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Say What? Hearing Impairment, Ways To Compensate, And The Testing Process

Considering ways to protect the hearing capacity we still have, devices to improve our ability to hear, and tools that can help with making audio decisions.

By Gary Parks December 14, 2018

Preserving Hearing

Hearing is a critical asset, and it’s important to hang on to what you’ve got. Protecting your ears from overexposure to continual loud sounds is a good place to start. As one engineer told me, hearing damage “happens slowly over time, and you don’t notice what you’re missing.”

Nick Malgieri, FOH engineer for the Monterey Jazz Festival who also works in applications support at d&b audiotechnik, states that his Sensaphonics custom ear plugs are, “The best $150 I’ve spent since I bought my first guitar at age 13.”

He purchased his initial pair many years ago,early in his audio career, and his current plugs provide -15 dB attenuation, to which he adds, “and it does a pretty good job of bringing down all the frequencies evenly; I feel like I’m hearing things the way they’re supposed to be heard.”

Nick Malgieri, FOH engineer for the Monterey Jazz Festival (Credit: Eva Bagno)

When mixing a show, Malgieri explains, “I’ll listen to the first couple songs without them in, and then wear them once I feel like I have my baseline figured out.”

He stresses that hearing protection is critical to maintaining his discrimination during long festivals where he’s in front of a system for up to 14 hours at a time. He also has his hearing tested by an audiologist every couple of years.

Brian Geller, sales manager at Ultimate Ears, points out that in-ear monitors can help protect hearing by presenting the music at a more controlled level. Compared with standard stage monitors, he says, “With in-ear monitors, a musician can hear him/herself clearly at an appropriate sound levelwithout needing the loud onstage sound levels.”

He suggests that using in-ears “in a responsible way” can shield users from noise-related hearing loss, adding that “people come to us after hearing loss has set in, but they’re still able to continue their music career, thanks to in-ear monitors.”

Second Opinions

Conley describes the method a prominent recording engineer/producer acquaintance uses to compensate for his high-frequency hearing loss because he’s unable to detect sounds at 12 kHz and even lower: “He always keeps someone in their early 20s in the studio, saying ‘that’s my high end’ and ‘they can hear that stuff’.”

Conley also notes that he sometimes asks for a second opinion from a younger monitor engineer, explaining, “There’s a reason God made younger people – to lift heavy stuff and check old guys’ hearing.”

At times, Malgieri too asks others for input on the mix, echoing Conley’s thought that a mix is in many ways an opinion of what sounds best, and that opinion differs among engineers.

Checking Your Ears

In a typical hearing test, pitches at varying levels are given separately to each ear via headphones, and you signal by pushing a button when you hear the tone. (The process is explained on page 5 or click here.)

The level at which you no longer can detect the sound is marked down for each pitch, yielding a curve that approximates the sensitivity of your hearing. Quite often, a separate word-recognition test is given, highlighting problems with the intelligibility of certain consonants and letter combinations that equate with portions of the frequency spectrum.

The equipment that audiologists use to run these tests ranges from more hands-on to highly systematized, as my wife Eva and I recently found at a Costco hearing aid center. For consistency and repeatability, Costco’s system ties into a computer, which presents the tones, tabulates the results, and presents the hearing curve – which can then be used as a baseline for fitting the hearing aid parameters.

As a note, Eva’s binaural hearing loss is the more typical mid- and high-frequency loss from heredity and age, while mine is only in one ear from a “disease” process (possibly triggered from a congested ear during a flight back from the NAB show and the resulting “ice pick in the head” sensation).

A hearing measurement: right ear with high-frequency loss and left ear with “flat” loss.

Because playing and listening to live music is part of what we do, when it came time to fit and program our hearing aids, we brought musical instruments and samples of recorded music to the session – having let the staff know beforehand to allow the time and expertise to make this happen.

Both of us have two accessible settings, for speech and for music. The music setting is more linear and has certain speech algorithms disabled, so that live music sounds more natural and much less “affected” that with a normal hearing aid speech program.

When asked about the prevalence of sound engineers having regular hearing tests, Malgieri believes that most “don’t make the effort,” in part because they’re afraid of what they will find. Unless there are major issues, he “doesn’t look at hearing damage as bad news, but rather as news you need to know – something to keep in mind as you do your job.”


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About Gary

Gary Parks
Gary Parks

Gary is a writer who has worked in pro audio for more than 25 years, holding marketing and management positions with several leading manufacturers.

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