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The Importance of Hearing Protection for Musicians

Date Published: June 06, 2014

For many drummers, hearing protection is often an afterthought; however we should be putting hearing protection as a priority in order to protect our greatest asset, our ears! Once the damage is done, it is permanent.

My name is Steven Reinhardt, and I am the Principal Clinician at Ears to You as well as an endorsed drummer with Sonor and Ufip. As a diagnostic Audiometrist, I deal with hearing loss on a daily basis; we test hearing, recommend rehabilitation devices such as hearing aids as well as recommend appropriate protection for preventative measures. Being a drummer and Audiometrist has enabled me to have a unique perspective to recommend the appropriate products for preservation of our ears and best hearing solutions for stage and rehearsal. Over the next two issues of DrumScene, we will explore the anatomical structure of the ear, what happens if we don’t protect our ears and the best methods of protection.

How do we hear? Anatomy 101.

Sound enters the ear as an acoustic signal that causes vibrations of the three small bones of the ear: the hammer, anvil and stirrup. When these vibrations reach our cochlea as a kinetic signal, the cochlea (or the organ of hearing) translates this energy into an electrical stimulus that our brains can process as sound.

graph

Have you ever experienced that dull feeling or ringing in the ears after a concert or gig?

This is a warning sign coming from the cochlea that the inner hair cells are in trauma. They have been overstimulated and have drooped over; this pathology is known as a temporary threshold shift, and should be taken very seriously! If the temporary threshold shift occurs on a frequent basis, it will result in a permanent threshold shift. This is known as a noise induced hearing loss.

The effect of noise and hearing damage is directly linked, and the abovementioned warning sign is an indication of permanent damage to follow. The effects may not be noticeable in the short term but when you reach your 40’s and 50’s the years of noise exposure will cause permanent damage requiring the use of hearing aids. These issues can be avoided with the correct ear protection.

What are the effects of hearing loss?

Usually the high frequency sounds deteriorate the fastest as a result of noise exposure. In speech this affects the consonants sounds. Typically what happens with a hearing loss is that the individual hears the vowel/voiced sounds so he/she knows that someone is speaking, however the unvoiced consonants give the clarity to speech, and when missing or reduced, speech sounds unclear or muffled.

Hearing loss can cause a person to become isolated and depressed. When an individual is hearing well, they feel more connected with people. Their communication improves, people don’t have to repeat things for them and in some cases where the person has become isolated, they now have the confidence to join in on the action.

How much noise can we be exposed to before damage occurs?

Level of noise in dB(A) Maximum daily exposure time
85 8 Hours
88 4 Hours
91 2 Hours
94 1 Hour
97 30 Minutes
100 15 Minutes
103 7.5 Minutes
106 3.8 Minutes
109 1.9 Minutes
112 57 Seconds
115 28.5 Seconds
118 14.3 Seconds
121 7.1 Seconds
124 3.6 Seconds
127 1.8 Seconds
130 0.9 Seconds

 

To put this into perspective, the average rim-shot of a snare measured at 6 inches is approximately 135dB, and the average crash cymbal volume is approximately 125dB. Given this information, we can see clearly why the need for protection is so important as a drummer. Every unprotected hit causes permanent damage!

How do we minimise the effects of noise exposure and what can be done to protect our ears?

Thankfully there are many different types of protective measures that can be used to help us protect our ears. It is critical to use the correct protection for the intended application, and these measures range from foam plugs through to in ear monitors.

How are plugs rated and what plug is the right one for my needs?

Plugs are rated using the term attenuation – the greater the attenuation the greater the protection. The following is a summary on the effects of the various types of ear plugs from the view point of on-stage and general practice. It is so important that even when you are not performing but attending friends’ gigs/concerts that the appropriate use of protection be employed. Most venues reproduce sound at around 106dB at the back wall; combine that with any other noise exposure experienced, you can see how easy it is to damage your hearing.

Foam Plugs

Foam plugs are a great starting point in protecting the ears. However, as a musician, one may find that foam plugs do not provide adequate clarity whilst performing. Foam plugs are great for watching gigs/performances and are disposable. These plugs typically provide 10-20dB of attenuation.

foam

ETY Plugs

ETY plugs are one step up from foam plugs in terms of protection. ETY plugs are reusable and provide better attenuation than foam plugs for performances as they provide a ‘flatter’ more balanced sound. These plugs still lack the clarity provided by custom moulded musician plugs. These plugs generally provide 12dB of attenuation.

plug

Musician Plugs

Musician plugs are a custom moulded solution that are made by trained audiologists/audiometrists and require an ear impression be taken. The impression will need to be quite deep as it needs to “clear the second bend in the canal”. This enables the plug to be more secure and will send the filtered sound directly to the ear drum providing enhanced clarity. They have a much longer lifespan than either the ETY or foam plugs. Typically they replicate the natural response of the ear but at a softer and safer level. The results are due to the diaphragm and specialised attenuators. When these plugs are used, the musician will find the sound to be clear but not harmful. It typically removes harmful cymbal wash but still allows clear stick definition whilst maintaining a good kick feel and tom sound. The snare typically has a full mid crack. Musician plugs can cost from $300 to $500. On Stage musician plugs provide good clarity and actually help to hear rather than hinder, especially when using foldback speakers, as it removes the distorted sound that is often produced.
In Ear Monitors

In ear monitoring or IEM is the best method to hear what you are doing as a musician in a live circumstance (performance, rehearsal or recordings) and protect the ears at the same time. An IEM is simply an ear plug with high fidelity speakers inbuilt into the plug, and they have a cable with a 3.5mm stereo jack on the end. They can attenuate up to 35dB of external noise and generate crystal clear audio at soft levels. An IEM is utilised as part of a system typically used with a wireless battery pack receiver that plugs into a transmitter at the front of house PA. In order for it to work it just needs to be able to plug into the mix. IEM’s often remove the need for foldback wedges as the sound is directed into the individual’s ears without distortion, and at soft levels. As a result IEM’s provide the same audio clarity as when in a recording studio without the excessive damage. A common misconception is that pubs cannot handle IEM’s, however this is not the case. I personally use them at every show at which I play, from Soundwave Music Festival to the Bald Faced Stag and smaller venues! It provides a consistency to the mix and high levels of protection. It is for these reasons that most major touring acts use them in their live performances. The benefit extends far beyond the live realm, whereby for practice one can use in ear monitors with mp3 players and plug straight in, thus enabling you to play along with your favourite songs at a less harmful level and improved clarity whilst attenuating the extraneous noise. In ear monitors are quite expensive initially, and start around the $600 mark; however the long term benefits of IEM’s far exceeds their cost considering that the starting price of hearing aids is at $1000 each.

As you can see the need to protect your ears is so important, and the appropriate protection is critical in preventing severe permanent damage from occurring. Should you have any queries please feel free to contact your audiologist or myself at Ears to You on (02) 7900 5551 or info@earstoyou.com.au