If you find yourself in the front row of a rock concert, don't be ashamed to put in your earplugs. Even if someone gets snarky: “If it's too loud, you're too old.”
“It may not look cool, but in the long-run, it'll be a lot cooler than saying ‘huh?' every other time to someone,” said Omahan Sean McCarthy.
He definitely wears earplugs now, especially since he's pretty sure a concert from alternative rock group Sleater-Kinney at Sokol Underground gave him some permanent hearing damage.
It's no surprise. The National Institutes of Health says regular exposure to sound levels of 110 decibels for longer than one minute will risk permanent hearing loss.
Many concerts average a level of 110 dB, as loud as a chain saw and much louder than a revving motorcycle or a lawnmower.
A recent study at a Rihanna concert marked an average level of 98.5 dB and maximum levels well above 100 dB.
The study was conducted to measure hearing loss among teenagers at concerts, and it found that 72 percent experienced reduced hearing.
The facts of loud
OK, so you think a concert is loud? It's definitely on the list of the loudest noises, as far as measured decibel (dB) levels, but it pales in comparison to the noise from a space shuttle launch, a blue whale's call or a meteor striking the earth.
How loud is too loud?
Whispered voice (30 dB)
Normal conversation (60)
Heavy city traffic, power mower (80-90)
Motorcycle, chain saw, rock concert (95-110)
Ambulance siren (120)
Fireworks, gunfire (150)
Space shuttle launch, blue whale noises, Krakatoa volcano (170-180)
1-ton TNT bomb (210)
5.0 Richter earthquake (235)
Tunguska meteor (300)
110 decibels: Regular exposure of more than 1 minute risks permanent hearing loss.
100 decibels: No more than 15 minutes of unprotected exposure recommended.
85 decibels: Prolonged exposure to any noise at or above this can cause gradual hearing loss.
Sources: National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, listverse.com
Earplugs can help your ears quite a lot at a concert, and they come in several varieties.
Foam: You roll these simple and disposable earplugs in your fingers, place them in your ear canal and they expand to fit. Some concert venues keep them in stock.
Silicone: Pliable like Silly Putty, these roll into a ball and form into your outer ear.
Flanged: Similar to an in-ear earbud headphone and typically made of molded silicone, they're inserted into the ear canal and expand to fit.
Custom: These are more expensive (typically more than $100), but are molded to fit your ears, last longer and block sound more effectively by reducing volume without cutting out certain types of sounds.
The concert was incredibly loud, said Dr. Jennifer Derebery, the hearing expert who conducted the study. The study participants weren't even very close to the speakers.
“We had, I would say, fairly bad seats,” said Derebery, an otolaryngologist with the House Research Institute and House Clinic in Los Angeles, in an interview with The World-Herald.
Earplugs were available for the teens in the study, but only three used them.
Omaha music fan and writer Marq Manner never wears earplugs, though he has attended countless concerts.
“It is something I have always worried about, but earplugs drive me nuts. I just cannot enjoy a show with them in,” he said.
He's looked into custom-made earplugs, which can be expensive, but give better protection than foam earplugs. Manner's confident he has some hearing loss, but nothing extreme.
“I have a bit of a hard time hearing sometimes if there are a lot of multiple things going on like talking in a movie theater while the movie is playing and such,” he said. “I probably turn up the TV and radio a little bit louder than most people do.”
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a government agency that regulates workplace safety, requires ear protection on the job if someone is exposed to levels 85 dB and higher for more than 30 minutes.
Of course, OSHA regulations only cover people at work and not people attending concerts or, for example, mowing their lawn.
Jeremy Garrett, sound engineer at The Waiting Room Lounge, has worn earplugs religiously for the last two years. When the Benson music venue was remodeled, he said the sound system was noticeably louder.
“Now, I can't say that I hear better, but my ears haven't rung ever for the last couple years,” he said.
Garrett, who also works as an engineer and producer at recording studios, knows lots of musicians with hearing problems. In the studio, many need their headphones turned up way above normal levels.
“They'll say, ‘Man, my ears are shot,'” he said.
Derebery's medical practice sees many rock stars as patients. They get fitted for earplugs because they know how loud their own concerts are. Many of them, despite long careers, have great hearing because they wear protection.
The good thing about most hearing loss you experience at a concert is that it's typically not permanent, Derebery said. It usually disappears within hours or days.
However, repeated exposure at the same levels will eventually cause permanent damage.
She highly recommends earplugs if you go to almost any concert that's not a quiet acoustic performance.
Foam earplugs will cut out 5 to 7 dB, but custom earplugs have interchangeable filters that will cut 9, 15 or 25 dB. They cost $120 to $140, but they allow better sound.
“They drop down the sound equally off all frequencies,” she said. “It sounds simply softer.”
Less expensive earplugs cut out only the loudest noises and make a concert sound muddy.
A major complaint from concertgoers is that concerts are just too darn loud.
But don't blame the guy turning knobs and pushing faders, says Garrett, who's been a sound engineer for a decade.
He says concerts are too loud for two reasons: poor venues that aren't made to handle sound and bands that simply turn their amps up too loud.
Bad rooms don't allow noise to dissipate well. “They're too boomy and echoey,” Garrett said, so loud noises bounce around in the venue and the result is a higher decibel level.
Rock ‘n' roll bands typically want to play loud shows, so they often can be the culprit. Garrett said he can try to fight the band's volume level, but the concert often won't end up sounding very good. Certain instruments or vocals may get lost in the mix.
Even so, some bands push the volume so high that even when the sound engineer does his best, it still sounds “mushy and muddy,” Garrett said.
“I understand the appeal of loud music, but there's a point where you go further than that and you're not sounding better or more fun,” he said.
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