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Blowing Out Your Ears…Again.

Blowing Out Your Ears Part II: Protection

What is the most effective protection for the vocalist’s ears? Three experts share their views…

From Dr. Anthony F. Jahn:

This week the focus of our discussion will be ear protection.

There are special musician’s ear plugs that give a flat frequency response and can be custom made for you; they are unobtrusive and used by many professional musicians, whether at a rock concert or in the pit at a Broadway show.

Use these whenever you are in an excessively noisy environment. Keep them with you at all times and wear them every time—no exceptions.

Think of the plugs as safe sex for your ears! As a professional musician, this measure is the single most valuable investment you can make to protect your hearing.

Finally, don’t neglect the warning signs of incipient ear damage.

Temporary hearing loss can be subtle, is common after excessive sound exposure, and usually recovers—at first. A more obvious sign of damage is tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. This also is, at least the first few times, temporary. You ability to recover however diminishes with repeated exposure and with age.

I strongly urge you to have your hearing tested annually.

An audiogram can pick up early otherwise imperceptible degrees of hearing loss before it impacts on your work. If the tests show that you are developing ear damage, you need to take appropriate and consistent measures to prevent further loss.

From Producer, Engineer and Writer Bill Gibson:

I couldn’t agree more with Dr. Jahn’s words about ear protection and I want to share some industry details with vocalists.

I grew up hating earplugs. To me they took away all the good parts of the sound and left all the bad ones.

And when it comes to earplugs made for protection in a manufacturing environment that remains pretty much true—the sensation just isn’t the same.

To the rescue comes the broadband filter in an earplug; whereas the manufacturer’s hearing protectors result in a really crummy quieter sound, the broadband filter turns all frequencies down by the same amount—it’s a lot like a volume control.

The sound is still full-bandwidth, with all of the original frequencies present and accounted for but the volume is decrease by a specified amount.

They’re pretty amazing actually: I’ve had have a set of 20-dB filters for a number of years.

The first time I practiced the drums wearing my full-bandwidth ear protectors, I immediately loved them. The drums sounded like drums and the cymbals sounded like cymbals—they were just not as loud.

After playing drums for much of my life, it felt odd to play and not hear the same volume—it was really pretty nice. At the end of the practice session I removed the filters and it felt like my ears were fresh and sensitive instead of tired and worn.

As a producer and music fan, I always wear my earplugs when I check out a loud band; not only does it save my ears from damage but it also helps me to hear what they’re doing better.

Without the sheer volume of sound in the room, the subtleties and nuances of the performance are a lot easier to hear. This one is also a little odd because you can still feel the energy of a 110+ dB performance but it only sounds like 90 dB.

Just to summarize, most people who are in the music business for their entire lives experience some sort of hearing damage.

When you’re young and feeling invincible, it doesn’t seem like a problem to go to a loud concert, or to keep turning up your stage monitors, or to crank up the volume in the studio.

It’s only with the wisdom and perspective provided by a lifetime of involvement in a high level of music that you get a full and complete appreciation of the immense value of hearing protection.

Take it from those of us who have been around the block: turn it down, use your hearing protection and look forward to enjoying the whispers of your grandchildren.

From Vocal Coach Leontine Hass:

I’m thankful to Anthony and Bill for another excellent discussion of crucial issues. As before, I am going to approach the question of hearing metaphorically.

There’s a great art to hearing what we want our song to sound like with our mind and then producing a sound to match.

Watching singers vocalize in lessons is very interesting. Many highly trained singers resemble a rabbit caught in the headlights: they assume a fixed gaze, betraying the fact that they are listening intently to themselves.

We are only able to hear approximately 60% of our own voices, and that 60% is distorted. Sound travels through bone differently than through air, making your voice sound different to your ears than it does to others.

Listening to ourselves and constantly judging our own sound production freezes a voice; voices loose flexibility and their rich upper overtones.

Another undesirable effect is that phrasing is compromised by neurotic mental fixing on our own voices—rather than being a beautiful, never- ending forward wave, the line becomes chopped and stagnant.

The way forward is not to focus on hearing our own voices but to focus on hearing the desired sound in our mind.

Silent practice is a very useful exercise; if singers “hear” in the mind the tone they want to produce and then sing to match it, the tone tends to be beautiful and successful.

Many singers, however, “hear” the negative (i.e. the potential vocal problems) and sure enough, this is what will be produced.

Singing is a little like driving a racing car; if the driver looks at the wall, he will surely hit it. The driver needs to look towards the direction in which he wants the car to go. In much the same way, the singer needs to “hear” in the direction they want to go.

When a singer has a serious operation on their vocal folds, it is important for them not to listen to anyone singing in order to ensure complete vocal rest because, oddly, the larynx has a tendency to silently mimic the voice that is heard.

This fact demonstrates how powerfully what we hear in our mind can affect us physiologically.

Attend to the hearing of your mind; make sure that the way you hear yourself, before even singing a note, is beautiful and exactly as you would want it.

Useful Links

Blowing Out Your Ears Part I

Attack of the Killer Monitors

Bill Gibson, President of Northwest Music and Recording, has spent the last twenty-five yearswriting, recording, producing and teaching music. Bill is a best-selling author and has written over thirty books on the subject of recorded and live sound. His recently released six-volume set, The Hal Leonard Recording Method is already receiving high praise for its user-friendly approach.

Leontine Hass is an experienced vocal coach specializing in teaching contemporary pop/rock/musical theatre singers (many of whom are performing in London’s West End). Leontine has a busy private practice in London and is the Founder/Director of the Associated Studios and the Advanced Performers Studio, a studio for professional actors and singers.

Dr. Anthony F. Jahn is an internationally renowned otolaryngologist based in Manhattan with a subspecialty interest in the professional voice. His practice includes classical and popular singers. Dr. Jahn holds academic appointments at Columbia University and Westminster Choir College in Princeton, and is Medical Director at the Metropolitan Opera and Jazz at Lincoln Center. For the last seventeen years, Dr. Jahn has authored a popular monthly medical advice column in Classical Singer Magazine.

  • A question for Bill…


    I've been using in-ear monitors for the better part of a year now. I've always gone about it old school, and I must say that my performances have improved due to in-ear monitoring. Now, I've had a couple of moments where sound spikes have nearly shattered my skull…I'm using the Shure PSM 4 system, and I guess I just expected them to have natural OPLs in them or something to make sure someone else can't damage me.

    I've also started using them a bit differently in live, loud, less controlled environments as I don't exactly trust every new sound tech that I meet. I can't believe it's an issue, but you'd be surprised how many engineers still don't know what to do with self monitoring outside of a super annoying stage wedge cranked up to 11. I've begun donning the in-ears, having them reduce my vocal in the wedges, and combining my phone mix to what's blasting me in the face on the floor.

    Another thing…this hasn't happened live as I always use new batteries…however, sometimes in practice my battery will die and it makes a horrible sound through the speakers…the guys always look at me cross eyed when it happens but I want to milk every bit of life out of each expensive 9 volt. Often I use rechargeables for this…which don't hold up too long. Is there some way to ensure that when the juice does dry up that I won't blast my band with this uncomfortable happenstance? Oh, I'm using the Shure Beta 87a hand held.



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