Piano tuners are losing their hearing – here’s the fix.

I feel like I want to shout! And it’s not because I have some minor hearing impairment. Finally, FINALLY there have been some new articles published in the Piano Technician’s Journal (the members-only technical publication of the Piano Technician’s Guild) that address hearing damage, hearing protection, and hearing solutions. But those articles didn’t present any new and/or universally accessible tuning solutions since the previous (and scant) articles, just a handful dating back to 1979, despite how centrally important is that piano tuners be able to hear well. In my experience, few piano tuners are aware of the conditions we encounter every day that lead to hearing damage, and even fewer are aware of this particular solution for hearing protection that also enables natural and accurate listening. I recently put together a presentation for my chapter on this exact subject, titled Save Your Ears and Tune Easier. I will share the basic points here.

A lot has been discovered about the human hearing apparatus in recent decades. Wearing hearing protection only just started being practiced and cool in the 1990’s (sike! it still isn’t cool). But piano tuners have been around since long before then, back when people walked to and from school in the snow, uphill, both ways. Jamming something in your ears is still a relatively new – and often socially uncomfortable, perhaps even taboo – practice in our discipline. So why should YOU challenge this notion?


Exposure Limits

Here are some important simplified metrics about human hearing tolerances, with exposure data presented by World Health Organization (WHO) and American Speech-Language Hearing Association (ASHA):

  • Anything under 70dBA is safe for unlimited time. Anything over 70dBA has a time limit before damage occurs.
  • Every 3dB increase will halve your safe exposure time.
  • After hitting the exposure time limit, your ears must recover at under 70dBA for the remainder of a 7 day week.
  • Though not everyone’s ears react exactly the same, this is an excellent average guideline you can bet on. But do keep in mind that while some ears may be more resilient to exposure, others will also be less resilient – which are yours?
  • Accurately measuring your personal exposure to sound is not easy. So to be safe, just remember kids, “When in doubt, shut it out!” (Sorry, not sorry.)
  • The below chart of exposure time limits from ASHA is based on average sound level exposure over that period of time, but loud peaks don’t necessarily raise the average and can still put you past safe exposure limits, even within the time constraints. (I once measured test blows at over 103dBA on a 7-footer in a large room, even though the measured average level during the whole tuning was only about 90dBA.)

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(WordPress formatting sucks)

The OSHA, NIOSH, and CDC standard is far less representative of our personal hearing health needs; geared towards preventing lawsuits in employment situations. Their Recommended Exposure Limit (REL) of 85dBA for 40 hours per week is intended to keep workers able to understand speech over a forty-year career, and acknowledge that “approximately 8% of workers could still develop hearing loss,” which to them means, “not able to understand speech.” Their standards don’t provide us with an encouraging prognosis!

It is easy to damage your hearing – this is the point that few people grasp.


Hearing Ain’t Cheap

The first and foremost reality I want to scream about is that THERE IS A PERFECT SOLUTION to simultaneously protect your ears and allow you to hear your tuning work accurately!!! Whether you currently use hearing aids to tune the last octave, or if you’ve just started in this career and an old CRT television’s sound can still give you a headache, this product will work for you. It’s called 3DME, now on generation 2, from ASI Audio – designed in partnership with Sensaphonics, a private hearing preservation research and product solutions company founded by audiologist Dr. Michael Santucci in 1985. Sensaphonics released the world’s first custom 3D ambient monitoring in-ear system in 2006, at that time costing a few dozen piano tunings. Today, an affordable and universal version of this system is available from ASI Audio to protect your valuable tuning ears. It will [only] cost between about $800-$2,500 depending on the earbud/isolation. That may sound like a lot of cash, but compare it to the cost of quality hearing aids and you’ll realize you’re getting a steep discount. And keep in mind that hearing aids do not fix damage nor restore quality of sound. They are primarily intended to assist with verbal communication. Hearing aids can (and will) contribute to further damage because of the high SPL levels they generate to compensate for hearing loss. Invest now to save both money and your hearing, later.


A Volume Control For Your Ears

The 3DME solution is best described as having a volume control for your ears. Here’s how it works:
Isolating earplugs go into your ears that reduce incoming sound by up to about 20 to 45dB, depending (next paragraph). Simple enough – blocking out loud sound is obvious, but how are you supposed to hear anything? Well, these earplugs also have built-in microphones and high quality audio drivers (speakers) for each ear. It’s an earplug-earphone with an ambient mic! Again, this system is basically a volume control for your ears: it first blocks the sound, and then re-transmits a controlled version of that blocked sound into your protected ear. For those of you who have experience with musicians earplugs: it’s kind-of like that, but this system works way, WAY better. There are additional functions, too: input level limiter, equalizer, and more. And if you need or use hearing aids, it comes with CROS functions, and you can also set it to function like a regular hearing aid; to reinforce frequencies and volume specific to your deficit. Do you hear me shouting yet? AHHH!!!


I’ll Bet You Hate Earplugs

It is important to note that this system preserves your spatial awareness; the 3D feel of being in a space. It is my strong opinion that the lack of spatial awareness caused by most ear protection is the primary reason so many people resist wearing it – whether they know it or not. This system eliminates that problem. From least to most expensive options, you can expect increased isolation and sound quality respectively. The $800 version uses a universal earbud with a universal foam-insert to plug your ear (about -20dB). A step up is to add on the $175 custom sleeves, inside which the universal earbud sits, replacing the foam insert with this more-comfortable and better-isolating mold of your ear canal (about -35dB). The full $2,000 or $2,500 option has the microphone and 2 or 4 audio drivers set into a fully custom ear mold, providing both the most isolation (up to -45dB) and the highest sound quality. Regardless of which option you employ, all of them work to isolate your ears from hours of unsafe tuning levels, but re-connect you with your environment and clarity as soon as you turn up a little volume. Watch this YouTube video (with headphones) for a demonstration of how natural the sound is.


“Sir, can you please shut up your kids?”

We’ve thankfully read in the Piano Technician’s Journal from one tuner about his method of using isolating earmuff/headphones combined with microphones and a mixer. It’s an effective solution, and the only active solution that’s ever been mentioned. The 3DME system is very similar to what he has devised, but in a smaller, simpler, and less-expensive package, with binaural hearing from your own ear position rather than from external mics. It’s designed specifically to be easy and low-profile for musicians who need to hear critically in musical environments, piano tuners included. Furthermore, you can also apply Paul’s method of using external microphones to focus on sections of the piano. 3DME has an external input, designed to work with other audio equipment (PSM systems, handheld recorders, Game Boy Color, etc. – anything with a headphone output). Just turn down your ear mics, and turn up an external mic (many easy options for this) placed near the piano strings of your desire. It works well to isolate the piano on a loud stage: for example, an outdoor festival where you have 30 minutes to touch up unisons while the drummer is being sound-checked approximately not-nearly-far-enough upstage. Watch this YouTube video (with headphones) for an audio demonstration of tuning with an 84dBA vacuum cleaner right next to the piano: first through the natural sound of 3DME, and then up-close through my little Tascam DR-07 handheld recorder.


“What was that, sonny?”

And for those of you who experience some difficulty with distinguishing unisons near the piano’s terminus: please check out this YouTube video, at your own risk, where I use RCT and FFT (Fast Fourier transform) to tune a piano without being able to hear it one bit! Yes; I plugged my ears and then blasted music through headphones on top of the plugs so that I couldn’t distinguish the piano at all, and then [mostly] successfully tuned it. The point of this being that one could ostensibly tune at safe and controlled volumes with 3DME, and then use FFT for the top section that is no longer in a comfortable hearing range.


Your Expensive Headphones Aren’t That Great

Now, you may already own some wireless earbuds with active cancellation and “transparency” settings made by your favorite fruit company, or perhaps your German-designed and comfortably quiet noise-canceling airplane headphones also sport an “aware mode” audio pass-through function. You may then reasonably ask, “Don’t those earphones do the same thing while costing far less?” Well, yes… but actually no, not at all. Those consumer products have not been designed specifically for protective isolation from dangerous sound exposure, and certainly do not provide the same subtlety of control. Q: Are we not tuners? A: We are Professionals!


GO MEET YOUR AUDIOLOGIST

The best way to knowingly maintain your hearing is to have it professionally tested. And then tested again every [how often should I tune my piano?] to have an accurate profile of your hearing over time – because it’s highly unlikely that any of us will retire from this profession with the same hearing we were born with. Accurately measuring how your hearing performs and changes throughout the years will enable you to make decisions that help preserve your hearing for a lifetime of enjoyment.

I don’t work for ASI Audio nor Sensaphonics, nor do I receive compensation for proselytizing their products. I am but a humble fanboy who is hopefully excited about 3DME because I believe it is the best tool that we piano tuners currently have available to both protect our ears and enable our hearing for an uncompromised career.

I am 36, and have about average hearing loss for my age, which is thankfully better than average for musician and music professional hearing loss (I spent over a decade as an audio engineer on loud stages). I’ve been concerned about my hearing since I was 17, and have employed a regimen of various solutions to help protect my ears for the long term. Even so, the randomness of daily life ensures that we will all be exposed to dangerous sound levels from time to time, no matter how careful we are. But if we can protect our ears when exposure is under our control, we will be much better off for those times when exposure is outside of our control; so that it hopefully doesn’t all add up to a compromised lifestyle (not to mention quality of work). After all, nobody else is going to protect your hearing for you. #RespectYourEars


3DME from ASI Audio – Universal Fit

Custom Silicone Sleeves for 3DME – For use with the above

3DME Custom Tour Gen2 Music Enhancement IEM System – What the pros use

4 thoughts on “Piano tuners are losing their hearing – here’s the fix.

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