Earlier this year, I – along with my colleague Jamie Anderson from Rational Acoustics – gave a presentation to the National Hearing Conservation Association. We spoke about our work expanding Smaart’s sound level and sound exposure metering, and I shared some of my research pertaining to sound exposure at concerts.
Through this opportunity, I connected with Dr. Heather Malyuk (soundcheckaudiology.com), an audiologist who specializes in hearing health for musicians and sound engineers. She recently appeared on what has proven to be a popular episode of the ProSoundWeb Signal to Noise Podcast (here) to discuss these issues and mentioned that only a handful of the approximately 11,000 audiologists in the United States are properly trained and qualified to deal with these industry-specific issues. I also connected with Dr. Frank Wartinger (earmarkhc.com) and had a wonderful conversation with him on his Talking Ears podcast.
As luck would have it, another leader in this specialized field, Dr. Laura Sinnott (sound-culture.com), operates her practice, Sound Culture, in the town of Utica, NY, which is only a short drive from where I live. Her background includes a Doctorate of Audiology from CUNY, a Masters in Music Technology from NYU, a Bachelor’s in Music Industry Studies from CU Denver, and running the hearing clinic at Sensaphonics.
Music audiology specialists like Malyuk, Wartinger and Sinnott use their specialized knowledge to conduct industry-specific tests and services such as hearing preservation programs for musicians and sound engineers, fit verification for custom in-ear monitors and earplugs, and personalized treatment plans for audio professionals struggling with hearing loss, tinnitus and other issues. Given Dr. Laura’s proximity, my interest in the subject of sound exposure and of course my interest in not damaging my hearing, I knew I had to visit her at her office.
One example of specialized care is screening patients’ hearing over an extended range of 125 Hz to 16 kHz rather than just the standard speech band frequencies (250 Hz to 8 kHz) traditionally included in audiometric testing. The extended high frequency information can offer important insight to an audio professional’s hearing beyond what a standard audiogram can supply.
Figure 1 shows my audiogram results from a standard screening in 2018, whereas Figure 2 shows the results of a recent screening given to me by Dr. Laura – note the data extends up to 16 kHz. On both graphs, the horizontal scale is Frequency in Hz, and the vertical scale shows hearing thresholds in dB HL (Hearing Level).
A value of 0 dB HL represents the quietest sound that a young healthy person ought to be able to hear at each frequency. Thresholds above 10 dB HL are considered in the normal range, whereas threshold values beyond 20 dB HL (higher number, lower on the graph) are considered diagnostic for some amount of hearing loss. Regular screenings help audiologists detect early-onset hearing loss and work with you to better preserve your hearing going forward.
Before we wrapped up our visit, I was able to ask Dr. Laura some questions about her work. A portion of our conversation is reproduced here, with the intent of encouraging my fellow audio professionals to seek the guidance of a qualified audiologist near them. I’ve included the websites of the audiologists mentioned in this article, and they’d be happy to help you locate a music audiologist in your region.
Alternatively, more information can be found at sensaphonics.com/pages/hearing-clinic.
Michael Lawrence: What do you wish sound engineers knew?
Laura Sinnott: The truth is, I wish they took a course in hearing and hearing health, to better understand how the auditory system works, and the ways it which can be damaged. Education is, I would say, the most important part of hearing health. Because if you understand what is going on, you will be motivated to do something.
If someone just says, “put an earplug in your ear,” nobody is motivated to do that, because we spend our lives and our careers refining our critical listening skills – so we don’t want to just put an earplug in. But if we understand the details and nuances of our auditory system, and how susceptible it is to injury, then we’ll be motivated.
Also, there are good ear plugs out there that can really lower the sound level in ways that don’t color the sound as much as you might think it would. But the quick answer is to find an audiologist and get your hearing checked.
ML: What about specifically for live sound engineers who are the custodians of the sound level, for potentially thousands of people? It now goes beyond self-preservation and now there is a responsibility to everyone in the audience. What do you want them to know?
LS: Well, we could get really deep into this. Because some people might not agree that audio engineers have that responsibility – but we do, and I do.
ML: [My colleagues and I at the Audio Engineering Society] did a survey of about 2,300 live sound engineers and we found that most of them would agree that we should have some guidance or regulations on this, and most of them are very receptive to training and education as well – they just don’t know where to go.
LS: That is amazing – thank you for doing that survey. I know there are some discussions happening around the same topic at the World Health Organization as well. It seems like there are some people who are very opposed to regulating it because of how complicated it would be, but that’s also why I love your spin on it. This idea that if there was informed consent, if people actually knew what could happen to you at these events, maybe the opinion would be different.
ML: And my colleagues and I also feel that the government might not do the best job of it – there are some SPL laws on the books in the U.S. and most of them are really technically lousy. So, I think what we’re seeing is a shift towards getting people to understand this in terms of a professional obligation.
In the same way that there is a professional ethical obligation with rigging, pyro, electrical – you’re in charge of a system that is capable of hurting someone, and you need to operate it in a manner that you’re not hurting anyone. So, the angle is more about trying to inform people enough to be responsible with it.
LS: I love that framework because it doesn’t seem so daunting. It’s about education. And it’s the same thing as being motivated to take care of your own hearing. So that’s where it’s up to people like you and what Rational Acoustics is doing – and people like myself – to provide the training and provide the education.
For audio engineers to take courses like your SPL course, going to see an audiologist, to get some of that information for things that seem very straightforward to hearing health professionals, like NIOSH levels, or how to assess when you’re at risk, because these things are crucial.
I think there needs to be a culture shift in terms of how we relate to sound, and that’s why my company is called Sound Culture. It’s not really something that’s in the forefront of mainstream society’s consciousness. So things like that require passionate people to push things forward and raise awareness.
ML: What do you think is the most important message here?
LS: I’ve talked to many, many engineers who feel stigma about talking about hearing health, and even shame about going to get a hearing evaluation because it might suggest that something is “off” with their hearing.
I want to tell those people that this feeling isn’t your fault. It’s been ingrained in our larger society that sound and hearing is the opening act not the headliner. In the audio engineering subculture, fear around hearing evaluations is due to lack of information and a virtual absence of education, and hesitation around talking about lowering sound levels is due to the cultural legacy of louder means better.
The way to shift the stigma is by articles like this, take the seminar from Rational Acoustics, visit your audiologist and talk to them. If you’re a senior engineer, learn about hearing and then impart knowledge upon those you mentor, and if you’re an educator, introduce hearing health into your program.