Behind The Scenes with a Deafened Rock Star.


Ok, this title is wishful thinking.  Deafened, yes, but rock star, perhaps not.  We did a gig to raise money for a friend and colleague Warren Estabrooks whose organization is called “We Listen International”.  Warren and his team provide professional education, training and consultative services for professionals who work with children, teens and adults with hearing loss.

We started out the evening with some acoustic covers of some songs.  I played my acoustic bass whilst my buddy Dave played his 12 string and sang.  Later, my friend Maxine Armstrong, also an audiologist, did a beautiful rendition of Tom Petty’s Free Fallin.

My son’s Band Sticks and Stones were up next.  They played all original material that they wrote themselves.  Their sound is sort of “Indy” with jazz-like instrumentals.  Absolutely fantastic stuff.  If these guys had a recording contract, I am sure they would be hugely successful.  Check out their You Tube stuff here.  Also, you can download their songs here.

Finally, my bandmates and I got up to do about 18 songs.  I am so proud to be playing with these guys, everyone put in such a fantastic effort.  None of us are professional musicians, but we did our best to sound like it!

Speaking of professionals, special thanks to my good friend Ryan and his assistant Laura from Massive Tank Studios for doing the sound for the evening.  I love you guys!

Interestingly, while it is fun and exhilarating to perform music and have folks cheer for you, it is also quite stressful.  Why?  Because nothing ever goes exactly as planned.  The key is to not freak out, persevere, problem solve and find creative solutions. Lets take a behind the scenes look at the day to show you what I mean.

1 p.m.:  Start loading up the PA system, speakers, stands, bass amp, bass guitars, mics, cables etc etc.

2 p.m.: Start unloading gear at Pub.  First surprise.  Only one outlet box for all the gear.  Go and find more power bars and hope we don’t blow any fuses.

4:30.  Go to Music Studio to rehearse Free Fallin with Maxine.  Plan is to have two guitarist and one bass.

5:00.  Maxine still stuck in traffic.

5:15.  Rehearse with Maxine.

5:30.  Rush home to change.

6:00.  Go to Pub to finish setting up gear.  Three cables are dead, need to find replacements.  Deb, our singer needs a music stand.  Call wife to get her to bring one.  Forgot MyLink Receivers.  Call wife again to get those.

6:30.  My son has not arrived yet to do his set up and sound check.  He’s still at the tattoo parlor getting two new tattoos.  Really buddy?  On the day of the gig?  Is that a good idea?

7:00.  Supposed to start, but still setting up.  Someone has unplugged my TX300V FM from the Aux Out 1 and used it for something else.  I don’t think so people.  Deaf guy gets first dibs on sound.  Plus its my mixing board, so I get to call the shots.  Slightly tense conversations ensue, solution found.

7:40.  We start to do the acoustic set that was supposed to start 40 mins earlier.  First three songs are fine as we over-rehearsed these.  Maxine comes up to do her song.  Ryan was supposed to join us by playing guitar, but we ran out of inputs on the PA for another guitar.  Bummer, because while I love my buddy Dave who is playing guitar, he is rhythmically impaired.  Maxine sings like an angel, but I lose my timing.  Sound man Ryan sees I am struggling and becomes my human metronome.  I read his lips as he is counting out the time.  While I am playing some other folks with Cochlear Implants are requesting the MyLink FM receivers I promised.  Shit, they are still in my car.  Cant’ get them now, I am playing (for Pete’s sake!)

8:00.  Son’s band sets up to play.  No sound check because my philosophical artsy son decided to get tattoos earlier.  Their performance was fantastic, but the pub owners are complaining it is too loud.  Trying to get drummer to play as lightly as possible so everything else can be turned down.  All drummers are now unhappy.  I think all drummers were all born as Bam-Bam Rubble.

8:10.  I am using my son’s band as an opportunity to check my sound through the FM.  I discover the compressor is set wrong. Knee point is too low, compression ratio is too high and release time is too slow.

8:25:  Adjust compressor.  Hope its ok.  Run to car and get MyLink+ receivers. and hand them out.

8:30.  Start to play first set with my band.  Sound still not right.  Mouth to Ryan the sound man to increase vocals to Aux Out 1.  Reach behind me and increase knee point on compressor a bit.  Raise output on FM but over did it.  Sounds distorted.  It is peaking in the red too much.  Next song plan to lower it.  Can’t hear Luigi, the guitarist now.  Thankfully I know some basic chords on guitar, so I watch his hands to see what he is playing.  Luigi sees this, and moves a bit so I can see him play better.  He understands what I need.  I love you man.

8:35.  Discover I am not feeling the kick drum through my platform very well.  Look at mic on kick and discover its too far away.  Lower gain on FM.  Better.

8:40.  Move mic on kick closer, still not right.  But now I remember why…Warren, our drummer, is trying to play quietly (Quiet drummer…is that oxymoronic?).

9:10:  Finish first set, and take a small break.  Decide to play second set without my shoes on so I can feel the kick drum better.

9:25:  Start second set.  Sound is much better now.  I am feeling the kick drum on my platform through my shoeless feet  better now.  My timing improves.  Tweak the compressor a bit more.  Warren, the drummer, and I are communicating well via eye contact.  We are finishing our songs well.  If you pay attention to recorded songs, you will notice that they most pop songs don’t really end, but they are faded out by the recording engineer.  Live music requires a definite end, and getting everyone to finish a song at the same time is one of the challenges of playing live music.  We devoted an entire rehearsal to finishing songs!

9:50.  Sound is perfect now.  But that’s the last song.  Bummer.  We finally have everything perfect.

10:00:  Everyone is very kind with compliments.  Some of my brutally honest asshole “friends” also pay us compliments.  Hey, maybe we were good?  Actually, come to think of it, we were great.  Everyone loves our singer Deb, and they should.  She is a natural frontman (front-woman?) for a band.  I love you Deb!

10:15.  Tear down all equipment, load up cars, take equipment home.

11:30:  Go to Deb the singer’s house for drinks.

12:30 a.m.:  Son calls and says he needs to be picked up because his friends parents kicked everyone out of the house for being too rambunctious.  Hey, they are teenagers, what do you expect?

1:30 a.m.: Come home and unwind.

2:30 a.m.:  Go to bed.

Moral of the story.  Nothing ever goes as planned so don’t expect it.  Roll with it.

Best and Worst Musical Instruments for People with Hearing Loss


As a hearing impaired audiologist, and amateur musician, I often get asked by parents to help select a musical instrument for their child with hearing loss.  Although I have not seen a specific research study analyzing this exact question, we can, based on what we know about hearing loss, make an educated recommendation.

Lets first take a look at some fundamental components of music.  These include Pitch, Timbre, Harmonics, Loudness, and Rhythm.

Pitch is the frequency of the sound, measured in Hz.  For example, middle C is 256 Hz.  When we hear a melody we hear changes in pitch. In Western music, the smallest unit of pitch change is the semi-tone and there are 12 semitones in one Western octave.

Unfortunately, people with hearing loss have reduced ability to recognize pitch due to the damage in the hair cells of the cochlea.  In other words, some people with hearing loss cannot tell the difference between two pitches that are close together.  They need larger and larger differences between two pitches before they can tell that they are different.

Harmonics are a series of tones that are multiples of the fundamental frequency.  So if I pluck a middle C on a guitar or a piano, you will not only hear the fundamental frequency of 256 Hz, but also mathematical multiples of the middle C such as 512 Hz.  Again, this is a pitch based perception task and is hard for people with hearing loss.

Timbre is the unique combination the pitch, harmonics, the attack and release times of the note, that gives each musical instrument its unique colour and character.  Timbre is what tells us a guitar is a guitar or a violin is a violin.  This can also be hard for people with hearing loss.

Intensity of sound is measured in decibels.  We perceive intensity as “loudness”.  Of course when we have a hearing loss, soft sounds are inaudible, but hearing aids and cochlear implants do a pretty good job of allowing us to hear the soft sounds again.

Finally rhythm is the arrangement of sounds in time.  It is the beat or pulse of the music, and fortunately, people with hearing loss can still perceive rhythm quite well.

So based on what we know about hearing loss and about the components of music, it is clear that we will have greater difficulty with instruments that require good pitch perception abilities.  Below are two suggested list of instruments.  The first is a list of good instruments to select for people with hearing loss.  The second is a list of instruments that may be too challenging for the hearing impaired ear.  These lists are based on theory and some practical personal experiences, but are only recommendations.  If you, or your hearing impaired child, have your heart set on playing a particular instrument, by all means give it a try.

  1. Piano.  Piano is a good instrument for people with hearing loss for many reasons.  First, it is professionally tuned, so you do not need to tune it up every time you play.  If it is out of tune, then then the other instruments playing with the piano, must be tuned to the piano, and not the other way around.  Moreover, it is kind of like typing.  You see a symbol on the music staff, and you have to hit the corresponding key of the keyboard.  The hard part about piano is the same for all people, whether they have a hearing loss to not, which is learning to read multiple note music.
  2. Acoustic or Classical Guitar.  Guitar has frets on it, which precisely cuts the string at the correct point to give the correct note.  Daily tuning is required, but the easy solution here is to buy an electronic tuner.  I also think acoustic guitar is easier on the impaired ear than electric guitar.
  3. Fretted Electric Bass Guitar.  The fretted electric bass also has frets that precisely cut the string at the correct point.  Interestedly, this is why Leo Fender, the inventor of  the first electric bass, called it the  “Precision” or “P-Bass”.  It was the first bass with frets.  With bass, one only plays one note at a time, making this easier on the ears to perceive.  Also, it is also a rhythm based instrument which should be easier for people with hearing loss.  (Although some people just have no rhythm period).
  4. Electric Guitar.  I ranked electric guitar lower than acoustic guitar because when used with a lot of distortion, it is hard to hear the notes through all those harmonics.  If you plan to play electric guitar, stick with genres like indy or popular music, and stay away from heavy metal, or hard-core.  However, a plus of electric guitar is that you can get an amp with a headphone jack and plug your FM system into that for practicing.
  5. Digital Drums.  One of the problems with drums is that they can get really loud and overload the microphones of the hearing aids and cochlear implants.  So this is what is nice about a digital drum kit.  You get a volume control that allows you to set the volume at a perfect level, not too loud or too soft.  Moreover, all the digital drum kits I have seen have headphone jacks to plug your FM system in.
  6. Flute.  General the woodwind instruments can be good choices because there are lots of keys that allow you to make the correct note more precisely.
  7. Clarinet. Same as flute
  8. Saxophone.  Same

Challenging Instruments to Play with Hearing Loss.

  1. Violin.  Violin does not have any frets on it.  It requires one to listen carefully to make sure you are pressing on the correct part of the fingerboard.   However, I have heard of people with hearing loss still successfully playing this instrument.  It all depends on your hearing capabilities.
  2. Viola.  Again, same as a violin
  3. Cello.  Same issue as violin.
  4. Upright or Fretless Bass.  Same as violin
  5. Trombone.  Trombone shares some of the same characteristics of a fretless string instrument.  One must move the slide to the correct point to produce the proper pitch and therefore requires good pitch perception.  Not easy on the ears.
  6. Acoustic Drums.  The reason I put acoustic drums on the “Challenging” list is that this is a very loud instrument.  Very loud sounds can over-saturate the microphone or the analog/digital converter in a hearing aid or cochlear implant.  This will make things sound really distorted.  Interestingly, when I play in my band, I actually try to move as far away from the drums as possible.  I still keep the beat using the device I made.  See this previous posting.
  7. Trumpet. Trumpet uses a combination of three buttons or valves to partially produce its pitch.  The other influence is the shape of the lips.  Therefore, it does require a bit of hearing pitch perception to make the correct note.  I successfully played trumpet when I was in high school, but I only had a moderate loss of hearing at that time.
  8. French Horn.  Similar issues to a trumpet.  However, I found that the shape of the lips affected the pitch more in a French Horn than trumpet.  Not sure why, but the French Horn players in our high school band had a harder time keeping pitch than the trumpet section.

So there you have it.  If you are currently playing an instrument and you have a hearing loss, please share your experiences!

Listen to the Music Live!


This post is the second part of my description of how I listen to music when I play in my band.

Just a quick review of the challenges I have hearing the music correctly.  Most of you who also have significant hearing loss will likely have these issues as well.

  1. The music can sound muddled and unclear due to the reduced frequency resolution of the impaired auditory system.
  2. Music can sound distorted since hearing aids and cochlear implants cannot always handle loud inputs.
  3. I need to hear my own instrument, while at the same time need to hear the rest of the band clearly.
  4. I need to keep in time.

The latter problem of keeping in time is solved by the platform I made.  See the previous posting for a description on that.

Through lots of trial and error I have come up with a system the finally works for me.  It allows me to hear my bass guitar, while at the same time hear appropriate cues form the guitarist and vocalist.

  1. First my bass goes into my Boss TU-2 Tuner.  Using an electronic tuner has made tuning the instrument a breeze.
  2. Then the signal goes into the Big Muff Pi Distortion Pedal.   I use distortion sparingly, but what I like about this pedal is that it splits the signal into two parts.  A dry unaffected output and a wet affected signal.
  3. The wet affected output then goes into my Markbass 800 Watt Bass Head and speaker cabinets.  This is what the audience hears.  But not me, I only feel this.
  4. The dry signal goes to a Boss GEB-7 Bass Equalizer.  This allows me to shape the signal so that i can hear it better.  I seem to hear the bass better when I enhance the frequencies between 400 Hz to 800 Hz.
  5. Next the signal goes to Boss LMB-3 Bass Limiter.  I need to ensure I get rid of harsh peaks that would sound distorted to me.
  6. The signal now goes into the SansAmp Bass Driver DI to bring the signal up from a weak signal to a line level signal.
  7. Finally the signal goes into the Phonak TX300V Studio Transmitter.  This send sthe signal to me to hear.

But wait, we are not done yet!  I also need to hear the rest of the band correct?

  1. The guitarist amplifier, guitarist background vocals,  and the main vocalist are all being picked up by their own microphones and fed into the PA system.
  2. Their is an auxiliary output on the mixing board.  I adjust the individual auxiliary output volume controls so that I hear the exact amount.  Generally, with the pop music we play, I like to hear more of the main vocalist.
  3. This then goes into another compressor (oddly enough called the Really Nice Compressor).  I then adjust the kneepoint, attack time, and release time so that the loud signals are lowered and the weak signals are enhanced.
  4. This signal also goes into the Phonak TX300V Studio Transmitter.

The final step is blending the bass signal (my instrument) and the rest of the band.  The TX300V is nice in that it has 2 channels of input and a blend control.  I can now belnd and adjust the two signals to my liking.

So that’s how I do it folks.

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!