June 8, 2018

Leader Live recently spoke with audiologist Michael Santucci, founder and president of Sensaphonics, Inc., about his career treating musicians with hearing loss. On June 20-22, at Columbia College in Chicago, Santucci will present and act as co-chair at the 2018 Audio Engineering Society (AES) International Conference on Music-Induced Hearing Disorders.

Leader Live: Talk about your background as an audiologist.

Michael Santucci: I’ve been an audiologist since 1978. In 1985 I began to focus on hearing loss prevention for musicians, because nobody was helping them. Over time, I progressed from custom plugs into the new product area of in-ear monitors (IEMs) and founded Sensaphonics. Suddenly, I was a manufacturer. One thing led to another, and I fit my first famous clients, the Grateful Dead, with IEMs in 1992. In fact, it was their sound engineers, Derek Featherstone and the late Don Pearson, who taught me a lot about the specific audio needs of musicians on stage. That’s important, because it’s very different from what we learn in audiology school.

I started writing, researching and teaching about the issues that musicians have with their hearing that nobody talked about or addressed. Back then, the idea of hearing preservation for rock musicians was considered laughable, because it was all about being loud. Even today, you see all these people quitting because their hearing is so bad. But we’ve made a lot of progress in terms of education and awareness. It’s been a long road, but it’s pretty fantastic.

LL: Why do you feel there is a need for a conference specific to music-induced hearing disorders?

Santucci: This is the third time we’ve held this conference. I have been chair or co-chair of all three of them. The Audio Engineering Society [AES] members are people who design and produce audio. Whether it’s a recording, a toy, a videogame, your car stereo, your phone, concert stereo system, you name it, it’s all audio engineers. Obviously, these people need to know about hearing loss prevention.

AES has 32 different tech[nology] committees. When I said I’d like to start a tech committee on hearing and hearing loss prevention, I was asked, “Why would our members be interested?” I said, not all your members care about spatial audio or car audio, but they should all care about their hearing—especially since they’re the ones designing audio for the rest of us! So that’s how it started. It’s a really great program with great speakers and it’s going to be quite exciting.

LL: The program covers a wide range of topics. Which session are you particularly excited about?

Santucci: Siobhan McGinnity and Elizabeth Beach have some interesting studies on concert sound levels, attitudes [toward hearing] from audiences, and attitudes from musicians. That should be a great presentation!

Nina Kraus, a neurologist from Northwestern, is our keynote speaker. She studies the brain and music, and talks about cognition and cognitive changes with hearing loss. These are things that I tell musicians, like the fact that they’ve got the advantage of actually hearing better than non-musicians. But if you lose hearing, you have a 200-percent increased chance of early dementia. So Nina’s keynote will really set the tone for the whole conference.

LL: What conference takeaways do you hope your audiologist attendees could readily implement in their own practice?

Santucci: With earplugs and in-ear monitors, many audiologists say, “We want to be a dealer for your company and sell in-ear monitors and plugs!” and I say to them, “No, you want to sell hearing-loss prevention.” It goes beyond plugs and a product, because anyone can sell the plug and the product. I want them to come out of this [conference] saying that hearing loss prevention is complex, and if I gain expertise, people will come to see me because they’re concerned about their hearing, not because they want to buy a product.

We see about 2,000 musicians in our clinic here each year, both local and big-time. They come here because it’s a place to learn about how to save your hearing. We sell products, too, but a lot of them don’t get a product. Two people today were just checking their hearing.

LL: With big names in music (Eric Clapton, Roger Daltrey, Huey Lewis) speaking about their own hearing loss, do you think this has brought more awareness to musicians’ hearing?

Santucci: The thing about musicians is, if they play long enough, and especially those that have been doing it for 30, 40, 50 years, they know songs by rote. So they’ll say, “I play this song a million times. I don’t have to hear everything that I’m doing because I know how to finger the notes. As long as I get a rhythm, and I get a few cues I’m fine. Now I can never stretch it and do something fun or a little different. I can’t do that because I can’t hear it.” Then, of course, some have hypersensitivity and bad tinnitus—it just adds up to making a miserable end of career. We’re trying—and succeeding—in finding ways to get them back to work.

LL: As an advocate for hearing conservation, what would you say is the biggest misconception the general public has regarding noise-induced hearing loss?

Santucci: People think if the sound isn’t distorted, it isn’t as damaging as if it is distorted. And that’s not true. With today’s PA systems, concert levels can get up very high without distortion. In the ’70s, the speakers stacked on the stage got to about 105dB and then started to distort. Now, they can get up to 130dB without distortion.

I guess the biggest misconception is people know when it’s painfully loud and they want to get away, but people don’t know what the gauge is for too loud. They don’t know because there’s no reference. They show up at a show and the sound level is 95dB. Well for music at a live show, that’s not that loud. But if you’re in it for two to four hours, it’s going to do some injury. But they don’t know that.

That’s where the World Health Organization is coming in. They have an initiative called Make Listening Safe, and for the last two and a half years we’ve been meeting in Geneva with all the device manufacturers for consumers. The goal is to put warnings on the device to say, “Now you’ve got a 5-percent risk you’re going to lose your hearing,” or “In 10 minutes you’ve gone into complete dose, and you should turn it down.” It is going to start giving people that reference of what’s too loud.

LL: Should music venues be doing more?

Santucci: If you go to any big outdoor theater for Live Nation, they announce, “This concert could get loud enough to injure your hearing or damage your hearing. Ear plugs are available at the concession.” They’re already saying there’s an issue, or that there could be an issue. Now just put up a sign that says, “Loud sounds hurt your hearing. Put your earplugs in when the red light comes on.” But don’t make the band turn it down. You go to see AC/DC, you’re not expecting it to sound like The Carpenters! But you should know when it’s hurting you. I’m for education, not regulation.

LL: What should audiologists know if they are treating a career musician? Do they need to modify hearing screenings?

Santucci: I have a case history form that is two pages. It’s medical and musical. How many years have you played? Where do you sit? How many instruments do you play? I talk about family history and all the things that could damage their hearing. I [focus on] educating and motivating. “Here’s how the ear works, here’s all the research, here’s what’s happening to your brain.” It’s teaching musicians about what goes on with the ear, what’s safe, and what isn’t. We want to give them the knowledge to make good decisions for themselves. That’s what this conference is all about.

To learn more about the 2018 AES International Conference on Music Induced Hearing Disorders and to register, click here.

Jillian Kornak is writer/editor for the ASHA Leader. [email protected]

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