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Author Topic: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement  (Read 14543 times)

klaus

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Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« on: November 17, 2014, 01:57:58 am »

Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement

I have avoided visiting my audiologist (strike that-nonsense-I have no audiologist, it’s been too long!) for more than a decade now. All around me people in their Fifties, Sixties and Seventies (Bruce Swedien is 80+) still work productively, making esthetic decisions on a basis of, in most cases significantly, reduced hearing ability: high end? gone, high midrange? distorted, reduced.

How do they continue working? How do they continue to judge balance, timbre, musicality of a song or album they engineer or produce? How will I make esthetic decisions achieving “sex appeal” in a microphone when that time comes for me (for all I know, its already here, trying to knock on my door, but I am not hearing it)?  Hearing loss is not like loss of sight, function of a limb or other handicaps which we can often successfully make up by using another organ or another sense. Partial hearing loss for an engineer should mean the end of a career. But it is not.

I have observed it time and again in the professional studio environment: sound (both senses of the word) decisions are being made every day by older professionals who have lost 25dB or more of 8kHz hearing, who hear distortion when standing next to a violin bowed, or have become hypersensitive to high volume playback.

So, how do they do it? How do they stay in the game? Fakery is out of the question: one can only compensate little from memory; tracking and mixing situations are often so vastly different from place to place, day to day, that repeating what you did Monday in a Neve room will not translate to Wednesday’s direct-to-Protools date.

Here is my theory: We overestimate the importance of what the fringes on the frequency bands portend to the overall quality of sound, and we do not give enough credit to the old Paul Stubblebine adage: ”if you get the midrange right, everything else will fall into place”.

Let me expand on that: if you get a musical, esthetic, emotionally attractive mid range from any sound-processing device- microphone, pre-amp, storage medium, speaker, headphones... you have made it. I could even include the sound source in this list: the ugly, badly tuned snare drum will show up, even if two dozen decibels are gone from the engineer’s top end hearing range.

As this is not so much an issue of relative hearing volume but of quality, I believe some loss in high frequency hearing will only slightly, if at all, affect the musical decisions of the engineer or producer.

Let me know what your experience has been as a person with hearing loss in the professional audio environment. I will make an exception and will allow anonymous postings in this thread, for the obvious reason that hearing loss is a professional handicap in our world- justified or not.
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Klaus Heyne
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radardoug

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #1 on: November 17, 2014, 01:49:38 pm »

Klaus, I think you are correct in that the extremes of frequency are not as important as the midrange.
Also a couple of other things.
One is that a working profesional is always self referencing, by hearing music every day and having a memory of what they heard before.
Also, the major loss area is high frequencies, and they are usually well above the fundamental notes of the instruments being listened to.
And as mastering engineers know, if you apply the 'smiley' curve to music, it almost always sounds better!
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Dinogi

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #2 on: November 17, 2014, 05:43:58 pm »

Is it possible that as the ability to hear decays over time that the ability to listen becomes more astute?
As I'm now in my sixties, I have noticed that my hearing is much more sensitive to harsh sounds. That is, I perceive them to be unpleasant now where I may have ignored them in the past because they didn't make me uncomfortable..
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Jim Williams

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #3 on: November 18, 2014, 10:43:17 am »

Agreed, that Pro Tools sound is ripping my ears a new one. I guess since I'm older my ears haven't been 'conditioned' growing up listening to that sort of sound. Modern, clean digital productions sans digital processing and compression sound incomparable, simply amazing. Unfortunatly, those are rare productions these days.

The Audiologist will provide a benchmark for your losses. I saw mine a year or so ago. I was very pleasantly suprized to find out my hearing at 62 is better than 99% of those at my age. She told me she now measures severe hearing losses in teenagers, worse than my hearing by far. Only small children show good hearing, only because they are too young for those deadly "ear buds". Parents, keep those things off your kids or they too will suffer hearing losses.

Decades of using ear protection starting in the 1970's has paid off. That includes years of power trio blues/rock, shooting high powered rifles and a few tours with Stevie Wonder.

The left ear has some attenuation at 8k hz, the right ear is flat and is my reference ear, so to speak.

The best advise I can give is start using ear plugs at an early age and keep them with you at all times. The world is a noisy place and ears don't grow back.
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richbreen

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #4 on: November 19, 2014, 11:02:30 am »

Is it possible that as the ability to hear decays over time that the ability to listen becomes more astute?
As I'm now in my sixties, I have noticed that my hearing is much more sensitive to harsh sounds. That is, I perceive them to be unpleasant now where I may have ignored them in the past because they didn't make me uncomfortable..

I may be wrong on this, and (obviously) haven't researched carefully, but I seem to recall that sensitivity *increases* directly adjacent to the damaged band, so one would become more sensitive to upper midrange as one loses top. 

best,
rich

underblu

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #5 on: December 08, 2014, 10:44:47 pm »

I think hearing loss is more prevalent than many of us would even like to acknowledge.   I have some minor attenuation in certain upper frequencies on my right ear along with tinnitus.   I've learned to deal with it and I'm also aware of what frequencies I have some attenuation. 

While according to my audiologist I have good hearing it ain't perfect and certainly not as good as when I was a teenager.

What I find particularly appalling and not to turn this into a rant is that in the US we live in a society that's litigation and regulation gone wild.  I mean the former NY mayor banned or tried to ban sugary drinks yet the decibel levels that is permitted at clubs, bars, live venues is absolutely mind boggling and almost certainly destructive to hearing.    Even going out to dinner in a poorly treated space can produce dangerous decibel levels.

My point is we have regulation for the smallest bs thing while  hearing which is vital for a healthy productive life, is not even considered. 

Sorry, end of rant
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klaus

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #6 on: December 09, 2014, 12:36:13 am »

In Portland, Oregon, noise ordinance enforcement by one (!) noise enforcement officer stops at the box office: as long as the noise is kept inside the venue, no ordinance currently exists which prohibits SPLs above a certain level or a certain time in commercial zones.
With that in mind, I see only three avenues available to remedy excessive, unhealthy noise exposure in environments currently not regulated by municipal ordinances:

1. enough people petition the legislative to force a change in noise ordinances

2. enough people complain or stay away from shows at venues to force a lowering of FOH volumes

3. enough fans get upset that bands will request a certain limit of SPLs at their shows

None of these avenues looks promising: legislative changes are rarely initiated by people under 30, many people going to concerts feel actually entranced and stimulated by high volumes that encourage them to loose themselves for a couple of hours, and as long as bands don't hear from their audiences that they will not attend the next concert, because their ears did not stop ringing until the next day, no luck there either.

I attended a Galactic show at a club in Portland with my son last year. We both wore musician's earplugs (-15dB), but had to leave after 15 minutes, because the new gigantic wedges installed at the foot of the stage were pumping such a high level of  low-frequencies into the hall, that it proved too much for the earplugs and our stomachs gave out form the direct onslaught on our bodies. We had to leave. Once back on the street, I looked up at the venue (on the second floor of an old building) and saw how the wall of the building swayed in synch with the kick drum.

It is beyond me why people abuse their bodies to such an extent. But that's probably not any different than not following why people shoot heroin.
 
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Klaus Heyne
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Kai

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #7 on: December 10, 2014, 09:18:41 am »

In Germany the maximum allowed sound level exposure for an audience is strictly regulated.
This does not mean there are no loud concerts at all (some just don't care), but the situation has improved very much.

The problem now are the musicians.
They demand very high stage level that spills into the audience.
So in theory you have to switch off the front PA system.
Or that brass bands that have an acoustic output beyond the allowed level.
Then it's a bit hard to decide what to do with the singers microphones.

Regards
Kai
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soapfoot

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #8 on: December 11, 2014, 12:15:05 am »

The problem now are the musicians.
They demand very high stage level that spills into the audience.
So in theory you have to switch off the front PA system.
Or that brass bands that have an acoustic output beyond the allowed level.
Then it's a bit hard to decide what to do with the singers microphones.

I realize this can be a struggle for front of house engineers, but I'd disagree that musicians are "the problem" simply for playing at the volume they need to create the acoustic ensemble blend onstage.

Some music (rock and roll) is loud. It's supposed to be played loud-- it's part of the style. Some instruments (high trumpets, snare drum) are loud. If you play them quietly, it changes the timbre, the articulation, the spirit of the performance, etc. And in my opinion, the artistic result is usually less satisfying (though the front of house engineer is usually happier).

In my opinion, it is inadvisable for sound reinforcement personnel to dictate to musicians how they must play, and how they should blend as an ensemble onstage. I believe that achieving appropriate ensemble blend and stage volume is the musicians' job. The sound reinforcement personnel's job is to take the blend of the ensemble onstage and translate it to the audience in the best way possible. If the band is lacking in their ability to do this (a matter of opinion), then nothing the sound reinforcement personnel could say will help this. I promise. Double so if the sound reinforcement personnel isn't intimately familiar with the specific music being played.

Ensembles that are loud enough to be heard without reinforcement are, as a listener, a best-case scenario to me-- not a problem. Because sound reinforcement is always a compromise. To me, asking someone to play more softly so that they can be reinforced in the house is strange (but all too common). It has so many disadvantages-- causing the player to have to think (in order to mind their level) as opposed to emote naturally in performance, upsetting the intuitive ensemble blend onstage, causing the players to have to rely on a combination of imperfect monitoring and guesswork for ensemble blend, possibly changing the timbre of the instrument from what was the artistic intent, etc.

An ensemble's interactive blend and self-generated level is sacred and of utmost importance to the art, whether you're talking about Led Zeppelin at Royal Albert Hall or the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall.

But I'll cut myself off here, so as not to drift too far off topic.
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klaus

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #9 on: December 11, 2014, 12:38:20 am »

You are not straying off topic at all. But  you make a best case assumption: the musicians on stage are aware of, and have full control of their  individual instrument volumes. That is far too often not the case.
Last summer, Maceo Parker and his band came to town. Instead of a fine funk blend of the band, my ears were insulted by a bass player whose 1000w or more amp, fed into about 20 10" speakers at a volume that instantly stopped my dancing feet.

Here I see another problem: until a sound mixer can, without repercussion from the band, suggest to an individual player to turn down (you noticed: turning up never seems to be a problem!) that is, until the day it is no longer regarded as an insult, nothing wil change short of Kai's European solution of penalties. Too bad, but so be it.
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Klaus Heyne
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Kai

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #10 on: December 11, 2014, 08:02:54 am »

The sound reinforcement personnel's job is to take the blend of the ensemble onstage and translate it to the audience in the best way possible...
For me my job as an audio engineer goes far beyound that and even starts at the planning of an event.
Finally I'm an "interface" between the artist and the audience, if you look at this part of the job.
The artist cannot know how it sounds downstage - this means I have to have an understanding what is needed to make the presentation reach the audience in the intended and best possible way.
Sometimes I call this process "make it sound like music", which does not mean it isn't before, but needs to be sorted to catch the vibe.

Sound level regulations are quite strict here - I've seen at least one concert that almost was stopped due to the band beeing too loud on stage.
The only thing I could do was switching off the PA except for the vocals, and the only reason the concert wasn't stopped before the end was, the police was too late.
I have to admit that it was open air and the police president lived next door.

....Because sound reinforcement is always a compromise.
Not for me.
Very often it's an integral part of the performance -  but usually not for a philharmonic orchestra in a hall.


The strict sound regulations in Germany made us rethink things that already went wrong for ages anyway. So it's not completely bad.

The allowed level is:
- 95 dB A-weighted (this means lower frequencies do not contribute fully to the result),
- I did not find if the measurement is RMS, but I assume it is.
- averaged over 1/2 hour,
- measured at the loudest point of the audience's area.
- maximum peaks below 135dB!! C-weighted, Peak (not RMS) may not be exceeded (This would be about a gunshot on stage).

As it's an avarage, loud peaks do not contribute much to the result.
If the performance is quite dynamic, this is not a problem - for heavy metal bands it can be.

Regards
Kai
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soapfoot

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #11 on: December 11, 2014, 09:29:27 am »

Here I see another problem: until a sound mixer can, without repercussion from the band, suggest to an individual player to turn down (you noticed: turning up never seems to be a problem!) that is, until the day it is no longer regarded as an insult, nothing wil change short of Kai's European solution of penalties. Too bad, but so be it.

It requires trust. Trust requires good communication, or a long-standing relationship.

Earning trust quickly requires two things-- good communication and professionalism. Within the last 12 months touring the world performing in a (not very loud!) group, I've encountered some great sound, and some extreme unprofessionalism.

The most unprofessional thing of all is the preemptive assumption of incompetence. If a sound reinforcement professional walks up to the drummer as he's setting up, before he has played a note and starts talking about how "this room is very small, we have to make sure we keep stage volume low" then this is extremely unprofessional as it assumes incompetence on the part of the drummer (playing to the room is a basic skill, and a fundamental part of musicianship) and is therefore insulting.

If a guitarist is too loud, the appropriate way to bring this up is "I'm getting the sense out front that stage right guitar might have difficulty hearing herself. Would you be opposed to changing the position of your amplifier so we can find a balance that works a little better out front?"

etc.

Any musician worth his or her salt is dynamically blending and balancing all the time, based on what he or she is hearing. Volume is not the knob on the amplifier. Volume is the player's concept for blend. Sure, I can turn the knob up, but I'll just play softer to compensate. Sure, I can turn the knob down, but I'll just play harder and choke out the sound in an effort to get the balance to where it sounds right to my musical sensibility.

And if a musician doesn't have a well-developed, musical sense of ensemble blend, no directive or mandate from front of house is going to fix that. You're hosed before you've begun.

Obviously, it's a collaboration, and we must work together. But the FOH personnel's job is to serve and flatter the music, not to dictate it. Too often people get this twisted.

I'm lucky to get to play with some of the world's finest musicians on a regular basis. And I find that while a significant percentage of reinforcement personnel are professional and competent, a different large percentage treat these world-class players like your local bar band. Many have very curious, heavy-handed ways of approaching the job (and often with unfortunately large and unpleasant egos, as well).

The best ones are musicians themselves-- and good ones-- who understand what it feels like to blend and listen in a dynamic, high-level, professional ensemble.
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Nob Turner

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #12 on: December 12, 2014, 03:28:47 am »

It's not only music that is, at times, excessively loud in our world. I went and saw the film "Interstellar" a few days back, at an imax theater. While I enjoyed the film and the wrap-around screen, the soundtrack was at times pretty danged loud. There's a motif to the music/fx in this film - basically, a 40-hz tone that swells and holds at a pretty unpleasant volume many times over. My wife and I plugged our ears each time it occurred, which of course interrupted our immersion in the film.

My assumption is that the film director and sound mixer chose to do this for the (rather overwhelming) effect. And it does make the experience visceral, but not in a good way to me. However, I'm significantly older than most of the audience I saw at the theater. I suspect most of them just found it exciting.

I'm going to see Cirque du Soleil in a few weeks, and plan to bring my ear plugs.

soapfoot

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #13 on: December 12, 2014, 08:54:42 am »

For me my job as an audio engineer goes far beyound that and even starts at the planning of an event.
Finally I'm an "interface" between the artist and the audience, if you look at this part of the job.
The artist cannot know how it sounds downstage - this means I have to have an understanding what is needed to make the presentation reach the audience in the intended and best possible way.
Sometimes I call this process "make it sound like music", which does not mean it isn't before, but needs to be sorted to catch the vibe.

Agreed with this, however I'd add one caveat--

I contend that the best way to "make it sound like music" and "make the presentation reach the audience in the intended and best possible way" is to create a circumstance for the musicians that feels natural, and comfortable-- allowing them to express and emote. Performance IS sound-- the best performance trumps any sonic concern, whether on recording or live, in my experience. I feel that the hippocratic oath should apply here-- "first do no harm" to the musicians' ability to play together, cohere, and form a great ensemble blend and group dynamic. As a performer, the worst case scenario is to have a circumstance where musicians can't hear one another, or are compensating for unnatural-feeling balances or blend. That causes the performer to be taken out of the (emotional) moment, into a "thinking" space. A passable performance is possible by a seasoned professional-- an inspired one becomes nearly impossible.

There are other pitfalls to getting a good stage ensemble blend-- some of which are controlled by FOH and some which are not. This is a great discussion, because I think there needs to be more dialogue between true professional musicians and true professional FOH engineers.

So while we're at it-- and this relates to the overall loudness issue, too-- Another one that's problematic are setups where subwoofers are turned up too loud near or under a hollow stage. It soaks up so much sonic room that even if the band is not playing loud, it becomes impossible to hear any midrange detail.

At a festival I played in Hamburg recently, switching the subs off was literally the difference between nobody being able to hear one another, to an entire 10 piece ensemble-- from drum set and electric bass to a string quartet-- being able to hear each other and blend effortlessly.

Another huge problem is musicians requesting too much stuff, and too loud, in floor wedge monitor speakers. Huge problem that I could prattle on about but that is a conversation for another day.


Quote
The strict sound regulations in Germany made us rethink things that already went wrong for ages anyway. So it's not completely bad.

The allowed level is:
- 95 dB A-weighted (this means lower frequencies do not contribute fully to the result),
- I did not find if the measurement is RMS, but I assume it is.
- averaged over 1/2 hour,
- measured at the loudest point of the audience's area.
- maximum peaks below 135dB!! C-weighted, Peak (not RMS) may not be exceeded (This would be about a gunshot on stage).

As it's an avarage, loud peaks do not contribute much to the result.
If the performance is quite dynamic, this is not a problem - for heavy metal bands it can be.

Regards
Kai

This is very interesting, Kai. I've done a bit of playing in Germany in the past few months, in a few different cities (perhaps I've encountered you and didn't realize it!) and I never was aware of these. Of course, the group I have been traveling with is "moderate" in loudness and extremely dynamic (which could set up another rant re: gates and compressors, but I'll refrain!) so I doubt we pushed up against those limitations, ever.

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boz6906

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Re: Critic at Large, Vol. VIII: Hearing Loss and Musical Judgement
« Reply #14 on: December 13, 2014, 11:09:23 am »

"To me, asking someone to play more softly so that they can be reinforced in the house is strange (but all too common)."

In my experience, this never happens.

Usually, it's a electric guitar or bass player causing a problem by being much too loud.
This brings up two issues; one, the on stage is too high for the singer to hear themselves so up go the wedges, which now fill the venue with nasty tone from a midrangey wedge driven to distortion. Two, I end up taking the guitar or bass out of the PA and just trying to get the vocal on top of the mix so the audience can hear the lyrics.

In my opinion, the problem is driven by a guitar/bass player assuming the FOH is incompetent, the musician believes his superb lead just isn't loud enough in the hall.

One of their favorite techniques is to 'sandbag' during soundcheck, then turn back up at show time.

This happens to me in over half of the pop/rock shows I do.

We can have a great blend in the house at soundcheck, then at show time the guitar player starts sterilizing the first 6 rows of the audience not to mention totally wrecking the monitor mix for the other singers/musicians.
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