When it comes to noise-induced hearing loss, there’s a lot of denial in the live sound world. Professional engineers understand ear physiology, safe sound exposure, and the risk factors that make them vulnerable to hearing loss, tinnitus, and other disorders. They’re aware that noise-induced damage is cumulative and irreversible, and most importantly, preventable. Yet too often, they ignore the warning signs and avoid taking appropriate measures to protect themselves.
Engineers’ ears are their greatest tools, but working in live sound environments can make them vulnerable to noise-induced hearing loss. It seems like a no-brainer: If you want to stay in the game, you need to protect your ears before it’s too late. So why aren’t engineers doing everything they can to preserve their livelihood?
To gain some insight, I talked to Michael Santucci and Benjamin Kanters, experts who come from different perspectives with a common goal of raising awareness about hearing conservation.
The Pleasure Principle
Face it: Loud music feels good. “Without a doubt, there is a pleasure to the volume; there's a dopamine released when things go above 95dB SPL," says Kanters, who teaches audio theory, hearing physiology, and conservation at Columbia College and founded the outreach organization HearTomorrow.org. “I know that what drives people to be musicians, to be sound engineers, is that sonic experience, that immersive experience, and that volume is a piece of that.” Music is essentially organized noise, but unlike, say, a pounding jackhammer, music is enjoyable.Unfortunately, hearing damage can be caused by any unsafe sound, not just sounds you don’t like.
A Perfect Storm
It’s unlikely that a professional would willingly risk his or her livelihood for the sheer joy of cranking up the show, but in the real world, things aren’t that simple.
There are many forces at work against live sound engineers: Despite federal safe-exposure regulations, the sound-reinforcement workplace, like the studio workplace, is unregulated. Noise-induced hearing loss is a function of volume level and time, and working engineers are subjected to continuous high SPLs, night after night, in situations that are often out of their control.
Compound these occupational hazards with the pressure live sound engineers face from bands and management to mix a louder show, which leads to increased noise exposure at every step, from ringing out the PA, to sound check, to the event. “Most of the engineers are in survival mode,” says Sensaphonics founder Michael Santucci, an audiologist who has been teaching engineers and musicians how to protect their hearing for more than 30 years. “They don't want to blow their own ears out, and if they wear earplugs, typically there is some backlash from management or even the band saying, 'What are you doing mixing our sound with earplugs in your ears?'"
The good news is, despite these challenges, engineers do have options.
Conservation starts with getting a hearing test to establish a baseline. Then, managing dosage means eliminating guesswork. “‘Most monitor engineers are under the auspices of, ‘I think I'm protecting my hearing; I wear ear monitors,’” says Santucci. “I say, ‘How loud do you turn them?’ They say, ‘Oh, not too loud.’ That's like saying, ‘How fast are you driving your car?’ ‘Oh, probably not too fast.’ ‘Do you have a speedometer?’ ‘No.’ ‘Could you be going 80?’ ‘Well, maybe.’ ‘Could you be going 100?’ ‘No. Well, maybe.’”
It’s important to examine your exposure over time, adds Kanters. “What's the overall average loudness over the duration of the show? You could have some occasionally really loud moments, but the average level may not be dangerous, because it's what we call a ‘time-weighted average.’” Kanters suggests seeking out products like the Trend system that measure SPLs over time.
Knowing safe exposure limits is a good start, but engineers still have to do their jobs. Kanters and Santucci offer some practical, incremental steps for minimizing average exposure over the course of the gig.
“There are situations where engineers want to wear protection during a show, but they fear reprisal, because the managers don't believe that you can mix a show with plugs, just as there are engineers who will say, ‘I can't mix with plugs; I can't hear the detail,’” says Kanters. “Well, that's true: You can't hear the detail, but if you need to hear some detail, pull your plugs out, fix the detail, throw them back in.”
“During sound check? Probably no protection,” he continues. “It's detail, it's compression, it's EQ, it's fine tuning, balancing, it's communicating with everybody. You can't do that with the plugs in.” “You can wear protection for at least parts of the show to reduce your daily overall sound dose, even if it doesn't meet the guidelines for safe use,” adds Santucci. “Engineers who do wear the plugs, they'll start off without them, do a song or two, and then in they go. Every once in a while, they hear something, they'll pull it out, and do some remixing or adjusting, and then they go back in again.”
If you can’t bring down the show volume, consider mixing techniques that might create an impression of volume. “We talk about additive and subtractive EQ. Well, how about subtractive mixing rather than additive mixing? That's just a discipline,” says Kanters.
“I work with sound engineers that I can't believe how punchy their mix is, and then I look at the sound level meter and it's averaging 95 dB,” says Santucci. “It sounds great, nobody is complaining it's not loud enough, but this person has learned to mix dynamically. Then there are other people who turn everything to 11, and that’s the whole show. It depends how good the engineer is, depends how good his or her hearing is, it depends on what the band wants. None of it is being driven by hearing loss prevention at this point.”
Stay tuned for part two of this important look at hearing damage and how to prevent it.