Performers and audio engineers at concert halls and live event venues worldwide are finding significant changes – and opportunities – in post-pandemic socially distanced live events leaving Shure and Sensaphonics seeing an opportunity for performers and audio professionals to review their listening behavior in order to reduce hearing-damaging audio levels.

After more than a year away from typical concert volume levels, the hearing of band members and sound engineers has adjusted to a controlled listening lifestyle. This means that ‘getting the band back together’ will require extra care when it comes to the ears.

Shure and Sensaphonics advocate hearing care reset‘When athletes come back after time off, they have to condition their bodies back into playing shape,’ says Dr Michael Santucci, audiologist and founder of Sensaphonics. ‘Musicians are no different. Just as an athlete will use the best training methods to enhance their performance, we now have a unique opportunity to use our technology and techniques to monitor at safer levels. So this return from a year of downtime gives our industry a unique opportunity include hearing in our expanded health consciousness.’

Santucci has made it his mission to help musicians and others take care of their hearing. Sensaphonics offers personalised and custom-fitted in-ear monitors (IEMs) and Musician Earplugs that work for everyone from up-and-coming musicians in the school band to some of the biggest names in the industry. They are also a preferred provider of custom-fit sleeves for Shure earphones.

Prolonged exposure to high sound pressure levels can cause hearing to deteriorate over time. In preparing to return to the stage after more than a year, many industry veterans are voicing surprise at how loud the audio levels seem to be – even though they are at the same settings they were at prior to the pandemic.

‘Our bodies are talking to us – this is our ears letting us know it’s OK to dial back the audio levels,’ notes Santucci. ‘Back in the day, stage volume got out of hand due to huge PA systems and wedge monitors. Post-pandemic live sound is a fantastic opportunity to eliminate that interference, reducing the noise floor instead of turning up the levels. The good news is, we have the technology to let every engineer and musician hear in high-resolution detail at lower audio levels.’

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health, a workday of exposure to levels above 80dB(A) can cause long-term hearing injury, with higher levels reducing the amount of time before this occurs. For every additional 3dB, the safe exposure time is cut in half. At 100dB(A), safe exposure time is only 15 minutes – a threat to hearing health.

‘Hearing conservation is important to everyone in the audio industry,’ says Shure Senior Director of Wireless Products, Nick Wood. ‘We want to help ensure that all performers who use our equipment are able to use it for a long, long time.’

Suggestions from Shure and Sensaphonics for musicians to help protect their hearing include using isolating earphones – of them. A common practice involves using only one earphone, leaving the other ear open. Performers have several excuses for this, such as a dislike for feeling ‘removed’ from the audience, but our ears are designed to work together. By removing one earpiece, the other one sounds 6dB quieter, which usually results in the performer turning it up. At the same time, the open ear is completely unprotected.

‘From a hearing health perspective, wearing only one earpiece is a disaster,’ notes Santucci. ‘Always use both earphones, which will enable overall lower listening levels while delivering full stereo sound.’

Unexpected sounds, such as those caused by someone unplugging a phantom-powered microphone or a blast of RF noise, can cause a near-instantaneous peak in excess of 130dB SPL, the equivalent of a gun shot at your eardrum. A brick-wall type limiter can effectively prevent these bursts from reaching damaging levels. For this reason, your personal monitor signal chain should always include a limiter at the receiver. A well-designed limiter should not adversely affect the audio quality, as it only works on these unexpected peaks.

Hearing issues after rehearsal or performance are warning signs of overexposure – Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS) is characterised by a ‘stuffiness’ or compressed feeling, as if someone stuck cotton in your ears. Tinnitus is a persistent ringing or buzzing in the ears. Symptoms like these are the ear’s way of warning that your hearing is in danger – although hearing injury can also occur without them. Hearing issues often start off as temporary, but typically become more persistent over time, eventually becoming permanent. Changing listening habits can keep the damage from getting worse, so performers who regularly experience the above effects are definitely monitoring too loud.

The only certain way to know if listening habits are safe is regular hearing checks. The first hearing test establishes a baseline that all future hearing exams are compared against to determine if any loss has occurred. Musicians should have their hearing checked at least once a year. If hearing loss is caught early, corrections can be made to prevent further injury.

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