“Hey buddy! Could you turn up the guitar and fix the mix on that kick drum?” I heard the cry come from an audience member standing in the aisle next to me. We were at Madison Square Garden, and I was standing in front of a Wholehog 2 console.
“I mean it, man! That mix is [insert expletive here]! You gotta do something about that!”
It was clear that this was a “sound guy” only at heart, if not in practice, because he was oblivious enough to approach the squinting lighting guy looking up in the air, slapping touchscreens to sort out his audio request. I couldn't help myself. I had to accommodate this gentleman.
“Well hold on a second, sir. What is it that you don't like about the mix?” I asked.
“I can barely hear the guitar, and the kick drum sounds tinny. Do something, for God's sake,” my new friend demanded.
With a keen hand cupping my ear, I twiddled the knobs of the lighting console in front of me, tapped some buttons, and replied, “Wait a minute. I'm almost there. Tinny, you say? Stand by!” I twiddled some more and looked as busy as possible. After about 60 seconds, I asked, “Is that any better?”
To my astonishment, this guy looked at me and with a wholehearted wink of his eye and a thumbs-up, said, “Oh you're good! You're really good, man!”
I didn't have the heart to tell him what I was really working on,mainly because I had a cue coming up, but I guess that there's a little bit of “sound guy” in all of us. Regardless, there was obviously a decent amount of hearing loss in him.
If you work in production, then it's safe to say that you probably work in loud environments. It's just a simple fact of our business, and there's very little that you can do to avoid it. If you've managed to find yourself a quiet job in production, then you are among the fortunate few, although describing you as “fortunate” depends on your personality and career aspirations. Music, sound effects, pyrotechnics, and the tons of metal constructed around us each day are all just plain loud. Whether you're on a concert tour, in a nightclub, or working that special event one-off in the hotel ballroom, noise is part of your day.
These environments come with work hazards in the form of decibels, and it will most certainly take a toll on your hearing if you don't protect yourself. It is well-documented that any sustained noise over 85 decibels has the potential to damage your hearing and that noise levels of 115db and higher pose a serious health risk, with 140db being the loudest recommended exposure while wearing hearing protection (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, www.asha.org). Depending on which studies you read, you'll see that death of hearing cells within the cochlea in the inner ear takes place at sustained noise levels upward of 130db. Even a quick pyrotechnic blast can produce a high-pressure noise level capable of causing permanent hearing loss. Take into account that your average arena rock concert is around 100db, no matter what local regulations may say, and it's no wonder we've got a lot of friends asking us to repeat ourselves.
Of course, we know that loud noise causes hearing loss over time. We've been told that since we were kids. The problem is that many of us treat that warning just like all the others we were told when we were kids, like, “Your face is gonna get stuck like that if you keep doing that,” or “That will make you blind.”
I'm amazed at the number of people who don't protect their ears. What doesn't surprise me is how much I have to repeat myself among these same aurally damaged folks. Interestingly, I find the lighting and projection guys saying “eh?” more often than the audio department. As always, there are exceptions to the rules, but for those of you that don't use protection, it's time to wake up.
Many say that wearing ear protection hinders their ability to do the job. In particular, some console operators claim that they can't hear the audio mix properly, or they can't “feel” the music when wearing ear protection. I sympathize, but there is still protection that will enable you to do your job to the fullest, while allowing you to grow old and be able to hear your grandkids making fun of you from across the room.
Hearing protection is such an easy thing to acquire that you don't have to sacrifice the “live show feel” if you choose wisely. There are several types of devices available within various price ranges. When shopping around, one of the main questions I found myself considering was whether or not I could put a price tag on my hearing. Forget for just a moment what you can afford, and think about whether or not you would be willing to sustain major hearing loss over the years.
With that in mind, let's look at some types of hearing protection on the market. As a disclaimer, I'm going to state the obvious and note that the little medical training that I have in no way relates to matters of otology. I'm simply speaking from my personal experiences with hearing protection that I have used in live production settings.
Let's look at the least expensive variety first: foam plugs. You know they're inexpensive when Crowne Plaza Hotel leaves them on your pillow to ensure a good night's sleep. Regardless, these little guys do the job, are usually considered disposable, and simply block out a good deal of sound. The downside is that they block out a good deal of sound. If your job requires you to simply be immersed in a loud environment with little regard to what that noise is, then foam plugs are a pretty good bet.
Over-the-ear headsets are another noise-canceling option. You've seen ground crews at airports wearing these, and they will occasionally be spotted in entertainment environments. Much like foam plugs, these headsets simply block out sound but offer the comfort of a headset versus an in-ear plug. The choice to use these is usually a matter of comfort, and, in many cases, the headsets will block out more sound than a foam plug. In all cases, with the exception of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier flight crew, the headsets tend to make the wearer look extremely goofy — I'm just sayin'.
My personal favorites are custom in-ear filter plugs. These require more effort to obtain but are definitely the professional choice. Basically, this is an in-ear plug with a fancy noise filter built in that simply reduces the decibel level by a very specific amount and filters out damage-causing noise frequencies. In most cases, you can order these to filter out 9db, 15db, or 25db levels, and many manufacturers allow for the filters to be swapped out so you can customize your level of protection to the specific environment.
I mainly use a set with 15db filters. As some manufacturers advertise, the 15db filter provides very good hearing protection while maintaining the live feel to the audio, so that you can still perform to the best of your abilities. I've also found that the 15db filter will correct many less-than-desirable FOH mixes by quieting annoying and damaging frequencies. Another perk with these filters is that they actually help you hear your coms headset a lot better in a loud concert environment, a benefit when you're trying to communicate with followspot operators.
The key to these types of plugs is that they are truly customized to fit your ears, so you have to make an appointment with an audiologist to have impressions made of your ear canals. This is a completely painless process that takes approximately 20 minutes. Then, you ship your impressions to an in-ear plug manufacturer. A trip to the audiologist usually costs less than $100, and custom plugs usually range from $180 to $300.
The manufacturers seem to offer various levels of protection. Ultimate Ears (www.ultimateears.com) and Sensaphonics (www.sensaphonics.com) are two industry leaders in custom-made ear protection, and both offer generic versions that can be purchased at a fraction of the cost. Even Surefire (www.surefire.com), the popular flashlight company, offers decent, generic earplugs called EP3 Sonic Defenders™ for approximately $10. I carry a set of these around as a backup.
On a very serious note, I feel the need to point out that it is becoming increasingly common for parents to take young children to loud shows these days. I am astonished at the number of toddlers I see in the arms of parents while their little ears go unprotected. It's one thing for you, as an adult, to choose to not wear hearing protection at a concert, but it's entirely different to allow your child's ears to go unprotected. Please protect your children's hearing if you're going to drag them to the show with you. They don't know any better, and you should.
At the end of the day, there's really no excuse for not protecting one of your most valuable and irreplaceable assets. More importantly, if you lose your hearing, you'll never be able to hear an audience member ask you to fix the guitar mix via your lighting console, and that would just be a shame.