On his worst days, Chris Otepka says it sounds like he’s standing under water. Most days though, his ears are just hypersensitive to sounds. Otepka, who turns 30 next week, is the former guitarist and lead singer of the now-defunct indie rock band Troubled Hubble, a group founded outside of Chicago in 1999. Otepka and the band played together for six years, performing more than a hundred shows a year at their peak. Troubled Hubble was never a quiet band, but Otepka says that as the years went on, the group got progressively louder in its live show, with the mentality being “crank [the volume] until the sound guy says it’s too loud.”
Otepka wore earplugs sporadically, sometimes wearing an earplug in one ear to buffer himself against the monitors onstage, sometimes going without them entirely because it was easier to hear himself. During the group’s fifth year together, Otepka noticed that it started to take a full 24 hours for the ringing in his ears, known as tinnitus, to subside after a show, and oftentimes when performing onstage, all he heard was a bunch of “white noise” coming out of his monitors. He read an article in 2004 on ear damage and found that he was experiencing most of the symptoms listed.
“That’s when the flags went up,” Otepka says. His ear pain kept getting worse, and within less than a year after first noticing the symptoms, he had to stop playing and Troubled Hubble broke up. He now plays only acoustic guitar in his quieter solo project, The Heligoats.
Otepka’s story proves what most concertgoers already know: Rock shows are loud, and exposure to loud noises can hurt your ability to hear. Sabrina Vitulano, a doctor of audiology at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary, has been an audiologist for 20 years, testing people’s hearing and parts of the ear for signs of damage. Perceived damage, she explains, can come in the form of hearing a ringing in your ears, while physical damage involves your ears’ hair cells. Loud sounds cause hair cells to fold over. Some of the hair cells eventually unfold, but those that do not recover die. Since hair cells do not regenerate, that is when people experience hearing loss.
Vitulano says that rock concerts go beyond the comfortable decibel level that a human ear can tolerate. A decibel level, she explains, though not synonymous with volume, is a “reference to sound,” with 0 decibels being silence, 50 decibels reflecting a normal conversation and 70 decibels being the maximum decibel level human ears can handle without risk of damage. Vitulano estimates that the average rock concert reaches a decibel level of 110 or higher, though decibel level varies depending on where you stand in a venue, with the highest being at the speaker and the lowest being in the back of the room. In addition to actual decibel level, Vitulano says that how often you are exposed to the decibel level also determines whether you will experience hearing loss. The longer you are exposed to high levels at a concert, the higher your risk for hearing loss, which explains why bands that play hundreds of tour dates and stand right by the speakers have a greater chance of hearing damage.
Some venues do set caps on decibel levels, but it has more to do with noise regulations and protecting the sound equipment than safeguarding your ears. While regulated decibel levels might be more comfortable to audiences, the rules can also be restricting for performers. Ollie Cotton, head of audio and a senior mixer at the Apollo Theater for 10 years, does not impose a decibel regulation, allowing a band’s sound engineer to adjust the levels to what sounds best. If the touring sound engineer pushes the level too high in the 1,508-capacity venue, Cotton says the band is “free to ruin [its] own show at [its] own discretion.” Cotton also works as a touring sound engineer, and he knows what it is like to have a venue restrict your sound level, as some venues did to him on a tour with John Legend. “It sucks,” he says. “I can’t say it enough.”
Jeff Neuberger, technical director for Brooklyn’s Bell House and Union Hall, shares Cotton’s philosophy on not imposing decibel regulations on himself or on other traveling sound engineers. Neuberger spends three to four days each week on the sound boards at the Bell House, which has a 425-person capacity in its main room. He says that although there is no decibel meter on the soundboards at the Bell House, when he has checked the decibel levels using an iPhone application, it registers around 104-105 decibels from where he sits in the back of the room. He has encountered sound engineers who mess up the mix, the overall balance of a band’s performance as amplified through the PA system, which are the speakers facing the audience. When that happens, Neuberger says that it’s frustrating because the sound of a show reflects on the venue, and no one in the audience cares about whether the house sound guy or a touring sound engineer mixed the show. But for the most part, he says that sound engineers know how to mix the shows appropriately, and when they do not, they know “when to defer to the house sound guy.”
House sound technicians know what levels work best in a certain venue, but a band’s personal sound engineer
has the benefit of knowing the particulars of a band’s sound. Andrew
Maury is a touring live sound engineer for Ra Ra Riot, and he says that
the band took him on because it got tired of dealing with inhouse sound
technicians who were unfamiliar with the band. Maury barely pays
attention to specific volume numbers when mixing the band’s live show,
relying more on how something sounds, rather than on how loud it is. He
says that he has never in his life been asked by an in-house sound
person to turn up the volume, but he has been asked to turn it down,
most recently by a fellow band. While on tour with Death Cab for Cutie,
the group’s sound engineer suggested that Ra Ra Riot and Cold War Kids,
the two opening bands, have their respective mixes set at lower levels.
Maury was not bothered by the request since he says it made sense to
give the headliner a louder, more theatrical performing advantage and
because it would “save the audience’s ears for Death Cab.”
saves his own ears at shows by plugging his ears with his fingers for
periods of time or by wearing earplugs. Audiologists like Vitulano
cannot stress the importance of taking this precaution enough, as the
earplugs decrease the decibel level impacting your ear. “[Earplugs]
potentially will save the ear,” she says, assigning the responsibility
for regulating sound not to the sound technicians, but to the audience
members who choose to expose their ears to sounds of that loudness.
audience members have heeded this advice. “I’ve seen more people
wearing earplugs to shows than I’ve ever noticed,” Maury says. Some
bands have started to take the advice to heart as well.
Butler—the owner of Frenchkiss Records and bass player for Les Savy
Fav— never wore earplugs when he was a 14-year-old kid attending punk
shows. He measured an awesome show by how much his ears rang afterward.
When he did see other people wearing earplugs, he and his friends
thought, “What’s wrong with that nerd?” Butler, now 37, has grown out
of that idea and usually wears at least one earplug to block out the
drum sounds on stage. His acceptance of earplugs evolved from thinking
they were lame, to carrying earplugs “around in little pouches, and
that’s cool,” he says. “But keeping your hearing is always cool.”