The Mr. Big legend talks about how to keep your ears in good condition and deal with hearing loss you may already have.
In case you haven’t heard (all puns intended), I have significant hearing loss and the constant accompanying ring of tinnitus. First of all, don’t worry, I’m not going to spend this whole column whining or complaining about it. My goal here is to give you practical ideas on how to keep your ears in good condition and also how to deal with any hearing loss you may already have.
If I could go back in time and visit my teenage self, I would certainly have some important advice to give. I’d begin with hairstyles. “Don’t get a perm. Let Def Leppard be Def Leppard. Let yourself be yourself and cut it short if it starts getting all straggly.” Then I would discuss Spandex pants. “They’re a bit … anatomical. Either change to jeans or invest in a cucumber.” I would then have a discussion about relating to the opposite sex that is too lengthy to include here, and finally I’d get around to the ears. In the following list, keep in mind that all the don’ts refer to things I actually did.
• Don’t put your ear right up against your 4x12 cabinet while it’s blasting loud, no matter how much you love the sound.
• Don’t crank up your headphones to concert volume while air-drumming to Rush albums every night before you go to bed.
• Don’t crank up your car stereo to concert volume every time you drive.
• Don’t angle your 4x12 cabinet sideways onstage to spare the audience but instead slam yourself with volume.
• Don’t insist that your drummer play with an Alex Van Halen-style washy ride cymbal and a sloshy open hi-hat on every song.
• Don’t sleep with headphones plugged into a cassette player set on “loop” in order to internalize classical music.
• Don’t spend 14-hour days recording with a loud click track in your headphones. Instead, record live with the entire band, so you can listen and adjust to everyone’s natural tempo without the DINK DONK DINK DONK DINK DONK of that earwrecking cowbell.
• Don’t spend 14-hour days editing instruments and vocals. Hire an engineer who can do it quicker and better.
• Don’t spend hours messing around with microphones, pre-amps, and EQs in the studio. Spend the time practicing to get a great performance. This will always beat any editing, tweaking, or mixing.
• Don’t build a home studio without treating the rooms with acoustic paneling. Foam and carpets are ineffectual. You need thick bass traps made from compressed fiberglass. Trying to mix in an untreated room will just confuse your ears and the tendency to solve the problem by turning up the volume doesn’t help. Treat the walls and ceiling with bass traps—lots of them!
• Don’t stick your head into the side-fill monitor to try to figure out the key of an unfamiliar song during the chaos of a multi-guitar NAMM jam. Just mute your strings and go chicka-chicka. That works in any key.
• Don’t be “cool” during situations where the music is too loud. Put your fingers in your ears or leave the room.
• Don’t perform music that is constantly loud. Choose or write music that contains dynamic changes in volume. These volume changes will actually make the loud parts more musically effective via the contrast to the quieter parts. And your ears will fare much better due to the rests.
This is a long list of don’ts, and I should rephrase at least the last one (which I think is the most useful) in the positive:
• Do play music with dynamics. You can still be loud. But include some holes and quieter sections in your songs. Listen to the opening riffs of “Highway to Hell” and “Back in Black” by AC/ DC. There are big gaping holes of silence in those riffs, yet they remain some of the most powerful in existence. “Stairway to Heaven” begins with over four minutes of clean guitar before the drums enter, and then goes nearly two minutes more before a distorted guitar enters. Even most early Van Halen songs have quiet breakdowns in the middle. These dynamic techniques will not only save your ears, but they are also just musically good.
For me, it has always been difficult to resist the “more is more” philosophy. When I play quietly I feel sonically naked. My instinct is to beat the audience over the head with volume, power, and speed. If I play quietly, subtly, and slowly, will they throw a tomato at me? I don’t know. I’ve never tried it. At least not until recently. So far, there have been no tomatoes. I should have tried this a long time ago.
At this point, I should mention the headphones that I’ve been wearing onstage for the last few years. What is going on there? Why don’t I wear custom-molded in-ear monitors like everyone else does? All right, here is my explanation. The purpose of my headphones is the same as the more common ear molds: to block out the stage volume while giving me a controlled mix and volume from the monitor desk. I’ve tried the ear molds and I just prefer the headphones. I can easily take them off if I need to talk to someone in the room, listen to the audience, or get away from an accidental volume blast. And the speakers are simply a lot bigger in the headphones, so there is more headroom and better quality sound. It also gives me a good excuse to have messed-up hair, which is pretty much all my hair will do anyway.
Now, let’s turn to damage control. Do you already have constant ringing and high frequency loss? Do you wonder why most people (especially women and children) don’t talk loud enough? Do you wonder why the dialogue in movies is mixed so low? Do you wonder why telephones, alarm clocks, and kitchen timers just aren’t made like they used to be? Do you wonder why your new stereo never sounds as good as the one you had when you were a kid? Do you wonder why concerts are always too loud and sound crappy? I wondered all these things until I realized it’s me! Sorry!
This is the price I paid for listening to all that fantastic loud music and guitar. Was it worth it? In a word, yes. I loved that music so much. I would have had a lot more misery if my rock and roll were taken away from me than from any grief that I have now from living in my treble-free world. But I certainly wish I could go back in time and follow some of my advice. I would definitely trade some head-stuffed-into-the- 4x12-moments in exchange for getting some high-end back into my ears.
So how do I deal with living in a treble-free world? Well, first of all, I can still hear my guitar. I have help from the best hearing-aid company in the world—Marshall amps! Hearing my guitar is just not a problem! Seriously, my experience of playing guitar is not only via my ears. When I play, I am physically touching the strings and feeling the vibration in the wood of the body and the neck. I have a strong connection to the music before I hear a note. Guitar is still good.
The biggest challenge is speech. Since my hearing loss occurred gradually, I never really noticed the change. I still feel normal. But now it seems like I live in a world where everyone else has bionic super-powered ears. I’ll watch people on opposite ends of a room talking to each other with ease, while I stand in the middle and can’t understand anything. I’ve tried hearing aids and have yet to find one that doesn’t sound like a kazoo broadcast on an AM radio. So my solution is to move closer to people and convince them to speak clearly, slowly, and directly to me. I can imagine that this requirement for simple communication might be annoying to the people around me. In a way, I am demanding special treatment. But I don’t have brown M&Ms on my backstage rider, so I’m hoping it will balance out in the end.
Finally, this may be dangerous optimism, but I actually enjoy some of my hearing loss. I can sleep through just about anything (alarm clocks, traffic, barking dogs, ringing phones, noisy neighbors, even fire alarms). I am not as annoyed as I normally would be at the ubiquitous and horribly chosen background music in restaurants, shops, and public places of all kinds. And although spoken communication requires that I get closer to people, I like how it makes communication more serious. I simply can’t chitchat easily. You’ve got to get my attention, look right at me, and say what needs to be said clearly and directly. Cloudy mumbling, whispered sarcasm, and fluffy verbosity simply don’t work. The cantankerous old man in me doesn’t miss those much.
And the young man in me sure loved listening to all those great, cranked-up rock ’n’ roll tunes. Just to give you a sample of the delicious music that helped to blast my ears away, please check out “I Wanna Go Where the People Go” by the Wildhearts. This was my favorite rock song of the entire decade of the ’90s, and I’m sure I lost a few decibels of hearing while basking in its unrelenting riffs. One little taste won’t hurt you. Go ahead.
Among the legendary musicians with hearing loss (Pete Townshend, Brian Wilson, Ted Nugent, among others), Ludwig Van Beethoven certainly stands out for writing the most 16th-notes. I’d like to pay tribute to him with Fig. 1. This is an interesting pattern taken from his “Emperor” Piano Concerto No. 5. It was originally in Eb major, but I moved it up to E major to make it friendlier for guitar. The whole lick works well with alternate picking. I suggest starting with an upstroke (which keeps the pick “outside” of the strings when changing from string to string.)
All right. Let’s revisit the important points. It’s time to turn down that click track and record live with your band. Fill your studio walls with bass traps and, most importantly, put some quiet parts between the loud parts in your songs. All these will improve your music and extend the amount of time that you’ll be able to hear all the way across a room. An enviable feat for sure! Or so I’ve heard.