americans who have experienced Tinnitus, or “ringing in the ears” after a loud concert, this means that you’ve suffered a loss in hearing that will never come back. Hearing loss from high volume music is cumulative, which means that repeat exposure only makes matters worse. But it also means that it’s never too late to stop more damage from occurring in the future.

What To Do About It

Unfortunately, once you’ve suffered long-term hearing damage from loud SPLs, there’s no way to get it back.

Unless you’re a fish, who are among the few creatures that can replenish their hearing capacity (we imagine they’re also immune to Swimmer’s Ear), your ears are not going to fix themselves.

We audio-loving air-breathers have to get smart now, or suffer the consequences long into our ever-expanding working years.

Prevention

Nothing makes teenagers turn a deaf ear like the word “prevention.” No wonder that so many of them are also going deaf in a literal sense. Today, 15% of adolescents between the ages of 6-19 have measurable hearing loss in at least one ear.

Some of this can be blamed on earbuds that are regularly blasted at high volumes. But this isn’t just a matter of kids being irresponsible with their ears. If you ride the subway, chances are that you jack up your listening device loud enough to hear over the oppressive rattle of the train. The sound level of that train may approach 100dB, which is safe for only about 15 minutes a day – So if your iPod is louder than that, you do the math.

This means that one of the best ways to keep your headphones at a reasonable level without compromise is to switch from conventional headphones or earbuds to something that blocks out more exterior noise.

The key here is acoustic isolation, so active headphones that use fancy phase-based noise-canceling technologies are of no help unless they also block out significant amounts of exterior noise through good old-fashioned padding and mass.

The same principle applies for uber-loud full-band tracking sessions. If you have solid headphones that provide ample acoustic isolation, such as the Sennheiser HD-280 or the Direct Sound EX series, your players won’t have to crank them quite so much to hear themselves clearly.

Alternately, you could become an advocate of tracking at reasonable volumes, perhaps even without headphones like on so many of your favorite-sounding classic records – But that’s fodder for a whole other article.

Custom Earplugs

Don’t leave home without ’em

It used to be that the only earplugs you could easily find were the big clumsy foam ones that block out tremendous amounts of sound with little elegance. Although earplugs like these can reduce by as much as 40dB near the center of our hearing range, they do so at the cost of nuance and musical sensitivity.

Thankfully, much better models are available today at a reasonable cost, and today there’s no excuse not to have a few pairs of high-quality reusable earplugs like High-Fidelity Hearos or the E-A-R UltraFits at hand.

For those who want to rock out in style, any good audiologist can fit you for custom-made, reusable, and practically invisible earplugs like those made by Sensaphonics or Etymotic.

Some of the most sensitive and transparent earplugs on the market reduce SPL by as little as 10 – 20 dB. While this is little enough to keep from degrading the sound of the music you hear and perform, it also goes a long way to bringing an ear-splitting 105 – 115 dB concert down to a manageable 85 – 95 dB. And at volumes like that, you can still feel that satisfying thump in your chest without going deaf for it.

Justin Colletti is a Brooklyn recording engineer and studio journalist. He is a regular contributor to SonicScoop and edits the music blog Trust Me, I’m A Scientist.

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  • Anonymous

    really great info, didn’t know about swimmer’s ear. I just picked up some Etymotic ER-20’s (which look just like the Hearos), and they’ve been great.

  • Inputoutputpodcast

    I is not slack-jawed.
    -Cletus

  •  Also a good article – and an interesting coincidence. It’s fascinating to see just how often we’re exposed to dangerous levels without being aware or prepared.

  • Billy

    any recommendations or good deals on place i could get custom ear molds. 

  • I never knew about swimmer’s ear! Thanks for the heads up. As for the permanent hearing loss caused by loud music – I’m sure a lot of it happens in those early years when we all feel invincible and earplugs are for dorks (I still get weird looks from friends sometimes when I pop them in at a ridiculously loud concert). We need some celebrity to make designer earplugs just like they make designer headphones – then they’d be cool!

  • Andrew

    Good information, should be more of it in our field, especially at the edu level, where I don’t think it is being mentioned beyond “wear ear plugs.” I want to add something because I didn’t know it until I had a scare recently, and all AE’s should know this: If you have a sudden instance of hearing loss (sensorineural hearing loss is the term), and suspect it is not swimmer’s ear, you should seek an appointment with an ENT as soon as possible, like within 32 hours soon. A short burst of corticosteroid can possibly bring damaged hair cells back to life before they crumble! Also, I learned that some audiograms can go to 12k, and ANSI has recommendations for up to 16k audiograms, but that’s exceedingly rare in practice. The standard is 8k. Audiologists, in my experience, are not terribly sensitive to why anyone would care about anything beyond 8k, unfortunately. Audio engineers, demand 12k audiograms!

  • Roscoe

    sensaphonics Musicians Ear Plugs cost about $250 including the doctor visit. You really owe it to yourself to get a set. They have many different filter values. I’ve been using -9dB which seems to be a great balance of protection vs excitement. Take care of your hearing. You can’t get it back.

  • Marcel Williams

    Great article. It’s so easy to expose your ears to loud noise, even without realising it. As you say, those who listen to music with cheap earbuds in a noisy environment are doing themselves real harm. You need to make sure your headphones have a good noise cancellation feature so you can listen at appropriate volumes.