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Live Event Audio Pros, Like Studio Brethren, Face Hearing Loss Threat

According to the respected House Ear Institute in Los Angeles, roughly one in five audio professionals will sustain some degree of hearing loss over the course of their career. Roll that figure in your head for a minute: one in five. I remember attending an AES conference several years ago where one panelist joked about tinnitus being the rock engineer's “badge of honor.” Light chuckles filled the room, probably because they all knew he could have said “dirty little secret.” But it's no laughing matter, especially to anyone who suffers from severe tinnitus.

Even as ambient sound levels in our world have become louder in the past few decades, few industry professionals have taken significant precautions to protect themselves, on the job or off. For the most part, we've become used to a generally louder environment, something that doesn't bode well for our hearing health.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) guidelines specify that an individual can be exposed to 90dB for eight hours with no risk of damage. However, every increase of 5dB reduces the scale by half. So at 105dB, you have a one-hour range to work with.

However, this is not the only guideline available. Michael Santucci, audiologist and founder of Chicago-based Sensaphonics, notes that there is a European standard that is more stringent.

“Most everyone agrees that you can be exposed to 85dB for 16 hours and not suffer any damage,” says Santucci. “But Europe's ISO (International Organization of Standards) guidelines work in 3dB increments. So at 88dB, your exposure time should be no more than eight hours, and by 97dB, you're down to one hour maximum.”

Even so, while OSHA standards are perhaps less stringent, they remain the primary means in the United States for assessing what is and is not safe.

Santucci also notes that while sustained exposure to loud sound is the chief cause of hearing loss, it's important to consider genetic factors as well.

“If you are in a band, and one of your parents suffered hearing loss due to overexposure, you have a 40% greater chance of incurring hearing loss in your lifetime than someone from a family who hasn't had hearing loss,” says Santucci.

On-the-Job Threats

Santucci was an early champion of in-ear monitoring systems as a means of controlling the sound levels that live-event professionals were exposed to.

“When they first were coming into the market, I published articles explaining the potential benefits with IEM systems,” he says. “But manufacturers are now designing systems that will top out at 140dB. And a monitor mixer's job depends on the artist being happy, so they'll crank it up even if it damages the musician's hearing over time.”

For this reason, it's important for artists who use IEMs to have an audiologist test dB levels as they use their system. This way, artists begin to take responsibility for their hearing, which may, in the long run, help prolong their careers.

But it's not just the artists who are at risk. Potentially damaging noise levels can come during setup and breakdown of a stage and sound system. Forklifts, power tools, hammers, and metal-on-metal grating sounds are all part of the sonic world of live events. If you, your co-workers, or your employees assist in any facet of putting on a live event, you are at risk. Just ask anyone who has been nailed by feedback flying out of a monitor at sound check. And that person may have only been moving the monitor when it happened.

One thing to consider is the financial cost of hearing loss, not only to the musician, but also to all the other industries and jobs that benefit from — and depend on — the musician's success. This is particularly a big consideration in the case of high-profile performers.

“Recently, a big-name artist released a CD, but decided not to tour because of his hearing loss,” explains Santucci. “A friend of mine asked me to consider how much money was lost by all the industries that make money from large, lengthy tours. He explained that I'd have to take into account all the trucking and transportation, the sound system rental companies, the hotels, and all the promotion. Potentially, millions of dollars could be lost.”

That means that the pocketbooks of staging and rental professionals could be hit in some form or another by this threat. Therefore, the financial incentive for audio professionals to practice and promote hearing health is clear.

So what's the single best thing you can do for your hearing now?

First, locate a reputable audiologist experienced in working with touring musicians and get a hearing test to establish what your baseline is. Once you establish that, make sure to have yearly check-ups to monitor changes. Also, industry professionals often fail to consider the need to save their hearing by taking logical precautions when off the job, especially considering they frequently have no choice but to risk excessive exposure to unsafe noise levels on the job. If you live in a noisy neighborhood, consider buying a pair of simple foam earplugs that will filter out loud noises such as bus screeches or sirens.

In the opening chapter of his 1985 book, The Third Ear, Joachim-Ernst Berendt quotes noted ethno-musicologist Marius Schneider: “One of the most remarkable manifestations of the degeneration of modern man is an incredible weakening of his acoustic sense.”

Working in a profession where loud noise levels come with the gig makes it more important for industry professionals to educate themselves about hearing loss before it's too late. By taking responsibility for your hearing and teaching others, you can make a difference in your life, in the lives of those around you, and those yet to come.

Alex Artaud is a musician and engineer living in Oakland, CA. Email him at


On Tinnitus

Tinnitus — a constant, ringing noise in the ear or head — isn't a disease, but rather a symptom. In fact, most everyone experiences head noise or ringing in the ears at some point in their life. What contributes to this experience, however, isn't limited to overexposure to very loud noise. Other stressors include too much coffee or aspirin, or medications you might be taking. Smoking and excessive alcohol consumption also can inhibit blood flow to the inner ear, compromising the repair of nerve tissue essential to hearing. Pathological stress, such as wax build-up, can also produce symptoms of tinnitus.

Physical and emotional stress can likewise take their toll. Individuals who are anxious or depressed will tend to notice the onset of tinnitus more often than those who are not. At times, psychological counseling is necessary to help people who have become used to their tinnitus. The idea that tinnitus can be addressed with antidepressant drugs may seem odd, yet it points to the role the brain plays in determining what we are conscious of in our daily lives.


Helpful Resources

There are a number of organizations doing great work on behalf of hearing health and awareness. Here are a few examples:

Education and Healthcare:
The House Ear Institute (
Hearing Awareness for Rockers (

IEM and Earphone Systems:
Etymotic Research (
Futuresonics (
Precision Audiotronics (
Sensaphonics (
Shure (
Westone Labs (

A number of professional audio companies have also made healthy hearing a priority. These include Aphex, the Harman companies, Roland, SSL, and Yamaha. Shure in particular is going the extra mile, producing short videos and making hearing preservation a companywide cause.