Episode 6 – Ear Plugs Required
When it comes to sampling, the hardest job for the recording team is always capturing the extreme registers of an instrument. The piccolo flute covers the highest register of all orchestral instruments. Due to the physical properties of the instrument, it is almost impossible to play pianissimo in the highest registers. Whereas in the control room you can easily lower the speaker volume, the recording booth is another story. Maura Bayer had already played the concert flute for us so she knew what to expect from a sampling session. However, our recording team was quite surprised when Maura showed up with earplugs to record the piccolo flute. They quickly learned why hearing protection was a good idea for piccolo players.
Noise Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) can result from high sound volumes, beginning around 85 dB (A) and louder. It is no surprise then, that playing in an orchestra for a significant length of time can cause irreversible hearing loss. Damage to the tiny hair cells of the inner ear affects high frequency hearing around 4 kHz initially and with enough exposure also affects lower frequencies. While our hearing system is generally more sensitive to high frequencies, the low-to-mid frequency range is essential for understanding speech. This is something Beethoven was painfully aware of as his hearing loss affected his social and professional life.
Exposure time and sound pressure levels are the key factors. A single forte trumpet note, heard at a distance of 50 centimeters is equivalent to an exposure of four hours of quieter sounds. Likewise, hearing loss can result from exposure to 85 dB sound levels for five days per week, eight hours per day. Approximately 10% of musicians in orchestras suffer from severe hearing impairment with the percentage being highest for those with the longest careers. The most affected group is the woodwinds, because they typically sit in front of the brass and percussion sections.