Protect Your Hearing (and Your Voice-over/Audio Career)
By Mike Broderick
Of late there has been a spate of blog posts and articles about protecting your most important voice-over instrument, your voice, from everything from the impending cold-and-flu-season to the ravages of mis-use and “vocal fry”.
In fact, just this week, J. Christopher Dunn has published a helpful article in VoiceOverXtra about keeping your personal studio clean and healthy to help protect yourself from colds and flu. (You can find it at: http://www.voiceoverxtra.com/article.htm?id=UQ2ZKDJA .)
As distressing as having a sore throat, a cold, or the flu can be for a voice-over artist, there’s also another sense that is indispensable to your quality of life and the future of your voice-over or audio career: your hearing. And unlike sore throats, which tend to come and go, hearing loss is often permanent.
This has been brought home to me in recent weeks as I’ve been contending with infections in both of my ears. (For me this has been like a strange, unpleasant version of “Throwback Thursday,” as I’d suffered several bouts of “swimmer’s ear” when I was younger.)
I’ve been thinking a lot lately of both those past experiences and also how critical my hearing is to me and my burgeoning voice-over career.
As voice-over artists or voice actors we depend on clear hearing to perform essential functions like:
- Understanding and following verbal direction
- Performing proper self direction
- Editing and mastering audio files
- Hearing the nuances in other people’s reads and in copy currently on air
- Using our own vocal capabilities to their fullest extent, and
- Correctly pronouncing words and phrases.
I know from both professional and also personal experience that significant hearing loss can have a devastating effect on a person’s ability to communicate in a hearing world and that it can lead to significant social isolation.
Early in my career I worked for the Texas Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. I learned a great deal about the many challenges faced by people who suffer significant hearing loss and deafness.
Subsequently I’ve seen this firsthand as some members of my family (both immediate and extended) have suffered deafness due to age, occupational injury, and/or viruses.
Although I expect to fully recover soon from these infections, the thought of what would happen if I ever lost my hearing has been nagging at me, and for good reason:
Action on Hearing Loss, formerly the Royal National Institute for Deaf People, says of noise-induced hearing loss on its website (http://actiononhearingloss.org.uk):
“The damage builds up gradually, and the effects may not be noticed until years later, when it is too late – most hearing loss or tinnitus caused by noise exposure is permanent.
You can prevent deafness due to noise by taking steps to protect your hearing and by reducing the length of time you listen to very loud sounds.
Listening to any sound at a high volume – more than 89dB – for more than five hours a week can damage hearing permanently over time.”
The site also notes that more than 70% of people aged 70+ have some level of hearing loss – further impetus to do all we can to protect our hearing from damage caused by noise.
While there may be some exceptions (the human spirit and human resiliency know no bounds) it would be highly unlikely, at best, for a person to be able to carry on successfully as a voice-over artist (or in any audio-related profession) subsequent to significant hearing loss.
For these reasons I’ve begun taking some proactive steps to look after and protect my hearing (and, by extension, my voice-over career). I share them here in case they can also help other members of the voice-over fraternity and sorority, as well as audio engineers, and producers:
- I’ve gone to my doctor (twice). If you notice any change in your hearing such as infection, tinnitus (defined by Action on Hearing Loss as “the perception of noise, either in one ear, both ears, or in the head, when there is no corresponding external sound”), or if you have been having difficulty understanding conversation in crowded/noisy locations, don’t delay: book an appointment to see your doctor. At the on-set of my current infections, I didn’t heed my own advice to go to the doctor right away, which I now regret.
- I’ve booked an appointment with an ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat) Specialist to further check the health of my ears.
- On the advice of my doctor, I’ve begun wearing ear plugs in the shower. Because I have naturally-narrow ear canals and have had previous bouts of swimmer’s ear, my doctor has instructed me to wear ear plugs to keep bath water from getting trapped in my ears and creating more infections.
This will also help protect me from exostosis within the ear canal, otherwise known as “Surfer’s Ear,” where repeated exposure to cold water causes additional bone growth in the ear canal, further narrowing the canal. This, in turn, can cause more infections.
From what I’ve read, the only treatment for advanced cases of exostosis within the ear canal is surgery, using a drill or hammer and chisel, either through the ear canal itself or through the back of the ear. While it feels a little silly to wear ear plugs in the shower, it sure beats the prospect of getting a drill or chisel in the ear.
If, like me, you spend, or have spent, a lot of time in the water and/or if you have been susceptible to infections like swimmer’s ear over the years, do yourself a favor and consider buying some earplugs to use when you shower, bathe, and swim.
I’m using some off-the-shelf rubber swimming plugs that appear to work fine, but you can also get some custom-made plugs designed to fit your ears, by contacting an audiologist or through sites such as http://www.surfplugs.co.uk. While I can’t vouch for the efficacy of their product yet, the Surf Plugs do look promising. Their website also contains useful information about Surfer’s Ear and is one of the sites that I used to research this blog post.
- I’ve stopped listening to podcasts and music in bed. As you may know from my previous blog post about voice-over podcasts (http://www.mikebroderickvoiceover.com/blog/want-to-learn-about-the-voice-over-industry-quickly-simply-press-play/ ), I like listening to podcasts like EWABS, VO Buzz Weekly, and the VO Cafe, amongst many others.
I’d gotten into the habit of listening to podcasts in bed, but on a couple of occasions I’d found that the volume had shot up after I’d fallen asleep, which was really dangerous. This was a useful reminder to look after my hearing in leisure situations as well. (I’ve also been thinking a lot recently of a young guy at my former place of work. I’d see him in the elevator/lift some mornings, white ear buds firmly tucked into his ears and his music blaring so loudly that even I could hear it. Unfortunately, I suspect that there will be hearing aids in his future.) Needless to say, I now do my podcast and music listening during waking hours only
- I consciously turn my headphones down. I don’t currently have studio speakers, so I use high-quality noise cancelling headphones when I edit my auditions and recordings. As I often have them on for long periods of time, I’ve begun turning the volume down to the lowest usable level as a way of further protecting myself.
I also try to consciously turn the volume down at the start of an editing session, so that I don’t forget. (Recently, with my hearing temporarily dulled by the infections, my wife noticed that my headphones were very loud while I was editing a job. I hadn’t even noticed, because I wasn’t hearing clearly. This, quite simply, was a recipe for further potential hearing loss.)
- I now do more of my editing by sight. It’s usually possible to see mouth clicks and other noises visually in the wave form (not to mention through “spectral editing,” which is something I hope to learn how to do soon in Audacity). I’ve been trying to do as much visual editing as I can get away with to cut the amount of time that I’m using my headphones. I’ve even found it possible to edit down breaths visually by reducing the decibels during pauses between words, although I’ve learned that you’ve got to listen carefully to the finished product before sending it to the client to make sure that no syllables or words have dropped out.
- I intend to buy studio speakers to further cut my need for headphones.
One of the great things about being voice-over artists and entrepreneurs is that we don’t have anyone looking over our shoulders, and we don’t have to worry about certain forms of corporate bureaucracy and regulations – particularly if we do most of our work from home. But it also means that there’s no one there to advise us as to whether our work stations and equipment are set up correctly to protect us from things like eye strain, repetitive strain injury or carpal tunnel syndrome, and hearing loss. It’s down to us to look after our own occupational health and safety.
I hope that the steps I’m taking, and that I’ve shared with you here, will help protect both me and you from potential hearing loss, so that we can have good hearing and clear communication into the future, and so that we can continue to “work the mic” for many years to come.
For more information on hearing loss, its causes, and prevention, please see the websites of: Action on Hearing Loss (http://actiononhearingloss.org.uk) and The Hearing Loss Association of America (http://www.hearingloss.org). Action on Hearing Loss also has a “Check Your Hearing” app available on its homepage and in the Apple App Store.