Why are audio engineers the enemies of our ears?

Ron Pellegrino

In a nutshell, they are destroying the hearing of the audiences they are employed to serve. The majority of audio engineers are deaf or nearly deaf in the most sensitive region of human hearing, the frequency band between 1.5 kHz and 5 kHz. Since they are responsible for controlling the sound levels at public events, you can bet the ranch that they will crank up the sound level to compensate for their hearing loss in that most sensitive of regions. They always do. If they are going to "shape" the sound, they need to hear it.

Don't forget, they are in control of the board; even though you may have paid a steep ticket price, you are just part of a captive audience and expected to behave like a good little lamb. Commonly they crank the sound up to levels that allow their almost dead ears to hear in that 1.5 kHz to 5 kHz band of frequencies. That cranked-up sound level will overdrive the unprotected normal ears of the audience and will lead to the same state of deafness that the audio engineers suffer. (If you enjoy shock treatment go to this link for an email response to this essay from a professional audio engineer who says audio engineers today are wearing hearing protection. If true, that leads to questions like - So what about the audience? Do they need hearing protection too? Does going to a concert from the late 1990s and beyond require wearing prophylactics in your ears? In fact, it seems prophylactics are required attire; check out this email response from another audio engineer, and this response, and this response, and this response too.)

Furthermore, if those audio engineers have worked numerous rock, pop, and jazz venues, you can be certain that they have also suffered some hearing loss from 5 kHz to 20 kHz, the top end of the human hearing range. Consequently, normal unprotected ears (those of the audience) will definitely suffer hearing loss in that range too as partially deaf audio engineers crank up the level to compensate for their hearing loss in that frequency band.

The human ear.

Notice that the auditory canal is like a pipe. Due to its dimensions it functions like a resonator emphasizing the hearing sensitivity in the range of 1.5 kHz to 5 kHz.

Equal Loudness Curves.

This chart of the Equal Loudness Curves shows that the ear is a nonlinear transducer. It shows that for sound to be perceived by the ear as equally loud for all frequencies, the sound intensity must vary considerably over the audible frequency range, 20 to 20,000 Hz for normal young ears. The greatest intensity, pressure, or power is required by the low frequencies. The least required intensity is in the range of 1.5 kHz to 5 kHz because the auditory canal acts as a resonator to reinforce amplitude levels of the frequencies in that band. If you live the high amplitude life of a normal working audio engineer, chances are that you have significant loss of sensitivity in that band of your hearing.

Most audio engineers don't understand what's being discussed here. And if they do, they would rather keep their heads and ours buried deeply in sand; controlling audio is how they pay the bills and they don't want to jeopardize that by owning up to 1) being at least partially deaf and 2) that their deafness is a serious threat to normal ears in the audience.

Have you ever heard sound reinforcement that simply expands the sound to fit the space and maintains the color, warmth and integrity of the original sources with no distortion whatsoever? Wouldn't it be a treat? The Kronos Quartet presented such a treat on at least one concert in San Francisco; check out this review for details. Check out the review of the fine job done by David Robinson, audio engineer on tour with The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra performing in UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall. Also check out the review of the excellent work of San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts house staff of Cedric Lathan, Audio Engineer/Technician, and James Jones, his assistant, done in collaboration with Zakir Hussain, tabla and percussion maestro.

It's a rare audio engineer who is an artist with a highly cultivated intuitive and intellectual approach to the audio medium. It's a common audio engineer who is a power-tripper unfettered by a continuing education that would best include a deep study of music, the physics of sound, psychoacoustics, and the fundamentals of aesthetics. If you enjoy watching people and believe that by doing it there's much to be learned about human nature, observe the audio technicians the next time you're in a public music performance space that uses sound reinforcement. It's all too often a grand show of hubris and petty bureaucracy on parade - what seems to be of the greatest importance is the display of equipment and decorative lighting. Great entertainment if you can get enough distance from it. If you are interested in examining the thinking of working audio engineers check out the section of this site called Conversations With Audio Engineers which contains responses of audio engineers to this essay. [The "Conversations..." section has not be updated for some time now because not surprisingly nobody has offered any new information.]

I love live public music of all sorts - reinforced when appropriate and straight acoustic when it's appropriate. Today it's "cool" to use sound reinforcement, even when it's absolutely unnecessary and undermines the effectiveness of the music. So what''s a music lover to do? Stuff your ears? Circulate in the acoustic space until you can locate an acceptable place in the sonic pond? Make a scene with the management and the audio engineer? Take a walk on the beach instead of going to a concert? Go on a crusade? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. And Yes. For more on those Yeses try this link.

[I'm writing this note in July 2003 but this article was written years ago shortly after I started this site in 1996. The audio field continues to be destructive of music at every imaginable venue. The music presenters are a fairly clueless lot when it comes to audio quality; their concern is much more with the gate, the business. Those who attend amplified concerts have become more and more deaf so they seem bothered less and less by the awful audio. Some wear ear plugs as I do but it colors the music although it saves your hearing. In 1996 there was virtually no interest on the part of the music media world on the negative effects of audio amplification on the nature of music. Thankfully in today's music media world attention is being given to the subject. A good example is an article by Lewis Segal, an LA Times staff writer that can be read with this link.]

Sound engineer Scott Dunn in his response to this essay used the expression "new ethic" to describe my efforts to raise audio consciousness among audio engineers in support of music and music-loving audiences. The spin of his message brought to light the fact that audio engineers have no code of ethics; they do pretty much what they damn well please with little or no oversight, criticism, reflection, or regulation. It's high time the Audio Engineering Society shows leadership in drafting a code of ethics for the practice of audio engineering and in educating audio engineers to subscribe to the code for their professional work.

I received a response from David Scheirman (a longtime professional audio engineer) to this essay that included the note "PRIVATE MESSAGE TO YOU - NOT FOR PUBLIC DISTRIBUTION". It was such a beautifully composed summary of the essay and the responses to it that I pleaded with David to put his summary and any additional thoughts in a form I could post on my site. My plea: "You'd be doing a great service to the audio world if you allowed me to post your intelligently articulated, experienced reflections on the audio scene. For better or worse the future of a significant percentage of large public music presentations will be directly tied to the artistry of young audio engineers. High quality guidance is in very short supply. Is it possible you could edit this [your] response into a form that would be appropriate for posting? Please consider doing so. Given the numerous email responses to this essay I'm certain many aspiring and relatively new audio engineers are visiting this section of my site. They would benefit tremendously by the positive influence of your thinking. "

Please read Scheirman's excellent summary as well as the email exchanges with audio engineers in Conversations With Audio Engineers before you take your time and mine to respond to this essay.

For more information on this and related audio subjects, I highly recommend The Science Of Sound by Thomas D. Rossing published by Addison-Wesley as a starting point for your study and research. It's clear, concise, full of great illustrations and very well organized.

Of all the material on this website this particular essay elicits the greatest number of email responses. Check out some samples of those responses for your amusement and edification.

If this essay is of any interest to you be sure to examine related essays with links available on the Quest for Audio Excellence page.

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