Musicians and music lovers have been known to enjoy really loud volumes. From concert halls, to clubs and even to the studios where the music is created. Many are exposed to very loud volumes without knowing that they could be hurting their ears.
- The Concert Hall
- Using Headphones
- Volumes In the Music Studio
Let’s look at a few statistics. In the U.S alone, about 40 million persons suffer from hearing loss. Of this number, a quarter of them (10 million) were caused by noise related issues. This is called Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL).
Noise Induced Hearing Loss can be caused by a one-time loud noise or a continued exposure to loud noise. If you are a musician who has been exposing his or her ear to loud volumes, you need to begin to pay close attention.
The Concert Hall
No one loves concerts that don’t rock! The energy of the thumping bass excites the crowd and performers alike. Ask any live sound engineer and you will learn that musicians can be a pain when they are not okay with their volume levels.
With everyone pushing volumes, the volume just hits the roof which excites the crowd. But wait! Have you ever looked at the back of those huge speakers (and amps)?
THESE AMPS ARE CAPABLE OF PRODUCING VERY HIGH PRESSURE LEVELS WHICH MAY CAUSE TEMPORARY OR PERMANENT HEARING DAMAGE. USE CARE WHEN SETTING AND ADJUSTING VOLUME LEVELS DURING USE.
The warning you see on the back of the ’64 Custom is behind many professional speakers and amps. Of course many do not see it and even those who see it seem not to pay too much attention to it.
When you leave a concert hall where the music was really thumping, if you feel a ringing in your ear or if speech sounds a bit muffled, then you likely have what is called temporary hearing loss which reverts after a while.
However, continued exposure to these loud volumes can cause permanent hearing loss. Here’s what I try to do when I go for concerts. I stay far from the FOH (front of house) speakers and I go with ear plugs. My hearing is too important to me and my work.
It’s now a common sight to see people with headphones of all sorts everywhere. Many enjoy turning up the volume so the music pounds in their heads. If you use a smartphone, have you ever noticed that when you increase the volume, at some point you get a warning regarding the harm it can cause to your hearing?
Once again, a lot of people see this but do not pay attention to it. If someone close to you can hear the music you are listening to on your headphone, then it is too loud. Continued exposure to loud volumes on earphones is a sure way of damaging your hearing.
Volumes In the Music Studio
A music studio is a professional setting where it is assumed that everything is done professionally. When I am mixing, I turn down the volume really low and listen for a while, I then turn up the volume pretty high and also listen for a short while.
My aim is to hear how the mix sounds at various levels. Some frequencies and sounds may get lost at some volumes or get too pronounced at others. I listen and make necessary adjustments. I also listen on my reference headphones for a short while.
Limit Loud Playbacks
The point here is that I expose my ears to loud sounds ONLY very briefly. I am usually shocked when I go to a studio and the music is consistently blaring. I just know the engineer has no idea what is happening to his or her ear.
Though continued exposure to loud sounds can lead to hearing loss, in most cases it does not happen suddenly so many are not immediately aware of it. Yes, sudden exposure to extremely loud sounds can lead to immediate hearing loss but those are not common cases.
Noise Induced Hearing Loss
The more common thing is for hearing loss to occur gradually. If you are a musician or a sound engineer, this is a terrible thing. Here’s something that many musicians are not aware of.
Noise Induced Hearing Loss begins with the high frequencies. As you continue to pound your ears with loud volumes, the high frequencies begin to disappear from your hearing spectrum. You will hear the low frequencies, but not the very high ones.
As you continue, the hearing loss moves lower. Can you imagine a musician or sound engineer who cannot hear frequencies above 10Khz? Let me explain what this means.
You will not hear your cymbals. You will not hear those high frequency instruments. Your ear will filter out high frequencies in vocals, making them sound bland.
Actually, every sound you hear will be bland because since sound is made of several frequencies, you will only hear the low ones. I will sure love to hear what the mix from such a sound engineer will sound like.
It’s one thing to point out errors but a more important thing to show better ways of doing something. Regard everything up to this point as a preamble that has led to this point.
The aim of this article is to help musicians understand the risk of loud volumes and what they can do to manage it.
I have already shared what I do when I attend a concerts. That was from the audience perspective. Here’s some tips for performing live:
- When I am on stage performing, I try to keep volumes down. This can be pretty difficult when you’re not in charge.
- Using musicians’ ear plugs can help cut down the volume that gets to your ears without cutting off the sound too much so you can still jam with the band. (see the ear protection section below)
- You should also learn to rest your ears as much as possible between performances. This will give the ear time to recover.
- Get your band members to understand the danger of loud volumes. If they do get it, managing volumes on stage will become much easier.
Use of Earphones
One of the things we mentioned regarding the use of headphones is that if the person beside you can hear what you’re listening to, then it is too loud. This may not always be very helpful because the person beside you may not tell you they can hear what you’re listening to.
To stay within safe listening range, try to enjoy listening to music on your headphones at not more than 50 to 60% of the volume. Below is a safe listening guide for iPod users:
- If you listen to your iPod at 70% volume, the safe listening time is 4.6 hours per day.
- At 80% of the volume, the safe listening time is 90 minutes per day.
- At 95% of the volume, the safe listening time is 5 minutes.
- If you’re going to listen for many hours, then do so at about 50% of the volume as already recommended.
Rule of Thumb for Earphone Use
When I use an earpiece, I try to ensure I can still hear conversations around me even while listening to the music. This tells me my volume level is very safe.
As a rule however, I do not spend too much time listening on headphones.
The Music Studio
Studio Monitor Levels
When setting your reference monitor volumes, ensure it is at a level where you can still talk normally even with the music playing. If you have to shout over the music to be heard, then it is too loud.
Like I noted earlier, you may want to listen to a music at a higher volume for referencing purposes. This should not be for long periods of time.
Reduce the time you spend listening on headphones
When you do listen on headphones, keep the volume low.
If you are using the headphone as a monitor while recording (as a singer or as an instrumentalist), learn to listen at safe levels. 50 to 60% of the volume should be okay unless of course the volume from the mixer is already too loud or too low in which case you should adjust appropriately on your monitor control.
Rest and Refresh
We know it is a music studio. This does not however mean that something has to be playing from your speakers all the time. Learn to rest your ears. This is good both for your ears and for your mix.
Peter Townshend, lead guitarist, main song writer and also backing vocalist for the rock band ‘The Who’ who has been on stage for over 50 years and is now over 70 suffered a permanent damage to his hearing and now advices young musicians to take care of their hearing. According to him, he now takes 36 hour breaks between recording sessions.
Musicians’ Ear Plugs
For playing/listening in louder live environments, consider buying earplugs specially designed for musicians. These earplugs provide some good decibel reduction and also provide an more even response rate across the sonic spectrum. In other words, you’ll still hear everything (maybe even better), while protecting your ears.
An even better option: custom earplugs. Go to an audiologist, get a hearing test and some custom molds for your ears. Then wait a few weeks for the custom plugs to arrive in the mail!
You can also get Isolation Headphones for Hearing Protection (these are different from noise-canceling headphones). They may not look as cool as in-ears but they’re great for practicing, setting up gear and as back-up ear protection. There are also some closed-back studio headphone with decibel reduction, but are more pricey.
Furthermore, consider installing an app on your phone that measures decibel levels. Or you can buy a Digital Sound Level Meter. I occasionally set one up on the bandstand to monitor sound levels and then will adjust my ear protection accordingly.
One thing everyone should know is that once you begin to make yourself listen to music at low volumes, you will begin to enjoy music at that volume. After a while, you won’t be able to stand those loud volumes you so loved and did not think you could do without.
Start today and save your hearing so you can enjoy music for the long haul.
Chimerenka is a musician and writer with over 30 years of active music experience. He has performed actively as a bass guitarist, music director, trainer and producer. He currently doubles as a producer and music consultant, operating from his private studio in Lagos, Nigeria.