Ambivalent's deaf scare
I’m like a lot of music fans - I get intense pleasure from feeding my ears. It’s been an indulgence since I was young - standing in front of speaker stacks at concerts and raves, marvelling at the power of vibrating, pulsing air. Luck has brought me to a place where, for the past 10 years, I’ve made sound my sole focus, professionally and creatively. That’s meant an abundance of this same pleasure, but a need for caution. The best comparison might be to a cook whose taste buds refine as their waistband expands, and wonders if there’s a way to improve the former and contain the latter.
As I’ve balanced the dual pursuits of studio production and DJing, I’ve noticed that without awareness of my limits and conscientious ear protection, I run the risk of losing both. There are days when my ears are too tired to make accurate studio mixes, and there are times when lack of caution in DJ gigs imperil the pleasures I feel so lucky to enjoy.
"Have I ruined the rest of my life as a musician?"
One such instance happened at a party in Holland last year. I was in the middle of a lineup of great DJs and live acts, performing at a one-day festival. The event was going in full swing when I arrived, and after a listen on the dancefloor and some time in the backstage, it was time for my set.
I carry custom-moulded earplugs with me to every gig. They’re in the same pouch as my USB sticks, so I can not ignore or “forget” them. But on this night, I felt that it wasn’t necessary, and I wanted to be able to hear the monitors over the sound of the room. I was having fun playing, and felt a nice momentum growing with each track as I selected them. So I took my earplugs out, and set them beside the mixer.
About one hour into my two hour set, something strange happened. My right ear went deaf, and within seconds, all sound in that ear was replaced by a dim, off-key sine tone. Think of it like those annoying test signals they used to do on television. But taking over one side of your head. I cut the monitors off immediately. My stomach dropped and I could feel the chill of panic take over. I couldn’t shut out the thoughts racing through me - is this it? Is this how my ears will be forever? Have I ruined the rest of my life as a musician? Will I lie awake at night hounded by this ugly dumb tone, reminding me of the moment I got too comfortable? I have friends who have experienced major bouts with tinnitus and hearing loss. We hear that doctors don’t know whether hearing loss is fixable, and often it’s permanent.
Those thoughts were inescapable, but the urgent matter at hand was how to deal with the immediate reality of a record approaching an ending, and a crowd of 1000 people potentially becoming unhappy. There was no other DJ or event staff within sight, just me, a crowd of dancers, and this sinister tone telling me I’d blown everything. My best bet was to cue up another track, mix it using my good ear in my headphones, and hope for some kind of rescue. I repeated this process for a harrowing 30 minutes before anyone appeared.
"Thoughts of starting a new life without music were paralysing."
The stage manager appeared and came up when I waved him over. He proceeded to shout in my already-deafened and ringing ear. — Don’t do this. To anyone. Seriously — I shoved him away like a hurt and frightened animal, then grabbed him, pulled him back to my other side, and explained the situation. He was apologetic, but unable to help. The other DJ hadn’t arrived, and no other artists were in reach. Short of cutting the set and leaving the stage with no music for 20 minutes (not an appealing option) I would have to continue with my contingency strategy. I mixed through the one good ear I had, listening to the sound of the room and the headphone on my good ear.
The ride back to the hotel was one of silent shock. Thoughts of starting a new life without music were paralysing. The regret was overwhelming, the fear was roaring as loud as my ear was ringing and all I could do was try to relax and hope it would change. It was impossible, however, not to wonder if this was the way things would be for the future.
And then, halfway to the hotel, my ear just suddenly came back to life. The ringing tone faded, the hearing slowly came back, and within an hour, I was hearing normally. I was elated. It took a few hours to relax from the pure joy of regaining my hearing, but when I slept, it was deep and peaceful.
It’s been 18 months since that event, and I can say I’ve not stopped touring, recording and mixing. However, I will not set foot in a club without ear protection. I won’t talk loudly in anyone’s ear, and routinely keep friends at a safe distance when talking over loud music. I keep monitors at the safest possible volume while playing, and always try to avoid bringing the headphones up too loud.
Rather than preach about ear health, I try to offer my personal perspective. Many of us have this in common - we passionately love the emotional and physical power of music. We all have the same vulnerability - our ears are delicate organs that weren’t built for the modern world. If you love the world your ears bring to you, it’s a must that you protect them. My close call with nearly losing my hearing has driven that lesson home to me deeply.
Written by Kevin McHugh.
Kevin produces under Ambivalent and LA-4A. Listen to his EP, Doxa, forthcoming on Nov 17 on his own label Valence below. Follow Ambivalent here.
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