We’ve all heard the cautionary tales of rock stars with severe hearing loss. Anyone who works in pro-audio, including sound designers, engineers and producers, faces similar risks. Fortunately, the most common form of hearing loss is entirely preventable. I’d like to offer a little bit of knowledge and present a few tips on how you can preserve your hearing while still producing the same outstanding audio that your profession demands.
See an audiologist once a year
You would be amazed how much hearing loss can be prevented simply by following this one simple rule. For people who rely on their ears professionally, it’s really a must-do.
Why? Because noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) happens slowly over time. Its onset is almost imperceptible, typically caused by repeated overexposure to loud sounds on a regular basis. Most people don’t notice it, as the loss builds up slowly over the course of years.
Getting an annual hearing screening from an audiologist is simple, painless, and results in an audiogram that graphs your hearing acuity at key frequencies. By comparing annual audiograms, any changes in hearing can be easily spotted. This is, by far, the most reliable method of diagnosing hearing loss before it becomes serious.
Know how loud you’re listening
For years, studio producers would monitor at extreme levels while mixing and mastering music, often for sessions lasting many hours. Many actually believed they were safe – as long as the sound coming from the monitors was clean – meaning “not distorted”. Nothing could be further from the truth.
NIHL is caused by overexposure to loud sound – any loud sound. There is no special dispensation for sound quality. While distorted audio is certainly more fatiguing mentally, hearing damage is driven by daily exposure time to excessive decibel levels.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying some high volume music. The key is to be aware of the levels and length of time involved. Below is a chart to help you see if you are putting your hearing at risk.
The chart shows two different safe exposure guidelines – the traditional OSHA scale used for industrial workers and the more conservative and scientifically accurate NIOSH scale. They utilise different methodologies, but both show the acceptable daily dosage (length of time) of SPL before significant risk of long-term hearing damage.
The OSHA scale (bottom) uses a baseline of 90dBA and uses an ‘exchange rate’ of 5dB – meaning that the acceptable daily dosage is cut in half for every 5dB increase in level. Historically, this scale protects 78% of people from NIHL.
The NIOSH scale is significantly stricter, but therefore more effective. Under NIOSH guidelines, the baseline level is 85dBA, and the exchange rate used is 3dB. Since each 3dB of increase requires double the amount of energy, this is the more scientifically valid scale. Following NIOSH guidelines should protect about 96% of people from NIHL.
Preserving the professional ear
The keys to maintaining your hearing health are awareness and behaviour. Measure your studio environment so you know how loud you are listening.
It’s not that difficult to calibrate your system to determine where the ‘danger line’ lies. There are both hardware and software solutions available – the most obvious being the classic SPL meter.
There are also smartphone apps that can help, such as dB Volume Meter or SoundMeter+ for iPhone and Sound Meter or deciBel for Android. (Important note: smartphone apps should be calibrated to ensure accurate readings.)
The bottom line is simple: we live in a loud, loud world. If you have got into the habit of monitoring at 85dBA or more routinely, it’s important to find ways to turn it down.
Dr. Michael Santucci Au.D. is founder and president of Sensaphonics, which describes itself as "the technology leader in custom-fit in-ear monitors and earplugs." His personal mission and corporate cause is to preserve the hearing of musicians and audio technicians.