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Technology feature: Noise annoys!

Dr Annie Jamieson talks about hearing damage, loss, protection and best practice for those who work in live sound

Dr Annie Jamieson (pictured, below) is a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science at the University of Leeds, whose research into hearing risk and its history focuses specifically on the live music industry. She also conducts regular seminars on the subject, the latest of which was part of the educational programme at PLASA Focus Leeds.

Do you feel that the level of awareness of potential for hearing damage is better in pro-audio now than, say, ten years ago?
Going by my experience, and on reports from those working in the industry, awareness is improving.

Certainly, in terms of press and social media coverage it seems to have increased in the last year or two following some highly-publicised concerns about MIHD (Music-Induced Hearing Damage) in young people through sustained headphone use.

In late 2014 I carried out an online survey of 230 audio professionals; the vast majority (some 98%) are aware of the risk, though almost 20% still never use hearing protection. Somewhat worryingly, the group least likely to use hearing protection are the under 21-year-olds, where only 65% use protection compared with 80+% in all other age groups.

What early signs of hearing damage should those working in live sound look out for?
You won’t know until it happens – temporary threshold shift or TTS (that muffled effect you sometimes get after a loud show) and short-term tinnitus are warnings that you are being overexposed. If you experience either of these problems on even a semi-regular basis, then you are definitely at risk and should consider taking precautions.

You might also notice high frequency loss, specifically frequencies from around 8kHz upwards. This will not show up on most standard hearing tests, which only go up to 6-8kHz, but it’s not uncommon in people regularly exposed to high levels of sound.

Hearing loss at such high frequencies doesn’t make a difference to perception of speech and everyday activities but can be problematic for sound engineers. I would also advise anyone to take an honest look at their exposure levels – both SPL (sound pressure level) and duration – and assume that if you are regularly exposed above safe levels you need to take precautions whether you notice any effect on your hearing or not.

What should their first action be if they do suspect hearing loss or damage?
If you have any reason at all to suspect hearing damage then take professional advice immediately, preferably from an audiologist who specialises in working with sound professionals.

It might be something that’s relatively easily dealt with, such as wax build-up, but if it is something more serious then the sooner you identify the problem, the better.

For example, ear infections can have permanent effects on your hearing if not treated early and effectively. It’s important, though, not to leave it until you have problems – I’d recommend annual hearing tests for anyone who works in live sound, then be sure to ask the audiologist for a copy of your results and keep them safe. This will allow you to compare results year-on-year and see how your hearing is holding up over time and to identify whether your protection strategies are working.

I’d also emphasise that it’s never too late to preserve what’s left. It’s not unusual for people in the industry to think, ‘The damage is already done, so there’s no point in worrying about it now’, but MIHD is progressive so it’s important to save as much as you can, even if you’ve already sustained some damage.

Can music-induced hearing loss be treated or repaired?
No, not at present. There is a great deal of research into new treatments but nothing proven as yet, so for now if your hearing is damaged you’ll just have to live with it.

Hearing aids are advancing all the time and can be incredibly effective in improving speech perception but remember that even the best hearing aids are not like spectacles – they will not restore your hearing to exactly what it was before the damage and especially not for critical listening.

If you do suffer MIHD, though, there are solutions and strategies that can help you to continue to work successfully, with specialist advice.

Can you recommend any specific types or designs of hearing protection that would be particularly applicable to audio engineers?
It’s important to be aware of the full range of available hearing protection and to consider what works best for an individual’s applications.

I would stress that people shouldn’t be put off using hearing protection just because the first type they try doesn’t work for them – you have to be prepared to experiment to find what’s right for you and your situation.

The best type to use depends on the kind of work and environment:
* Anything that involves critical listening really requires custom moulded earplugs, with attenuating filters to suit the noise levels encountered. Remember too that, if you’ve never used earplugs, they take a little while to get used to so don’t write them off after one night!
* Also consider protecting yourself when not mixing: engineers I’ve interviewed use a wide variety, for example noise-cancelling headphones when travelling, industrial ear-defenders during load-ins etc. And remember that you can be exposed to risky levels outside of work too: DIY, sports events, even mundane things like dropping glass in the recycling bin can all be really loud…

What information or education is available to engineers concerning hearing protection and maintenance?
This is a bit of a problem because of the largely freelance nature of the industry which makes it hard to target information – it is out there but you have to find it for yourself.

Also a lot of the (generally very good) information available on the internet [such as the Action on Hearing Loss website, formerly the RNID – Ed href=””] is aimed at audiences and doesn’t always take into account the specialist needs of professionals in audio.

There are some good resources though: some of the hearing protection makers have good advice on their websites and specialist audiologists can give top quality advice on an individual basis. One of the most comprehensive, specialist sources is the HSE’s Sound Advice guide.

If you had to summarise the most practical and relevant part(s) of your research with regard to mixing live sound, what would it / they be?
Several key issues really stand out, firstly the issue of critical listening: the ability to hear fine detail in the mix is essential for an audio engineer and, understandably, some feel that they can’t work to their best ability whilst using hearing protection (others, of course, can and do mix successfully with earplugs).

This is a professional judgment that only the individual can make. The most thoughtful and practical engineers I’ve talked to have made themselves fully aware of the risks and of what solutions are available and even if they don’t feel they can actually mix with hearing protection, they protect themselves the rest of the time and only expose themselves to full volume when they think it’s absolutely necessary.

Secondly, ’keeping it safe’ for the audience: it’s quite commonly argued that you shouldn’t need hearing protection if you mix at safe levels for the audience, and this came up in my survey too. It’s great that engineers are aware and caring for their audiences in this way, and we shouldn’t mix louder than we need to, but I think there are two important points to consider. Firstly, it’s not always possible to keep levels ‘safe’ (e.g. 94dB for one hour or 91dB for two) for a number of reasons: for example, it’s not always entirely the FOH engineer’s call as there might well be strong pressure from the band or management to mix much louder; crowd noise alone can easily exceed 90dB, and there are also audience expectations. High volume is an essential part of the live experience for many gig-goers, and part of what they are paying for. Secondly, whilst a typical gig-goer might only be exposed to high levels on a relatively infrequent basis, audio professionals might be exposed to the same levels far more often so the risk is generally greater for them.

A final word of advice for all of us?
Just be aware of your specific risks and of the solutions available and protect yourself as much as you can, as often as you can. It might be that, as an industry, we need to accept that completely safe levels in live music are not always practical – and that’s why awareness and hearing protection are so important.