Keeping the Beat…an idea for musicians with hearing loss.

When I was a child, I took piano lessons and had to endure performing in recitals.  I did not enjoy this very much, perhaps because I was not cut out to handle to rigors of the Royal Conservatory of Music.  Or maybe I just sucked at piano.  However, playing in a recital is a solo endeavour, so if I was not keeping proper time, no one else suffered (except perhaps the ears of the poor parents in the audience).

Later I took acoustic guitar lessons and strummed and sang some songs.  Once again, it was just me playing, so keeping the beat was not as important.

When I was in high school, I played trumpet in the high school band.  I relied on the conductor to ensure that I was keeping tempo and playing in the right spot.

Currently, I play in a mid-life crises rock band called ‘Below the Belt”.  Its just four of us…a drummer, guitarist, vocalist, and myself on bass guitar.  I quickly learned how fatal timing errors can be.  If we are all not in the same spot, we sound like donkey poop.

I have difficulty hearing the kick drum of the drummer when playing live music.  If I try to move closer to the drum kit, all I hear is the crash and ride cymbals and nothing else.  Snare drum is easier to hear, but as a bass player I am required to be “locked in” with the kick drum.

So upon the suggestion of a colleague from Switzerland, I created a platform to stand on.  It consists of the following components:

  • Microphone on kick drum
  • XLR cable
  • Microphone Pre-amp
  • Subwoofer amplifier
  • Bass Shaker
  • Plywood platform to stand on

So basically what happens, is that the microphone picks up the sound of the kick drum and causes my platform to shake.  I feel the kick drum through the soles of my shoes.

I obtained the microphone, XLR cable, and pre-amp from a music store (Long and McQuade inCanada).  The subwoofer amplifier and bass shaker were obtained from Parts Express in the United States.

Note that I am hesitant to give you the exact part numbers.  To build such a device, you need to understand power, watts, speaker impedance, series vs parallel wiring.  Failure to do so could cause an accident, and I don’t want to be responsible for that.  If you don’t know how to build such a device, get some expert help before proceeding.

Now that I made that disclaimer, I can tell you that it has been a great help for me.  My band mates tell me that I play much “tighter” with this unit.  Any musician or singer who stands can use this.  I can see this being used with a musician who sits down as well, such as a piano player, by attaching it into the chair.

Here are some pictures of my band and the platform I use.

These are my Band Mates

This is the platform I stand on which doubles as my pedal board as well.

This is the bass shaker underneath the platform.

In an upcoming post, I will show you what I do to hear better while playing live music.

Rock on!


Sue Thomas: F.B.Eye. Very fun. Very inaccurate.

I was watching a rerun of Sue Thomas F.B.Eye the other day.  This show was aired in the early 2000’s, but was cancelled in 2005.  Thats too bad. , because it was fun entertainment.  It was loosely based on the real-life experiences of an actual deaf women whose ability to lip-read landed her a job with the FBI.

What I liked about the show is the positive image it portrayed of a deaf person.  Moreover, I like the idea of making lemonade out of lemons.  Also, her hearing ear dog Levi is adorable.  He’s almost as cute and smart as my hearing ear dog Amie!

I also almost had an opportunity to assist in law enforcement with my lip-reading skills.  I was asked by a police department to lip-read a surveillance video tape that had no audio.  They believed the two men were plotting a murder.  Unfortunately, the men were not speaking English, so I was unable to help.  Thus ended my career in law enforcement.

As enjoyable as the show was, it was also grossly inaccurate.  In the show, you never see the character Sue Thomas ever asking for people to repeat things.  She perfectly seems to understand everything just by lip-reading.  This is impossible.

Only about 30-40 percent of speech is visible on the lips.  Some sounds such as /k/, /g/, /h/, are produced at the back of the throat and cannot even be seen at all.  Other sounds look exactly the same.  For exactly, /p/, /b/, and /m/, are all produce with both lips and look the same.  Therefore words such as “pat”, “bat”, and “mat”. will look the same.  Other examples of homophonous sounds include /s/ and /z/, /f/ and /v/, /t/ and  /d/.

Only hearing can allow you to distinguish between all the speech sounds.  So it is critical that you have the proper hearing equipment if you plan on communicating via spoken language.

One new technology that is helping improve the understanding of speech is something called “Non-Linear Frequency Compression”.  This technology is found in many Phonak hearing aids.  Basically what it does is it shifts high frequency information from an area of poor of completely missing hearing into an adjacent area of audible better hearing.  As a result, many high frequency sounds like fricative consonants  (e.g. /f/, /s/, /th./ or environmental sounds such as birds chirping become audible again.

This technology has been independently evaluated by a number of researchers.  For example, Dr Jace Wolfe concluded that “non-linear frequency compression can be considered as a viable option for children with moderate to profound high-frequency hearing loss”.  Similar results have been found in adults as well.

Note that this technology cannot help if your hearing loss is too severe.  This is the case with me.  But then we have the option of getting a Cochlear Implant.  These devices do a good job of restoring audibility of many of these consonant sounds.  For more information on Cochlear Implants check out Advanced Bionics, Med-El, and Cochlear Corporation.

How to listen to your iPod…

If you have a hearing loss and you want to listen to music on your iPod or similar device, you have a couple of options.  But each has advantages and disadvantages.

  1. Take off your hearing instruments and listen via headphones.  This only works if you have a fairly flat hearing loss.  But if you have a different amounts of hearing loss at different frequencies, then the music will sound weird.  For example,if you have a high frequency hearing loss, then the music will sound like too much bass.  Also, the hearing instrument has a maximum power output that has been set by your audiologist.  When you take off your hearing aids and listen only via headphones, you might damage your hearing.  So I do NOT recommend listening via headphones.
  2. Use a DAI Cable and Proprietary Audio Shoes.  This option works with behind-the-ear (BTE) hearing aids with direct audio input (DAI) capability.  The advantages of this connection are that the music will be shaped to meet your hearing loss configuration.  Moreover, the loudest sounds cannot exceed the maximum power output of the hearing aid as set by your audiologist.  Therefore, this is a safer option.  Lastly, these cables preserve the stereo separation, so you will enjoy the left and right panning in the music.  The disadvantage is of course that you have a cable.
  3. Use a Streaming Device. These kind of devices are made by several hearing aid companies.  This link here shows the one made by Phonak called an iCom.  These devices are cool in that they wirelessly send a stereo signal to all kinds of hearing aid styles, not just BTE’s.  Here is a picture of an iCom.
  4. Use an FM System.  This is the option that I use.  The reason is that I cannot use any of the previous options since I wear both hearing aid and a cochlear implant.  I cannot get one cable that works with both devices simultaneously.  I also cannot use an iCom as that only works with the hearing aid.  So I plug in my iPod into my FM system and this transmits the signal wirelessly to my receivers.  It works with both my cochlear implant and hearing aid.  It is also a very safe option.  The only disadvantage is that the FM signal transmits in mono, not stereo, but that’s not too big a deal.  Here is a link to some FM options.  And below is a picture of the FM system that I use:
This is the transmitter called a SmartLink+
 This is the Naida UP hearing aid with the FM receiver (green circle) added on the bottom:
This is the Freedom CI again with an FM receiver (green circle) added on the bottom:
Lastly, there are some cool things to do with your iPod to make it work better for you.  See this link on iPod accessibility and hearing.

What’s it Like to be Deafened?

What’s it like to have a hearing loss?  What is it like to hear with a Cochlear Implant?

People often ask me this question, and it is not easy to answer.  So I thought I would take one of my photographs I took while hiking in the Rocky Mountains and play with them to try to illustrate with it is like.

Let’s look at the photo untouched.  This would represent normal hearing.  You see all the colours and the detail of the mountain.

Now the next picture would represent someone who would be considered “Hard of Hearing.”.  You can see the picture is blurry and unclear.  Similarly, someone with a mild to moderate loss of hearing would still hear things, but the words would not be clear.  Hearing aids with directional microphones, and the addition of an FM system can help restore the loss of this detail.

The next picture represents what it is like to be deafened.  Note that you can still barely detect something, but not much.  Similarly, someone who is deafened can barely hear anything.

This next picture is what it would have been like to hear with one of the early generation Cochlear Implants from 10-15 years ago.  We can see that it is a mountain again, but only a basic representation.  The colour and detail are not present.  Similarly, these early implants did help people to hear speech again and when combined with lipreading, was a very helpful device.

The next image represents to me what it is like to hear with my combination of a modern cochlear implant and hearing aid.  It is getting closer to the original image.  You can see that this is a mountain again.  However, it does not have the same detail as the original image.  It is a simplified representation.  Similarly, I can hear things that are said and can understand most speech in quiet.  But the sounds do not have the same richness and detail as when I had more hearing.

This is, of course, a very crude and oversimplified representation of what it is like. Nonetheless, sometimes simple explanations are also useful to help us understand.

I am extremely grateful that there is technology that can help me hear again. For a deafened adult who once had more hearing, a silent world would be devastating.  My use of a cochlear implant, hearing aid, and FM system have made a huge difference in my life.  Yes, it is not the same as normal hearing.  These devices are not cures.

FM Systems…when a hearing instrument is just not enough

Or should I call this post “Let’s get rid of the Freakin Noise 2: FM Systems”.

I talked about Directional Microphones and how they can reduce the noise but about 4-5 dB.  This technology is great for folks that have up to a moderate (50 dB HL) hearing loss.

But for people with moderate-severe (60 dB HL) losses or greater, you need more than directional microphones on your hearing aid.

Here’s why.  Many times we find ourselves in places where the signal to noise ratio (SNR) is 0 dB.  This means that the noise around you is the same loudness and the person you want to listen to.  Think about a restaurant or bar with all sorts of people blabbing away.  They are the same loudness as your spouse or buddy in front of you.

When you have a moderate-severe hearing loss, you need a SNR of 7 dB or greater to understand.  So if a directional microphone gives you a 4 dB improvement, that’s still not enough.

An FM system gives you a 15-25 dB improvement.  Now you can converse much easier in this noisy environment.

Here’s a link to a section on the Phonak Website that explains how FM systems work.  But the key to getting the most out of an FM System is knowing how and where to use them.  Here are the places that I personally use mine:

  1. Car
  2. Restaurant
  3. Coffee Shop (Tim Hortons…mmmmm)
  4. Meetings
  5. Skiing Lessons
  6. Kayak Lessons
  7. Parties
  8. Bars
  9. Listening to iPod
  10. GPS in car
  11. Bass Guitar Practicing
  12. Live shows
  13. Tour guides
  14. and more
Next blog entries will highlight how to use an FM system in this situations.