by Joe Moody, contributing writer.
Tinnitus and hearing loss are potentially serious dangers to anybody who plays in a rock band or is regularly exposed to loud music, and only in the last few years has any real attention been paid to the perils of listening to music at excessive volumes and the permanent damage that it can inflict on a person’s hearing. I’m not sure that this has made a whole lot of difference in the way that most musicians deal with (or don’t deal with) the insane sound pressure levels which are generated by their instruments and amplifiers, but at least when they do eventually begin to lose their hearing, they may have a clearer idea of why it’s happening.
I’m not sure why people who listen to loud music think they’re immune to the dangers of volume excess; the guys who operate jackhammers have always worn those big ear protectors that look like headphones, while kids today are wearing headphones that are louder than jackhammers. And everybody with a portable music player is using ear buds, so they can get the source of that volume resting right up against their eardrums. I’ve been out in public and had someone next to me listening to an MP3 player, and I can hear their ear buds like they were speakers, sometimes so loud that they are actually distorted. Makes me want to suggest that they start boning up on their lip reading and American Sign Language now, so they’ll be prepared on the morning that they wake up and the birds aren’t chirping. You’ve probably seen the T-shirt that says, “If it’s too loud, you’re too old!” I’m going to have a shirt made that says, “If it’s too loud, you’ll be deaf by the time you’re my age!”
Sound pressure levels (SPL) are measured in units called decibels, abbreviated as ‘dB’. (A “deci” Bel is a tenth of a
Bel, which is a level of sound measurement named after Alexander Graham Bell, in case you wanted to know.) In order to give the uninformed reader some perspective, the volume level of an average conversation measures about 60dB, and the racket made by a jet taking off, if you happen to be standing on the runway, is about 130dB. SPLs at a modern rock concert can easily reach or exceed 125dB. According to OSHA standards, exposure to levels above 90dB for as little as fifteen minutes can cause permanent damage to your hearing apparatus.
Now, the level of a decent size guitar amplifier, say a full Marshall stack at a distance of one meter, is about a bazillion dB, and the level created when a drummer bashes his stick into the crash cymbal two feet from his head is about twice that. Most drummers have at least two crash cymbals in their setup, and many of these drummers play for several hours every day. After a few years of this constant abuse, their eardrums just stop showing up for work. So, please understand, if your forty-year-old drummer friend doesn’t respond when you speak to him, you shouldn’t take offense; he’s not ignoring you, he’s deaf.
Many bands hone their craft in some kind of rented practice space. There are a slew of these “band factories” that rent out modest rehearsal spaces for exorbitant amounts of money. Most of these complexes are renovated office or mill buildings which have been diced up into little sheetrock cubes with marginal security, no acoustical treatments and not nearly enough room for a loud band to spread out in. Of course, everybody in that tiny space wants to be heard, so the levels of the guitars, keys and bass tend to rise to keep up with the drum levels. Drums tend to be a
high-volume item by their very nature, and the rest of the band, instead of trying to find a way to reduce the volume of the drum kit (Blasphemy!), will crank up their amplifiers until they can barely make out what their songs sound like in the unholy din. Imagine dragging your stereo speakers into the shower (don’t actually do this, just imagine it) and turning your system up to its maximum volume. Triple that, and you’ve got an idea of what most rock bands expose themselves to two or three times a week for several hours. And they do this just as preparation for live
shows, where they get to be really loud.
If you’ve never played in a rock band, you can’t quite appreciate the apocalyptic volume levels that these musicians experience when standing onstage in the heat of a full-on rock & roll gig. It’s pretty impressive. The sound actually becomes a physical thing, a kind of sonic soup that surrounds you and pushes you around the stage. There’s an appeal to the power of the hugeness of that stage volume that causes most musicians to surrender themselves to it and play with no ear protection, regardless of the fact that they know it may eventually deafen them, and if they’re standing in front of a bass amplifier, possibly sterilize them to boot.
“Ah, forget it,” the devil-may-care musician boldly says. “I hope I die before I get old, anyway.” That’s what Pete Townshend of The Who said, except he did not die before he got old, and now he has tinnitus. That’s why he doesn’t tour much these days – loud sounds are now like ice picks in his ears, and he probably says, “Somebody wanna get that phone?” a lot, even when there isn’t a phone ringing, because his ears ring all the time.
A very small percentage of the musicians I know are reasonably careful about protecting their hearing. They wear earplugs at least most of the time, and try not to stand right on top of their amplifiers when they’re playing. But most rock musicians will probably never clearly understand the phrase, “Your senior citizen discount is only valid on Tuesdays.” Hey, I’m no volume sissy – there’s not much I love more than loud rock & roll. But I’ve also accepted the reality that if I want to be able to actually hear it, or anything else, I need to exercise some discretion in my exposure to damaging volume levels (Besides the fact that decent hearing is kind of a prerequisite in my line of
One clear example of the abuse that many musicians perpetrate on their eardrums is excessive headphone levels in the studio. I’m always careful to set all artists’ headphones at reasonable volume levels, in an effort to avoid doing anyone any permanent damage. However, the headphone amps in my studio have individual volume controls, allowing reckless volume freaks to turn their headphones into instruments of merciless pain and destruction I will occasionally stroll through the studio when the band is in the control room listening to a playback and am often amazed and
horrified to see the band members’ headphones dancing a conga line across the floor, propelled by the insane levels of
distorted audio blaring out of them. Picture yourself sitting on top of a fire truck with your ear pressed tightly against that big horn that goes ‘BLAAAAAAT!’ when they approach an intersection, and you’re getting close to imagining how loud these headphones are for the person wearing them. I attempt to caution the band about the hazardous headphone volume, out of genuine concern for their hearing. “You know, your phones are really loud,” I say. “What?” “I SAID, YOUR PHONES ARE REALLY LOUD!” “No, that’s not my phone, but I wish somebody would answer the darn thing, it’s been ringing all day!”