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Safe and Sound: Protecting Your Ears While Producing Music

Hearing damage from loud sound is a common problem for musicians and engineers both live and in the studio. We spoke to two top audiologists who gave tips for keeping your hearing safe when producing music.

By Mike Levine

Safe and Sound: Protecting Your Ears While Producing Music

 

As a recording musician, engineer or producer, your hearing is an irreplaceable resource. If you injure it from exposure to damaging sound pressure levels (SPLs), there's no way to restore it. Although there's been a fair amount of attention on the dangers live musicians face from exposure to loud sounds, the same has not been true for those who work in the studio.

The level and duration of sound that you expose your ears to during the music production process—both from monitors and headphones—is something you need to be aware of and self-regulate. Otherwise, you could eventually injure your ears permanently, which will make it harder to function in the studio.

In order to get more information about safe volume levels in the studio, I spoke with two audiologists who are leading experts on music-related hearing issues: Dr. Michael Santucci of Sensaphonics in Chicago, and Dr. Julie Glick of Musicians Hearing Solutions in Los Angeles.

1. How Loud is It?

Before getting into the subject of protecting your hearing, a little background about sound levels will be helpful. Most of the loudness levels discussed here will be expressed in dBA, the "A-weighted" version of the decibel scale. It's weighted to compensate for the way human hearing works. We perceive frequency differently at different volume levels. The louder we listen, the more low and high-end frequencies we hear. The quieter we listen, the more midrange we hear.

Another point to remember is that decibels are not a linear measurement; they're logarithmic. For example, an increase of 3dB doubles the SPL. Going up by 10dB increases the SPL by a factor of 10, by 20 dB by a factor of 100. Keep that in mind when thinking about levels and exposure.

Just so you have a baseline to compare, here are some approximate levels of familiar sounds from everyday life.

image 1

 

2. It's All About Exposure

To determine whether you're exposing yourself to unsafe volume, you need to know both the levels you monitor at and the exposure time. In other words: how loud for how long? The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) created guidelines that you see here.

image 2

 

The government created these guidelines for industrial workers, and even experts like Santucci aren't entirely sure how accurate they are. "We don't have any real criteria for music hearing protections. We're using the industrial one. Is it right? I don't know."

Even with those caveats, the NIOSH guidelines are the best we have, and both Santucci and Glick suggest that you follow them. You’ve probably heard the acronym OSHA in the context of hearing, as well. It stands for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and is the government agency that enforces the legal limits on noise in the workplace. It offers a similar set of limits to NIOSH, but they’re somewhat more lenient. For example, OSHA allows for 90dB of exposure for eight hours, as opposed to the 85dB that NIOSH, which is a scientific arm of OSHA, recommends.

3. Boiling Frog Syndrome

Because hearing damage usually happens over time, it can creep up on you without you realizing it. At first, your ears can recover after unhealthy exposure (other than catastrophically high levels like from gunshots or a bomb going off that can cause permanent damage instantly).

For example, if your ears are healthy and you go to a loud concert, they may ring or your hearing may seem muffled, but those problems will likely go away after a day or so. But repeatedly exposing yourself to unsafe levels for too much time will eventually damage the hair cells in your ears irreversibly.

That type of injury is called sensorineural hearing loss. "Sensory refers to the cochlear which is lined with millions of frequency coded hair cells which are amplifying sounds” explains Glick. “Neural refers to the hearing nerve and the brain. The brain is actually where we hear and interpret sound. As a result of sensorineural hearing loss, even when sound is amplified the hearing nerve may not transfer the sound to the brain clearly."

Another complication is that everyone’s susceptibility to noise injury is somewhat different. "We can't pre-identify," Santucci explains. "We can't look at you and say, you're probably more susceptible."

What is definitive is the frequency range where your hearing is most susceptible to injury. "Hearing gets injured in the same octave band," explains Santucci, whether it's a gunshot, whether it's a sawmill, whether it's a violin, whether it's a metal guitar. It doesn't matter what the sound spectrum is. It always gets injured between 3kHz and 6kHz because we have a tube in our head called our ear canal, which resonates there and adds a bunch of energy in that area."

That resonant peak in the human ear canal can add 10 to 15dB in the upper midrange to everything we hear.

"When you're playing guitar at 100dB, that octave could be 26dB louder," Santucci adds. "So, we always see this pattern of injury."

Another complicating factor is your age. Once you get into your 40s or 50s, you may begin to lose some hearing due to the normal aging process. Just like your vision deteriorates over your lifetime, so does your hearing system. That should give you additional motivation to keep your ears as healthy as possible when you're younger. Otherwise, hearing-induced damage combined with age-related loss can exacerbate your problems later in life.

4. What Should You Do?

So, what do you need to do to protect your ears in the studio? First, you should get a sound pressure level meter to keep tabs of the levels you're listening to. "It's $50 on Amazon, just do it," Glick says.

A hardware-based meter will be more accurate than an app-based meter on your phone. But Santucci is okay with people using the latter, if it's the right one. "If your phone and phone mic are in good condition," he says, "the best app is the NIOSH app. It's free and the most accurate."

According to Santucci, the NIOSH Sound Level Meter is the most accurate app-based way to check levels

According to Santucci, the NIOSH Sound Level Meter is the most accurate app-based way to check levels.

With a meter or meter app in hand, you can keep closer tabs on your SPL exposure. If you want to monitor at over 85dBA, or your clients do, follow the NIOSH guidelines to limit exposure time.

Unless you really like to listen loud, you’re probably won’t find that to be a significant constraint. Listening at 85 dBA on nearfield monitors is loud. You'll probably want to keep it lower than that for the most part.

Both Santucci and Glick also stress the importance of annual hearing tests. Don't wait until you have issues to see an audiologist. Because of the natural variations in people's hearing and susceptibility, it's essential to establish a baseline early on. Subsequent tests will then show whether you're developing any hearing loss.

"When you have an annual hearing test, make sure the audiologist tests 3kHZ and 6kHz," Glick suggests. Those frequencies are not part of a standard hearing test, which typically covers 250Hz, 500Hz, 1kHz, 2kHz, 4kHz and 8kHz. But they are particularly important if you’re an engineer or musician.

“I also test up to 20kHz, which is a technique I learned from Michael [Santucci],” Glick explains. “Most audiologists stop at 8kHz, but I find it to be extremely revealing to test that high.

5. It’s all in Your Head(phones)

Unfortunately, a sound level meter won't help you test the level of your headphones, which also can deliver damaging audio levels. Santucci offers a valuable suggestion for how to control your headphone volume.

"Turn on your near field monitors and put on that NIOSH app and get a reading that's safe," he says. "And then put on headphones and match it."

What he's suggesting is to adjust your monitors to a safe level and then mute them, put on your headphones, and compare levels. Using your ears, adjust the headphone levels to where they sound as loud. It’s not a precision technique, but it can help you keep your headphones at a safer level.

Apple’s iOS Health App has a section called Headphone Audio Levels that keeps track of the levels you listen to with your mobile device while wearing earbuds or other headphones. It provides a weekly breakdown. Although it doesn’t measure your studio headphone use, it will let you know if you’re turning the volume up too high when you’re listening at other times. To your ears, it’s all just volume, so it’s important to track your recreational headphone levels as well. (Note that according to Apple, these measurements are most accurate if you’re using Apple or Beats earbuds.)

The headphone audio levels section of Apple’s iOS Health app

The headphone audio levels section of Apple’s iOS Health app.

6. That Fatiguing Feeling

A less severe ear issue that affects everyone who works in the studio is what's referred to as "ear fatigue" or "losing your ears." It happens when you've been listening for a long time, particularly when mixing, and you feel like you’ve temporarily lost your judgment about what you're hearing.

"I try to remind people that your hearing does not get worn out from too much listening. Your brain gets worn out and they call it 'ear fatigue,'" Santucci says. "It’s just kind of a brain fog. Remember, we hear with our brain, not our ears. You could have perfect ears and if I snip the nerves going into your brain, you won't hear anything."

The conventional wisdom is that taking frequent breaks, such as 10 minutes every hour, can help delay the onset of that brain fog.

At some point in a long session, however, just taking breaks will no longer do the trick. Glick suggests following the cues your body gives you. "Your body will just naturally tell you." When that happens, she says, "that's it for the day, you're done."

7. Now Hear This

In summary, if you want to keep your hearing as safe as possible, follow Glick and Santucci's advice.

1. Get an SPL meter or app and monitor your levels.
2. Stay within the NIOSH guidelines.
3. Get yourself a hearing test and make it an annual occurrence.
4. Try to keep your headphone levels no louder than your monitors.

Many recording musicians are also performing musicians, and the stage is more dangerous for your hearing because the SPLs tend to be a lot higher than in the studio. If you're gigging, both Santucci and Glick recommend getting custom musician's earplugs, which give you a much flatter response than foam or other universal-fit plugs. "They sound better than anything else out there," says Santucci.

"The case for custom plugs is this," Glick says. "First, they're comfortable. They’re made of soft silicone and the filter in them reduces by either 9dB, 15dB or 25dB. The filter in them along with the plug itself recreates that resonant peak and then attenuates it. So, it's more like transparently turning it down."

Whether in the studio or on stage, remember that there’s no going back from hearing damage, and it’s never too soon to start protecting your ears.

Mike Levine is one of the preeminent music-technology journalists working today. He’s the Technical Editor-Studio for Mix and the former editor of Electronic Musician. Levine is also a composer and producer who’s written music for numerous national commercials and for TV networks like CNN, the History Channel and A&E. A multi-instrumentalist, he’s played sessions, concerts, and on Broadway. Visit his music site at michaelwilliamlevine.com and check out his writing at mikelevine.journoportfolio.com.

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