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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Melfi

Wearable bass technology is trying to help prevent hearing loss for performing artists, stage crews

Concerts are loud — but thankfully, there are wearable bass technologies that exist which can help to prevent systemic hearing loss in the music industry.

TORONTO — Let’s be honest. Concerts are loud. And as a musician, part of pleasing thousands of bass-loving patrons every week means treading a fine line between a memorable show and permanent hearing loss.

Thankfully, there are wearable bass technologies that exist which can help to prevent systemic hearing loss in the music industry for not just the musicians, but also fans and the stage crew who regularly attend the events.

Bass-emulating technology allows the listener to experience the profound, tactile nature of low-frequency bass that they’re used to at the club or concert, without having to increase the volume on the high-pitched frequencies that the ear is extra sensitive to.

Products like the SubPac (a wearable bass-emulating backpack) and the Basslet (a bass-producing bracelet) are changing the previously unchallenged traditions of music and speaker technology. If used to its potential, this new way of separating the frequencies could prove a fundamental change in the way music is made and listened to.

Sound engineers like Scott Mallette — of Toronto’s Coda nightclub — consider technology like the SubPac far from an on-stage industry standard, but there is no questioning its potential if used with commitment, he said. “If you were to resign to using the SubPac, headphones and no booth monitors, you’re absolutely going to save your ears.”

When the SubPac is strapped onto your back, it initially feels like a musical massage chair. Each strum of a bass guitar and every thump of a kick-drum immediately vibrate through your torso.

The transformation from audible to physical bass reflects a change in the culture of hearing loss.

“When musicians’ earplugs — earplugs that treat all of the music pitches the same so that the music still sounds like music — first came out in 1988, it was like pulling teeth to get musicians to wear them,” said Marshall Chasin, chief audiologist at the Musicians’ Clinics of Canada. “It simply was not cool in 1990 to wear hearing protection.”

That convention has changed now, he said. “Now, it’s not cool to not wear earplugs.”

In a similar fashion, the technology is changing how artists make and perform music, according to Darin McFadyen, an executive of Toronto-based SubPac and professionally touring DJ for 15 years, because bass frequencies are best aimed at the body and not the ears.

Lower frequencies are less intelligible and anything below 20Hz — the measurement of sonic frequency — is actually inaudible.

There is a merger, where the audible spectrum and the tactile spectrum converge —which is what most concert experiences are like. The body is actually better for identifying low frequencies, however, because it’s something you feel, said McFadyen. “Your hearing is better for the mids and the highs,” he added.

Wearable bass technologies are powered by tactile transducers, which vibrate on your body to the beat of the bassline — they don’t use air to generate sound and feeling.

While Mallette is more interested in the studio potential of the wearable bass technology, he’s also aware of the battles it wins against physics — every time.

“When you have airwaves present you’re always going to be dealing with acoustics,” he said. “I could take my booth rig and put it in 10 different nightclubs and it’s going to sound different in every one of them.”

“Previously, the way you would use traditional speaker technology is by cranking your speakers up until the subwoofer and the speakers combined to generate enough energy so you could feel below 50 or 60 Hz,” said McFadyen.

“Suddenly by separating the two, we’ve got a microscope on the bottom end when we’re mixing and perceiving music,” said McFadyen. “(The SubPac) allows us to make music without hurting our hearing and to get a super accurate hi-fidelity experience of the bottom end.”

Setting up artists with in-ear monitors and a SubPac could ensure perfect monitoring in every venue, said McFadyen, because no air is being used to generate a bass frequency. That means the sound engineer and artist have control over all the frequencies equally — and more importantly, everyone on stage is experiencing them the exact same way.

It allows us to make music without hurting our hearing and to get a super accurate hi-fidelity experience

In addition, by placing the tactile transducers on the body, everyone can experience the bassline in exactly the same way. That’s impossible when bass is produced through air — which bounces off walls, corners and poles differently in each space.

Forty per cent of Canadians over the age of 20 experience some manner of hearing loss. It is the most prevalent disability in Canada, according to Statistics Canada. The problem is often not the sound in particular, but rather the volume and length of exposure.

“There is nothing wrong with being exposed to 100 decibels (dB) — the unit used to measure volume — as long as it’s for a short period of time,” according to Chasin. “If you were at a concert or gave a performance on Friday night, give your ears some rest time.”

Working for eight hours with sound measuring 80 dB is safe, while just five minutes on a tarmac in front of a jet engine at 140 dB would mean permanent damage.

For some artists, rest time is not an option. Technologies like the SubPac and the Basslet can help musicians deal with the intensity of a professional touring schedule without sacrificing the ability to still hear music in a decade.

“Hearing loss may not show up until years later and even then the person may complain primarily of ringing in the ears — or tinnitus — rather than hearing loss,” said Chasin. Tinnitus is often misunderstood as different rather than a part of the process of hearing loss.

Wearable bass technology creates a more efficient bass-frequency transmission by eliminating air as a medium for sound.

“Suddenly what I’m finding is I’m not having to crank my speakers up to feel the subwoofer because I’m able to use the physical audio — the tactile transducers in the SubPac — to give the same effect but in a much more accurate way,” said McFadyen.

The Basslet works in the same fashion, said the company’s co-founder Gwydion ap Dafydd. “Once you get the accuracy and responsiveness of the Basslet you can start feeling musical information present in the lower frequencies that normally only physically large sound systems can provide."

At this level of precision, “it becomes a valuable tool that artists can use to anticipate how their music will feel on a large sound system,” he said.

Accurate bass depiction is paramount in identifying the musical spectrum that an artist or sound engineer has to work with on and off-stage.

“While its true that the bass notes provide a sense of ‘loudness’ and ‘presence,’ too much is as bad as too little,” said Chasin. “It is the correct balance of low-pitched bass notes and high-pitched harmonic energy that contributes to the clarity and naturalness—and is what is desired.”

While identifying how their music is sounding on stage is critical for performers, it’s an equally daunting task to try and predict it.

“For decades, many musicians have been producing music designed for big sound systems where they know the audience will be able to feel the bass,” said ap Dafydd. “What the Basslet provides for the first time is to have these lower frequencies perceptible in a truly convenient, mobile way.”

By separating the aural and the physical aspects of music production, artists are able to maintain safer listening levels because there are less frequencies vying for the same airwaves.

Artists don’t need a subwoofer any longer with this technology, McFadyen added, which also means they don’t need to spend thousands of dollars acoustically treating their studio.

“You’re getting the actual song or track that they made in the studio when you use the SubPac,” said McFadyen. “Most people listen to music on ear buds or computer speakers that have no subwoofer, even if they have a decent system at home, it’s not going to extend down to 20 Hz.”

Often when listeners increase the volume, they’re trying to increase the impact of bass, or suppress the sounds surrounding them — both patterns proving detrimental to human hearing.

And while the product lines have become more accessible, some aspects of performing culture haven’t, added Mallette.

“They don’t want to drop the volume, they won’t drop the volume, not Coda not the patrons, nor the DJs,” said Mallette. “That’s something that you simply can’t ask from these people.”

Originally published on the Financial Post

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