Discussing future hearing technologies with Peter Kirn


It is hard to pin down Peter Kirn with one title. It is probably easiest to say he is an ‘electronic musician’, though he delves deep into the meanings of each of those words, often independently of one another. He is a visual artist, digital musician, media artist, and composer. But as well as this, he is the creator of Create Digital Music, an online magazine for creative technology. From this forum, he publishes stories about the latest developments in music and motion technology. Lastly, he is the co-creator of MeeBlip - the award-winning, open-source synthesizer.

Kirn seems to be the perfect person to talk to about the state of tinnitus in electronic music today. Not only has he suffered from tinnitus for many years now and has a deep involvement at the overlap of music and technology, he has also given his own Ted Talk on the relationship between music and our bodies. Knowing all this, we knew Peter would provide some excellent insight into how these interests can be combined to combat and cope with tinnitus. We chatted to him about this, the awareness of tinnitus in the music community, and what he’s working on right now.

From Peter Kirn's latest album: Bellona, USA

Hi Peter, how are you?

Good! Thanks for having me.

What triggered you to start wearing earplugs?

I was kind of a shut-in when I lived in New York. Then, I came to Berlin and just fell in love with the overabundance of music, the nonstop music culture, these absolutely visceral, physical experiences of sound in clubs and concert venues. There's no fear of sound. So of course you figure out quickly that earplugs are a necessity. You want to be able to keep enjoying music, even at its extremes.

I also figured out my tinnitus was already worse than I thought, because Berlin - ironically - has something else few other cities of this size have. There's tons of total silence. 

Do you feel there is any stigma against wearing earplugs in clubs? Why?

I think that stigma has really disappeared. You look around the dance floor and there are earplugs everywhere. No one is making fun of anyone for taking precautions any more. I think as there's a regular culture around clubbing, the word is getting around. I think also people are accepting that, okay, whatever we've done in the past, there's no time like the present to make a decision to prevent further damage. 

You have focused a lot on developing new technologies in music. Do you think more should be invested in better ways to protect our ears? In what way?

Self-calibrating hearing devices are definitely the next big thing. It's going to come in two forms - in adaptive devices to prevent harm, and in technology to compensate for hearing loss. On the preventative side, we're clearly close to having smart earplugs that protect your ears while selecting what sound is let in. And as we see headphones that self-calibrate to allow better spatial simulation for listening, I think there's no reason those headphones shouldn't also adjust so that you hear clearly without turning up the volume to unsafe levels. 

On the other side, I think parallel advancements in perception and audio processing and machine learning will build better adaptive hearing devices to compensate for hearing loss, some of which is inevitable as we age.

The trick to all of this is, it will require a significant investment in research, and it will take time. So some of the early "smart" listening devices I've tried I think haven't quite lived up to the hype. But we have to be patient. Hearing is really complex, and it's really personal. At least the developments in signal processing and AI each point to technologies that begin to live up to our extremely sensitive expectations. And the fact that everyone has smartphones now, means you've got a logical, smart remote for that device, already on your person. 

Where should responsibility be placed regarding ear protection? With the individuals or the clubs?

That's a really good question. There's no question clubs in general are too loud. And there's no reason for that. You've got tons of people with sound engineering experience looking for work. Hire good techs. And actually, if we had a better culture around live sound engineering in clubs, there would be less temptation of club owners and DJs to drive sound into the red all the time. It sounds bad, anyway.

At the same time, that shouldn't stop individuals from taking responsibility, too. We can't wait for clubs to sort this out.

Sound experimentation is something that has driven you throughout your career. Has ear protection ever been a consideration in these endeavours?

Um... well, I've certainly been told when I pushed something too far. I think the problem is, as a performer or musician, you can't focus on the performance and the listening experience at the same time. That's why techs matter so much. 

Have you ever considered developing music to cope with tinnitus?

This is totally fascinating to me. There's going to be a whole market opening up for combining medical knowledge on one hand with musicians and composers on the other, so the aesthetic experience is better. And we have ageing populations. 

I think this could be totally beautiful. It means we can stop thinking of ourselves as immortal or eternally young, and get back in touch with perception as it's connected to the body. I just lack the training on the perception side to know how this would work. If anyone out there wants to collaborate, I'm all ears. 

What’s coming up next for you and your music?

I've got another LP on a wonderful underground label called Detroit Underground, and I get to play a live experimental set on a party Dasha Rush has put together for Tresor. Other than that, I'm just working away on a lot of projects.

I try to exercise my creative side, even if the results are silly, just to see what's lurking in my imagination. So I'm rotating between experimental music and more club-oriented techno material, and seeing where it leads; and practising live playing as much as possible, in addition to some more pure research work on the technology side (audio and visual) and revisiting the piano as an instrument. It should be a busy year. 

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Written by Alex Pigott