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Hope for musicians with hearing loss

Contributed by | Tuesday, July 26th, 2016

An announcement last April that Brian Johnson, lead singer of iconic rock band AC/DC, was leaving the band’s Rock or Bust tour left fans reeling. The reason for the departure? Johnson was told by his doctor that he risked total hearing loss if he continued performing with the band.

An avid auto racing enthusiast, Johnson said back in 2014 that his hearing problems began with failure to wear hearing protection during a race. Noting that a few minutes into the race he heard a popping sound in his ear, Johnson reports, “I was like, what the heck was that? But it was fine. All that happened was I had suffered tinnitus for about six or seven months. But it cleared up and then I was fine again.”

cheering crowd at dimly lit rock concert
Loud concerts can be dangerous for 
performers' hearing.

Johnson went back out on tour with AC/DC, once again subjecting his ears to the nightly rigors of excruciatingly loud stadium music. But his hearing problems came to a head after a concert performed in the rain caused him to fall ill, and the long plane ride that followed caused fluid to build up in his ears. Unfortunately, the fluid crystallized and caused damage, and doctors soon delivered the devastating news: unless Johnson wanted to lose his remaining hearing, he had to stop touring with AC/DC immediately.

Hearing loss is certainly nothing new in the music industry. Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Phil Collins and Chris Martin are just a few of the musicians that have hearing loss or tinnitus from years of exposure to loud music and inadequate hearing protection. But now a new development in the world of in-ear technology is not only offering hope for those musicians who already have hearing loss, but might just prevent hearing loss from occurring in the first place.

Stephen Ambrose, the founder of Asius Technologies and the creator of the wireless in-ear monitor used extensively by touring bands starting in the 1970s, was motivated to create better in-ear technology after he came to the startling revelation that his original invention could be leading to hearing damage for the musicians it was designed to help. The problem was that original in-ear monitors were not designed to protect hearing, but instead were designed to give singers and musicians the ability to hear more of their own voice or instrument above the rest of the stage or crowd noise. And ear protection alone was not feasible because it did not allow singers and musicians to hear the subtle nuances of the music necessary for performing.

So Ambrose created an improved version of the in-ear that serves to not only improve hearing on stage but to protect hearing as well. The new in-ear acts as an auxiliary eardrum of sorts, absorbing only the harmful sound pressures. Called the Ambrose Diaphonic Ear Lense (ADEL), it works by filtering sounds through the lens, and the result is better sound quality across the entire spectrum, from bass to treble. ADEL can also differentiate between static pressure and sound pressure, and then removes the static pressure.  The result is better sound quality with less risk of hearing damage.

After Ambrose heard Brian Johnson’s announcement regarding his retirement from live performances, he reached out to Johnson via a YouTube video. In the video, Ambrose explains the new technology and how it could help Johnson get back out on the road with the band. It also includes footage of people with hearing loss trying out the ADEL Bubble, an inflatable version of the new technology that is able to restore hearing in those with profound hearing loss.

In the video, Ambrose addressed Johnson directly, saying, “Please don’t stop performing. Help is on the way.”

Through the magic of social media, Brian Johnson heard about the video and got in touch with Ambrose. They arranged a meeting, during which Johnson tried out the new technology. And what did he think?

"It works," Johnson said in a press release. "It just totally works and you can't argue with that. I was really moved and amazed to be able to hear music again like I haven't heard for several years now. I can't wait for it to be miniaturized so I can use it in every situation from normal communication, going out to noisy restaurants, [and] performing live music onstage."

As far as ADEL technology, the good news is that a low-cost version is in development for those of us who aren't famous rock stars. Meanwhile, whether or not you are a musician, be sure to see your hearing care professional to ask about which hearing protection technology is right for you. Although Johnson’s future performing with AC/DC is still unknown, fans can take heart in knowing that there is at least a possibility that they could once again hear him perform Back in Black live. Because for Brian Johnson, and all musicians, the new technology might just make all the difference.

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