Years ago, Pete Townshend, leader of British rock legends The Who, made headlines when he revealed that he suffered from substantial hearing loss as well as tinnitus, a permanent ringing sound in the ears. Given The Who’s history of record-breaking concert volume (with the occasional flying shrapnel from Keith Moon’s exploding cymbals), Townshend’s condition came as no surprise. However, Townshend claimed that a portion of his deafness was in fact due to excessive headphone use while in the studio.
A pretty sobering thought - especially when you consider that the average set of headphones is capable of injecting up to 130 decibels of volume straight into your ear canal. “We turn it up without realizing that we’re doing damage,” says audiologist Brian Fligor of Children’s Hospital Boston. “Noise-induced hearing loss develops so slowly and insidiously that we don’t know it’s happened until it’s too late.”
The National Institute for Deafness says that over 30 million Americans currently suffer from some form of hearing loss. While older people are typically affected in greater numbers, recent studies have found that hearing problems are being diagnosed at a much earlier age. “People are starting to lose their hearing 20 years earlier than in the past,” revealed Heather Ferguson, President of the Hearing Foundation of Canada. Experts put the blame on a society that is becoming noisier with each passing year.
The point is, you don’t have to be a rock star to run the risk of incurring serious hearing loss. By educating yourself about the risks of prolonged headphone use and general exposure to excessive volume, you can greatly reduce the chances of becoming yet another deafness statistic. Here are some simple solutions:
Limit your listening. The best preventative medicine, say experts, is setting limits on the amount of time you spend listening through headphones. Over-the-ear or studio-headphone users should not exceed an hour a day, if possible. “In-ear” headphones, or earbuds, are the worst offenders, since the closer the source is to the eardrum, the greater the chance for sustaining permanent damage - 30 minutes per day is tops. (So potentially harmful are earbuds, in fact, that Apple, maker of the iPod, is reportedly working on a software-based solution that can provide automatic “recovery periods” during extended listening.)
Whatever kind of headphones you’re using, always keep the volume level in check, and during prolonged activity be sure to take frequent breaks so your ears have a chance to recuperate. Also, make sure all cables have been properly connected before you strap on the ‘phones to prevent screeches, loud pops or other damaging noises from blasting your eardrums.
Remember that headphones aren’t really necessary for every occasion: Whenever possible, monitor your mixes through ordinary speakers (again, using a moderate volume level) to eliminate headphone-related ear wear and claustrophobia. Monitors can be used in place of headphones for just about any kind of overdub, for that matter (and the extra leakage adds a nice vibe, too).
Keep it down. Even though we’re told to “crank it up,” louder is definitely not better for your ears when tracking or mixing. When subjected to higher levels of volume, your ears tire easily, impairing your judgment after just a few minutes. Turning up to “11” might sound great in an arena, but you don’t really need that “extra push over the cliff” when using an amp in a small room.
Protect yourself. Many of us have experienced the unnerving sensation of ringing in the ears following a loud concert or band rehearsal. Now imagine if that ringing never went away! That’s what tinnitus suffers must deal with on a daily basis. However, you can avoid such a fate by using proper ear protection. Options include inexpensive disposable foam earplugs like Hearos, as well as high-fidelity plugs such as those made by Etymotic, which block volume while preserving sound quality (and still only cost $12). If you regularly record with amplified equipment in a confined space, you’re particularly at risk - never plug in without having earplugs plugged in first!
Learn more about hearing loss. Pete Townshend helped lead the effort to educate people about the dangers of excessive volume through the funding of Hearing Education and Awareness for Rockers (H.E.A.R.), a non-profit hearing information source for both musicians and music listeners (http://www.hearnet.com). Other valuable resources include websites like Youth Hear-It (http://www.youth.hear-it.org), the Musician’s Hearing Center (audiologycenter.upmc.com/Musician.htm), as well as the headphone-related HeadWize (http://www.headwize.com).