Eh? Say What?!?
Noise induced hearing loss – and how to prevent it.
Hearing loss is a subject most musicians and concert goers gloss over because they think it either won’t effect them or they’re unaware of how easy it is to protect their ears these days.
Unless you’re completely unobservant, you must have noticed some bands, photographers, security and crew at concerts wearing some form of ear protection. Often its those simple soft plugs you get from the chemist, but if you look carefully you’ll see some of the better designed plastic plugs that fit right inside the ear and are really hard to notice. The foam plugs act essentially the same as you putting your fingers in your ears, where as the more well designed plastic plugs work better at filtering out harmful frequencies and letting you enjoy the music more. Here’s a basic run down of whats going on and what you can do to get sorted.
First, lets get the scary stuff out of the way.
Hearing loss is irreversible. There are currently no medical procedures to restore hearing, and the only option is to amplify sound by wearing in-ear hearing aids – like your granddad used to wear, yes. On the up side, hearing loss can be prevented from getting any worse, so by acting now you can keep what you have. The big problem with hearing loss is it happens slowly over years and you won’t notice it happening. There are a few tell tail signs you’re getting hearing damage though – things like noise hurts or makes your ears ring or you get slight deafness for some time after a gig.
Where should I be concerned about noise levels?
For musicians and concert fans there are two types of noise levels to worry about. Immediate sharp loud noises like explosions – or being directly in front of the PA system when the drummer is sound checking his snare drum for instance. The second is consistent loud background noise, basically anything you need to shout over to talk.
Some frightening stats
Unprotected, this is about what you’re good for before potential hearing damage sets in:
60db – normal talking level, unlimited
85db – busy traffic noise, standing beside the highway – 8 hours
91db – A loud pub with band in the background – 2 hours
106db – A nightclub, or right up close to a loud band – 4 minutes(!!)
The NZ standard for indoor and outdoor concerts noise level maximum is 140db max. A jet taking off at Auckland International from 100m away is 130db. This pretty much means you have no law protecting your hearing at a NZ concert as long as the sound guy stays within the legal maximum. You do have rights to complain under regulation 11 of the Health and Safety act if you feel the noise levels were overly loud and the concert organisers were irresponsible and lead to your hearing damage, but it would be very difficult to prove unless a large group of people complained. In general, noise laws are in place to protect surrounding residents, not people inside the venue. Larger events have very tight volume restrictions in place from the local councils, and touring companies often abide by Australian noise standards – there is a rather large problem though:
At large events sound pressure is normally measured from a set position in the crowd, then measured to a preset distance away. That’s the place they measure the maximum allowable sound pressure (volume). This starting point could be a far as 20 metres from the stage. This means if you’re up front at the barrier next to the speakers, the volume levels could be way over the measured maximum for the venue, which is a case of basically too bad. If you’re up front, you need ear protection – period.
Here’s another set of numbers to help you make that decision.
Using basic ear protection (poking your fingers in your ears)
60db – normal everyday talking, don’t do it – you’ll look a spanner.
85db – busy traffic, unlimited.
91db – A loud pub with band in the background – 64 hours
106db – A nightclub, or right up close to a loud band – 2 hours
There’s cheap, medium and pricey options here. To be honest, at the end of the day they all do about the same level of protection, its more down to how much to want to enjoy the music. The bright green or orange $5 foam plugs you get from the chemist are perfect to keep in you bag for emergencies. As said before, they’re the equivalent of poking your fingers in your ears, but they work. They will attenuate the high end frequencies and leave much of the low end alone, so you might feel like you’re underwater a bit. The trick with these guys is you need to force them into your ear holes so they literally block out any sound – if you can hear any high frequencies, your doing it wrong and keep stuffing them in. When you take them out of the pack, roll them between your fingers to compress them, then push in and kind of turn them, or screw them in if that makes sense. The idea is to get them pushed in so far they block any noise – you shouldn’t hear any high frequencies. Obviously these will not do your ears any favors by pushing wax and crap deeper down, plus they hurt after a while.
The medium price option are pre-made plastic plugs. They run about $30 – $50 for a set that you can clean with a damp cloth and reuse. They are better at attenuating, or reducing, frequencies evenly across the range, and are much more comfortable to wear and you don’t look so weird compared to bright green foam bits sticking out of your ears. The Rock Shop is a good place to start to find these. Depending on the design, these plugs should easily insert into your ears and feel comfortable for much longer periods of time. They sometimes come with straps attached, handy if one falls out, you won’t need to scramble around on the ground looking for it. There are many brands available in the this price range, so talk with a knowledgeable salesperson about your requirements – cheapest isn’t always best.
The high end options can get pricey depending on how far you go. The best starting point is to get custom molded inserts made specifically for your ears. These will fit your ears perfectly and be really comfortable and discreet. They have custom decibel ratings depending on what you need them for, but they do a much better job of attenuating sound letting you talk easily with someone next to you. They cost around $350 including the custom impressions and molds.
Musicians might consider in-ear monitors as replacement for the old stage wedges. These look similar to custom molded ear plug, except they have tiny drivers (speakers) built into them. They range from $1000 – $2500 and more if you like lots of options. With in-ear monitors you have complete control over your sound levels and mix – unlike traditional stage monitors where everyone in the band is competing for volume. Compared to lugging around a pair of stage monitors costing easily that much and no ear protection, I know which way I’d rather go.
Contact Thomas at Acoustix Hearing Technologies for more detailed information, prices and options to suit your needs. They have a full range of hearing protection, including the high end fancy stuff.
Live concerts are only one of many places you can suffer hearing damage, but its probably the easiest to plan ahead for. You know you’re going to the gig, just make sure you have at least the foam plugs with you – heck, take a few packets in case your mates forget theirs. Some form of protection is vital, but if you want to hear the music clearly you should seriously consider the medium or high end range of ear plugs. You can’t avoid getting old, but you can avoid needing hearing aids much sooner than expected.