What You Need To Know About Hearing Conservation: Behind the Scenes with Sensaphonics
"Your hearing is your most important piece of gear, and it's the only one you can't replace."
This statement really struck me when I was re-visiting one of Shure's webinars on personal monitoring systems. It's so true! As a musician, if you can't hear, you've got nothing. If you're playing music at loud levels frequently without taking precautions, you're likely on your way to extreme hearing loss. If you're at all like musicians I know, you save up your money for that dream guitar or your dream keyboard, while things like ear plugs or custom molds tend to fall on the back burner of priority items. Doesn't it seem silly to feel justified in spending thousands of dollars on flashy guitars, then feel reluctant to spend a couple hundred on molds that could save your hearing?
Hearing loss is one of the most commonly ignored health conditions in America today, which is why I enlisted the expertise of Heather Malyuk at Sensaphonics to shed some light on the issue. I caught up with the audiologist to tell us exactly what we can do to save this vital piece of gear for musicians.
What can you tell us about hearing loss that most people don't know?
There is a well-accepted myth that hearing loss is caused by aging, where in reality aging alone does not cause hearing loss. Many seniors actually still have normal hearing. In fact, 1 in 3 hearing losses are totally preventable. Permanent sensorineural hearing loss (loss that happens to nerve cells in the inner ear/cochlea) is caused by exposure to loud sounds for long periods of time, poor vascular function, certain medications, genetics, and diseases/viruses. Many people don't realize that severe hearing loss can come with side effects such as increased sensitivity to loud sounds, tinnitus (ringing), distortion of pitch, and of course decreased sensitivity to quiet sounds. Individuals might think that hearing aids are a cure for hearing loss, but they aren't. The sound quality from a hearing aid is very different from "normal" hearing. They make things louder but not necessarily clearer depending on the individual and his or her specific hearing loss. Hearing aids also have many limitations in terms of music appreciation.
What do you think the most common misconception is in regards to hearing safety?
There are a variety of misconceptions, but I think rather than a misconception, the general public and general music industry are miseducated about hearing safety. Loud sounds can be safe depending on how LONG someone is exposed to that sound. Safety recommendations are about the relationship between loudness level and exposure time. There is also individual susceptibility to loud sounds. It's like being exposed to strong sunshine without wearing sunblock: A few minutes won't badly burn your skin, but three hours might! It's the same with sound exposure. The longer someone is exposed to a loud sound, the more hearing protection they need. I also think people don't realize the importance of an annual hearing test.
What is the best way for musicians to prevent hearing loss?
Musicians have several ways to prevent hearing loss, and what is "best" depends on each individual. No matter the method of protection, annual hearing tests are essential to ensuring that the protection is appropriate and working. In fact, annual hearing tests are the cornerstone of any official hearing conservation program. Since the music industry is not regulated in terms of loud sound exposure, audiologists and musicians need to be especially motivated and vigilant with hearing tests!
Depending on the musician, the typical performance or practice environment, and his or her individual needs, adjustments to reduce volume of an environment can certainly be made. For example, a music student who is using a practice space often can make adjustments to the acoustics. However, most musicians don't have the luxury of always practicing or performing in one location, so custom, filtered earplugs and in-ear monitors (IEMs) are very useful. It should be noted that IEMs are not safety devices, but can be used to maintain a lower listening volume when they are made and fitted properly and the musician is educated about safe use.
How do custom molds work?
The process for getting custom earplugs or IEMs involves seeing an audiologist for an appointment. During that appointment, any concerns with hearing can be addressed, a hearing test should be administered (something everyone should do annually!), and ear impressions will be taken. The ear impressions are then used to make the custom product. For any custom piece to work properly, it needs to have an isolating fit in the ear canal. In other words, if a custom product doesn't seal in the ear, it won't be completely effective. Earplugs that have filters work with different attenuation levels. The effect of the filter has a lot to do with how an earplug is made and how well it fits. If a filter is made to attenuate an approximate amount of decibels (for example, 15dB), it cannot do that if the fit of the earplug is not isolating.
Most people think of custom molds as earplugs or fully custom IEMs, but they can also be sleeves for universal fit IEMs. We are honored and proud to be the recommended and sole provider for sleeves for Shure's line of universal fit IEMs. I frequently see individuals in our office seeking custom sleeves as they can't get the needed fit with universal tips. Custom sleeves are a great solution for those individuals.
Is this the best way to protect hearing while using IEMs?
Three things should be considered when wearing IEMs: 1) Isolation of the IEM, 2) Wearing both earpieces at all times, and 3) Being aware of IEM loudness. If an IEM isolates the wearer from the ambient sounds around them, they won't have to compete with that sound in terms of volume. Similarly, if only one earpiece is worn, the wearer is again competing with ambient sounds for volume, thus having to wear the IEM at a higher (and potentially damaging) volume. Not all IEMs are created equally, and not all IEMs isolate. People shopping for IEMs should take into account what material the IEMs are made of, educate themselves about proper use, and whether or not the IEMs have a vent. Note: Some IEMs are now being vented as an "ambient" option. However, vents should be avoided as they make the earpiece lose isolation. An annual hearing test will tell the wearer if he or she is causing hearing damage. There is also a device that measures drive voltage off of IEMs to let any wearer of Shure or Sensaphonics IEMs know what dB level is coming out of the IEMs and how many minutes of safety time he or she has before causing damage. The device is called dBCheck. It doesn't automatically turn it down, but it gives the wearer the needed information to make an educated decision about his or her volume.
How is Sensaphonics making an impact with hearing conservation?
In the pro industry, we are making an impact in terms of product development that allow users to make educated choices about their monitoring levels. For example, all of our products are made in soft material. We even have IEMs with ambient microphones embedded in the earpieces to allow the wearer to keep both earpieces in. Beyond that, we have developed a device called the dBCheck (which I mentioned earlier), the only device of its kind. We are also making an impact in terms of education. We frequently lecture to large groups of audiologists, engineers, and musicians alike. We believe one of the most important aspects of hearing health is education.
We are impacting not only the pro industry with education and access to hearing health, but we are moving and shaking in the Chicago community as well. We frequently team up with local bands to pass out hearing protection to their fans at concerts. We've also starting hosting events at local venues, which includes performances from bands who wear our earplugs or IEMs. At those events, attendees can ask us questions about hearing conservation, hearing issues, and can get ear impressions for custom earplugs. The response we've had from the local community has been overwhelmingly good. We've taken a special interest not only in local musicians and engineers, but also anyone who works at loud venues, bars, restaurants, etc. We offer industry workers discounts on office appointments as well as discounts on custom, filtered earplugs. We're definitely seeing a change for the better in the Chicago scene.
Well, there you have it! Like any other major health concern, hearing health should be taken seriously, and everyone, especially those working in noisy environments regularly, should hold themselves accountable to visiting an audiologist for a hearing exam annually. In sum, it's important to note that IEMs are not a sure-fire way to protect your hearing. We often see performers pulling one ear piece out of their ear while leaving the other in. This is NOT recommended. This often leaves the artists asking for more volume in the other ear to compensate, which puts your hearing off balance, furthering potential damage in that ear. While IEMs are not safety devices, they are the responsible choice for monitoring in live sound applications.
For more information on Shure's Personal Monitoring Line, check out our PSM 101 videos on YouTube below.
Visit www.sensaphonics.com to get your own custom molds and more information about hearing health.