I was in a recording session last month with my headphones cranked up, monitoring several guests at once. I was listening hard for background noise, laptop fans, mic position, and the sound of someone’s dog rustling around in the other room.
Suddenly, a loud hum started up, cutting through all the other sounds. I pulled my headphone off one ear to see where the sound was coming from and realized that it was coming from inside my head. Oh no.
Thankfully, it cut out a second later, but it made me think: I need to pay better attention to my hearing.
It’s tough to limit your exposure to sound in this field. I always have headphones on. I’m either in a meeting in my Two-Zoom Household™, in a recording session, editing audio, or reviewing sound-designed episodes. In my non-work time, I have headphones on so much I’ve caught myself doing the AirPod-double-tap on my headphone-less ear before.
But I want to be able to do this work for a long time, so I reached out to an expert to learn what I (and others in this field) can do to look after our hearing.
Dr. Steve Taddei is an audiologist and an audio engineer. He also hosts The Hearing Tracker podcast, all about hearing technology and research around hearing science.
So what is the risk here?
Steve says over time, overexposure to sound — too loud or for too long — can damage our inner ears. You might hear people call this ‘ music or sound-induced hearing injuries’ or ‘sensorineural hearing loss.’
What’s happening is you’re wearing out the little cells inside the cochlea that translate sound vibrations we hear into signals for the brain to interpret.
Steve compares it to sun exposure: “It’s not that you go out in the sun once and you have skin cancer. No, it’s a chronic issue of continually damaging your skin, exposing it to hazardous UV levels, and then eventually issues can arise.”
And the bad news is — once an injury takes place, the damage is done. It’s not reversible.
So Let’s Talk About Prevention
Turn It Down
Our ears can only handle so much noise for so long.
The industrial guidelines have some recommendations.
- OSHA (the American Occupational Safety and Health Administration) recommends a limit of 90dBs for 8 hours a day. Steve says that even if you’re playing within this limit, it can still cause injury in 25% of people.
- NIOSH, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health pulls that limit down to 85dBs for 8 hours which is somewhat safer.
- (Canada’s Occupational Health and Safety Regulations splits the difference, capping it at 87dBs for 8 hours)
Steve says to watch out for anything around 80–85dBs or higher:
“It’s not — I see 85 decibels, I have hearing loss. It’s that when I see 80–85 decibels, I know that the clock is kind of ticking and I am fatiguing my hearing system. So maybe I turn down the levels if I can, or reduce how long I’m gonna be exposed to this level.”
^ reminder that these are industrial guidelines — if you’re listening critically you can get fatigued a lot earlier.
So how can you be sure you’re in the right range?
You can invest in a decibel meter, but if you’re not into getting new gear, there are great app options Steve recommends.
For environmental noise:
The NIOSH Sound Level Meter app is a great choice if you’re on an iPhone.
For headphone noise:
The Apple Health App can help you track your headphone levels if you’re an Apple user.
The Right Gear
Over-the-ear headphones are a better bet.
You’ve probably heard that active noise cancelling headphones aren’t a good pick when you’re working with audio. They can alter the sound you hear so you’re not listening as accurately. But Steve says all over-the-ear headphones create what’s called “passive noise reduction.” Just sealing your ears with good-fitting headphones helps, so you’re not competing to hear over your environment.
(If you’re using earbuds — watch out. They don’t do anything to block out environmental noise so it’s easy to keep turning them up louder and louder if you’re in a noisy area. Steve says this is why he’s seeing hearing injury in teenagers “skyrocket.”)
(You Knew This One Was Coming) Earplugs
“One of my biggest recommendations that I always harp on. Get a set of musicians’ earplugs, get ones that have a key chain so you’ll always have them with you.”
Musicians’ earplugs are leagues better than the foam ones. Regular foam earplugs just muffle the sound so you’re not getting the full range, while musician’s earplugs lower the entire frequency, so you’re hearing everything, just quieter.
Happy to report good musician earplugs are not wildly expensive anymore. Steve recommends Loop Experience Pro, Etymotic Research ER20s, or Eargasm High Fidelity plugs.
Take An Ear Break
Follow the Mayo clinic’s “60–60 rule” — listen at 60% and break after 60 minutes.
You might feel like you’re on a roll, or a deadline crunch, but pushing past your ears’ limits does not make for better work.
In fact, tired ears and tired brains ask us to crank the volume. So those long edit days can do even more damage.
Breaks will make you a better, more sensitive listener, and as Steve said, a smarter editor.
“After about an hour of hardcore working, my brain’s a little mushy and just getting up and doing a 10-minute walk in quiet means when I get back to the computer, I’m much more ready to work.”
Get A Check-Up
“You don’t know if you’re doing damage unless you get a hearing test. People generally don’t get their hearing tested until they’re in their forties or their fifties. They’re struggling to hear at work. A spouse is angry with them because of how loud the TV is.
We go to the dentist, we get our vision checked, but we don’t go to the audiologist. Get a baseline test. And then next year, if you get another test, you’ll be able to see if you’re damaging your hearing system, why not do that?”
Pro tip: regular audiology check-ups might not test between 3k — 6k Hz — which is where most hearing injuries will occur.
And if you’re feeling pressure in your ears — consider a professional cleaning! If you’re listening with headphones for long periods, the ears might overproduce ear wax to try to protect themselves, which can cause even more problems!
I Followed My Advice!
After talking to Steve, I made a couple of changes. I started being more intentional about ear breaks and more aware of the environmental noise around me so I’m not mindlessly cranking my AirPods… and I got my ears tested.
I booked an appointment with Natasha at Toronto Hearing Consultants, who popped me inside this booth here. It was simple and quick, and I luckily got a clean bill of health. It made me feel better to know I’m tracking my ears so I can intervene if there are changes next year.
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