Interview: Borai's tinnitus struck when he was just 16
Boris English, aka Borai, first got the jungle bug in his mid-late teens. From this point on he became invested in Bristol's dance music and soundsystem culture. His productions evidently take influence from the 90s scene, but have weighty modern sound.
Borai has had tinnitus from his mid-teens, primarily from listening too loud to his walkman. Here, he talks about how this affects his production and DJing, and advises us on how to avoid his own mistakes.
How long have you had tinnitus?
I’ve had tinnitus since I was approx. 16 or 17 years old. As far as I understand I got it from listening to Happy Hardcore and Jungle at too high a volume on my personal stereo. When I was about 15 I found an old Sony Walkman that didn’t have any volume protection and went far louder than any modern walkman of the time.
I used to listen to that thing from morning to night and always had it pushed to the loudest volume it would go. After about 1 or 2 years of using that I became aware of ringing in my ears when I went to sleep at night and also in very quiet situations. I’ve never had my problem officially diagnosed but all my symptoms are exactly as described for the condition.
What problems have you encountered as a result of the condition?
Over the years it has gotten worse, from just a slight ringing when in low volume settings to sometimes experiences of extreme pain in my ear when listening to certain frequencies. My worst symptoms come and go and are triggered by extreme noise and really high music levels. The pain when it is at its worst feels like someone is stabbing me in the ear and I have to retreat to somewhere quieter and wait for it to pass or calm down.
Was there any kind of awareness and discussion about the dangers of exposure to loud music in the Bristol jungle scene you first evolved in?
During my time growing up and getting involved in the music scene in Bristol we never really discussed the problem of listening to volume levels that are too high. In fact it was probably the total opposite, I was always the one with my head in the speaker cab trying to feel every last bass hit and snare crack. But over time the issue of noise damage did become something that people talked about.
When I went to college and studied Music Technology, one of the first lectures was all about the human ear and how it works and what the noise levels are that can damage hearing. This was a bit of a wake up call for me, as I was already experiencing symptoms of tinnitus, and it gave me the kick start that I needed to start thinking about my hearing when I went out.
As a DJ, spending the majority of your weekends at clubs and festivals, what effect does your working life have on your tinnitus?
Honestly I haven’t lead that “every weekend at the club” lifestyle for a few years now. Yes I have gigs and yes I do visit clubs, but not at the same rate that I once was. But it does affect me when working in the studio, I monitor at much lower levels than I used to (I was one of those people that liked to have the volume WAY up when I was producing). Over the years, I realised that it’s not really good to listen at such high levels as it can give you a distorted idea of what the track actually sounds like and makes you constantly rethink your mix downs (as well as damaging your hearing!).
About eight years ago, I was lucky enough to get hold of my first “proper” studio monitors, a pair of Genelec 1029a speakers that were active and had 100W amps. They are small but pack a real punch and I found that I was starting to experience more of the painful symptoms linked to tinnitus. If I spent four hours working on a tune, when I was finished my ears were very delicate and I needed to rest them for a couple of hours to get back to feeling alright. I have since purchased a pair of Eve SC07 monitors with ribbon tweeters and working with them I do not get anywhere near the kind of problems that I had with my Genelecs.
As for gigs, I do get worried that I might have real problems on the night. What if the pain comes on during a set? So far this had never happened to me and I am thankful, but it does make me think about how I can protect my ears in the club and I have done lots of research on what earplugs would be good for me.
Do you think that your relation to the music you play today would be different if you had worn earplugs during your 15+ years of DJing?
Honestly I couldn’t tell you, but I suspect that I would probably have the same drive to hearing music played loud and experiencing the physicality of sound that I do today. Saying that I do take more care as to where I am standing in the club in relation to the speaker stacks (no more head in the bass bins for me!) and I do try and take regular breaks from listening when I’m in the studio. So, maybe if I had worn earplugs for the whole time I’ve been DJing and going out I would be a bit more confident that I’m not gonna have any problems with my hearing in the future.
There are many documented methods about how to cope with the condition - what’s the best way for you?
I’ve never taken any real steps to do anything about my tinnitus so I don’t really know any other methods other than the one that has served me well over the years. I ignore the symptoms and try not to get too involved in trying to stop it. I’ve kind of worked out that if you try and get deep into trying to fix the problem it can actually get worse; it’s like once you start concentrating on it, it becomes more of a problem. I try to ignore and move passed the ringing then my brain will adapt to the new environment and it soon becomes something I can deal with. When the pain is really bad, I will take myself out of the situation I am in that is causing trouble and try not to get too worked up about that. I feel that if you get stressed out it can get worse.
One thing I don’t ignore is the cause of the problem, be that loud clubs or studio listening levels. I try to be aware about what is happening at any one moment and do what i can to try and limit the damage I may be experiencing.
If there’s one piece of advice you could give to artists and/or fans with regard to protecting their ears, what would it be?
Protect your hearing, buy good quality earplugs, do research about the levels that can do damage to your hearing and try not to be in those situations without protection. I wish I had been aware of what can happen when I was younger and maybe I would not have listened to my walkman so loud or put my head in so many bass bins...
Wise up and make sure the one thing you need to listen to and write music are kept in fine fettle and you won’t have any problems further down the line.