Andy Shiach

M caught up with Andy Shiach, owner of ACS, who has some tips that could save your hearing.

Anita Awbi
  • By Anita Awbi
  • 7 Jun 2012
  • min read
Unbowed, Andy decided to develop the kind of products that would prevent other artists and performers suffering a similar experience and set up Advanced Communication Services (ACS). We asked Andy to describe the kind of products that can prevent your hearing being damaged and the risks associated with working in the studio and on stage.

Why did you set up your custom ear phone business?
When I was 19 I suffered a noise trauma in a studio that ended my musical career. It was devastating. In those days (mid 1970s) there was no help or support for people in my state. I suffered with hyperacusis (an intolerance to loud sounds) and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) which made it impossible for me to continue playing, so I decided to research ways of stopping what happened to me happening to others and trained for a career in audiology. I eventually ended up introducing to the UK specialist custom-made musician's hearing protection. When wireless in-ear monitoring arrived in the 1990s, I set about developing soft silicone, sound-isolating earphones that would allow artists to receive a lower and consequently safer volume level from their mix. In-ear monitoring is a great technology and has revolutionised live music performance, but no consideration was (and in some cases still isn’t) given to controlling sound pressure levels at the ear. I established ACS to promote hearing preservation and provide ‘fit for purpose’ solutions to combat the harmful effects of noise on our hearing. Our ethos remains the same today and we will always focus our efforts in delivering innovative solutions to people who are exposed to damaging sound levels.

How do you make sure the headphones deliver great sound while also protecting your hearing, does it take a lot of research and processes?
The prime reason for developing custom moulded earphones in silicone was to provide the safest way for a musician to monitor their live performance. We use medical grade silicones and pay particular attention to the quality of the ear impressions we receive and have many processes in place to make sure we deliver a safe, perfect fit product.

Essentially, it’s all about signal to noise and by providing as much attenuation of the ambient surroundings as possible, the mix level becomes significantly lower than using open, or vented earphones. Recent research has confirmed our own findings that anyone listening to music will adjust the volume to 13dB above the ambient. Our earphones provide 27dB attenuation, so in a situation where the ambient is 100dB(A) they would deliver an average of 86dB(A) to the eardrum (100 (ambient) – 27 (Attenuation) + 13 (signal to noise). Without the earphones, listening off wedges, 113db(A) would be required for the artist to hear his performance. Equating that to noise at work legislation, the earphones could be used for more than four hours but the wedges could not be used for any safe period at all.

We have developed our own in-situ measurement system that allows us to take a number of different measurements at the eardrum while the earphones are being used. Using a very flat clinical probe microphone connected to an audio analyser we’re able to look at the frequency characteristics, sound pressure levels (minimum, maximum, peak and leq) and a number of other functions of the earphones. A small probe tube is fitted into the earphones at manufacture, so we’re able to get very accurate data that previously would have been impossible to obtain. It’s very comforting to be able to prove the safety aspects of our products and provides our users with a level of confidence that they are indeed protecting their hearing. It’s important that all of our products do what we say, so I encourage everyone to have regular hearing checks to monitor the effectiveness of any hearing conservation programme they embark upon.

Regarding sound quality, we have an in-house electro acoustics engineer who designs the audio characteristics of our earphones. We can deliver exceptional sound quality by processing the small balanced armature speakers through our own proprietary integral crossover circuitry. At the outset, sound quality was not our priority, but as we have developed, this aspect has also become just as important as the safety message.

How easy is it to damage the ears in the studio or stage and do both environments have differing risks?
It’s really easy! Unfortunately for me, it took two seconds of feedback in a studio environment to change my life forever. Luckily I’m the exception, but wherever musical instruments and loudspeakers come together, there’s always the risk of hearing damage. Long term exposure in both of these environments is the major issue and it can take years before the effects of that exposure becomes evident. Most people experience tinnitus or dulled hearing after high sound exposure but pay little attention to it because it’s usually gone by the next morning. It’s the cumulative effects of this exposure that causes the long term damage. Studios tend to be a more controlled environment than stages, so they’re easier to monitor, but with many bands using in ear monitoring, these days a lot of stages are relatively quiet.

In addition to hearing loss and tinnitus, do extreme sound levels cause other damage to health and well-being?
Yes. Two other conditions arising from high sound exposure are Hyperacusis and Diplacusis. The first causes intolerance to loud sounds i.e. when something that sounds loud to most people becomes excruciatingly loud and painful to the sufferer. Diplacusis is an absolute nightmare. It’s a condition where one sound is perceived differently in each ear, either in pitch or time. You can imagine how this will affect anyone who relies on their hearing for their livelihood. Hearing is one of the most complex processes in the human body and like everything we all take it for granted until something goes wrong.

Can you give a few tips for younger people just starting out making music in bands or bedroom production to help protect their hearing?

  • Keep the volume down

  • Use proper hearing protection (all the time)

  • Wear earphones that isolate you from your surroundings

  • Think about how important your hearing is

  • And remember it’s okay to protect your hearing; break your ears and you can’t get them fixed!