Protecting the professional ear

Much like musicians, people who make their living in the media must be able to hear, and hear well. But, ironically, the working environment in many studios and at outside broadcast events is loud enough to have long-term harmful effects. A handful of crusaders have taken it upon themselves to educate those at risk as to how to protect their hearing long-term.

One such organization is the House Research Institute (HRI), based in Los Angeles. Marilee Potthoff, HRI Director of Community Education & Outreach, addressed the issue of hearing health in an interview during the recent NAMM Show in Anaheim.

“We’re here providing free hearing screenings to give the musicians here a basic idea of where they stand,” she said. “The idea is to make people more aware of hearing health and introduce them to the idea of having their hearing tested annually, or at least every couple years, so they can continue with their careers in audio.”

Potthoff noted that the same principles apply to broadcasters as well.

“It’s the same idea,” she said. “People doing live production, or doing mixing and mastering in the studio, are subjected to excessive sound levels on a regular basis. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that when sound exceeds 85dBA, you should start limiting your exposure time. So, anytime you’re in a place where you have to raise your voice to be heard — like here on the trade show floor — you’re increasing your risk of noise-induced hearing loss.”

NIOSH guidelines allow eight hours of daily exposure at 85dB, but the allowable time is cut in half for every 3dB increase above that. “By the time you’re up to 110dB, which you find at a lot of rock concerts, auto races, and other events, the average person can only be exposed safely for about a minute without hearing protection,” Potthoff said.

Like most experts, HRI recommends Musicians Earplugs for the professional ear. These custom-molded plugs come with special filters, developed by Etymotic Research, that cut frequencies equally across the spectrum, eliminating the muffled sound typical of over-the-counter foam plugs. The filters are available in 9dB, 15dB, and 25dB of sound reduction. Musicians Earplugs are available from a host of companies, including Sensaphonics, Westone, and others.

People in the music industry are at higher risk than the average person for noise-induced hearing loss — as opposed to other forms of hearing loss. It’s the one form of hearing loss that’s totally preventable these days. We realize that their careers depend on their ability to hear well, so we really want people to be aware.

Noise-induced hearing lost (NIHL) is almost entirely preventable; all that’s required is regular hearing tests.

“This type of hearing loss comes on very slowly over time, so the best way to identify it is to compare hearing tests year to year,” Potthoff said. “In the music industry, we look for something called a noise notch, which is a pattern in the audiogram where there’s a dip between the 3k and 6k frequency area. It’s a V-shaped pattern and that tends to be indicative of noise damage vs. other types of hearing problems.

“The critical message here is that, even if you have some loss, you can keep it from getting worse. That’s another really critical aspect of what we’re doing: encouraging people to protect themselves from further damage. That’s equally true for musicians, for DJs, for sound engineers, for broadcasters — even kids with iPods and smart phones.”

Potthoff said smart phone apps are available that can help tell people when they are in a too-loud environment.

“There are several sound level meter apps out there,” she said. “Some are more elaborate than others, but there are several good ones that are free, and it’s an easy way to know when you should put on your earplugs.”