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Dealing With Hearing Loss as a Filmmaker

Hearing aids have been nothing short of transformative for me.

Way back in 2016, I visited my GP about Tinnitus that I had been experiencing on and off for almost a year.

For those that have not heard of Tinnitus before - It is the perception of noise or ringing in the ears. It affects about 15 to 20 percent of people around the world.

My GP referred me to the Audiology Department and Hereford County Hospital, where I had an ear examination and a hearing test. And that's where things got interesting. The Audiologist was concerned that I had a considerable amount of hearing loss for a 33 year old. Specifically in the higher frequencies. They commented that I was borderline on the requirement for hearing aids.

At that point, nothing else happened. It wasn't really followed up. Work and life was particularly busy, so I just kept my head down and dealt quietly with Tinnitus (no pun intended).

Fast forward four years, I was now 37 years old, and I have constant Tinnitus. No breaks. No downtime. It's loud. It's always there. And it's affecting my life profoundly,

I and others around me noticed that my hearing was deteriorating. It was difficult to determine whether it was hard to hear beneath the Tinnitus, or whether my hearing had actually deteriorated.

So, back to the GP I go, then back to the Audiology department and then this time, to an ENT Consultant (Ears, Nose and Throat Specialist).

On Christmas Eve, 2019 - I had another hearing test. The results were much worse than I had anticipated. My hearing loss has progressed from Moderate to Severe. And now... I do need hearing aids.

The cause - Unknown. The ENT Consultant was a great help. He was very clear about breaking the issue down and looking for solutions. Which, in this case is hearing aids.

My hearing test results from Christmas Eve 2019.

His biggest concern was that he and his colleagues had never come across this severity of hearing loss in someone of my age before. So, for academic purposes, I agreed to have an MRI scan so he could take a closer look at what's happening within my inner ear. He explained that the hair follicles in the inner ear are dying out. Specifically those that are sensitive to the higher frequencies. So this has caused the hearing loss. Which, in turn, causes the Tinnitus. Which, in turn, causes further hearing issues by masking it. It's a vicious cycle, that will unfortunately only get worse. The MRI was inconclusive. I may never know wha's causing it.

I guess, my greatest concern is... Will I go deaf? It's possible. I could lose everything... And at quite an alarming rate.

Working As A Film Editor With Hearing Loss

One skill that I've been expanding over the last year is my ability to build higher quality, temporary sound design when cutting together any drama films. I'm of the mind that sound makes up 50% of your film and must be treated as such. As an audience, we tend to be able to forgive bad quality picture when accompanied by good quality sound, but not vice-versa.

Editor, Eddie Hamilton prides himself on always pulling together a high quality sophisticated sequence of sound design with all cuts of the films he's worked on (including X-Men: First Class, Mission Impossible: Fall Out etc). Even well before Picture Lock, he screens an almost full-blown cinematic experience for the director. And I found this quite inspiring. So my aim, is always get fantastic design into the timeline, even if it is still only a rough pass, and that way, the director can always hear wear their story is heading and always ensure that the tone is correct. And then when we turnover to the actual sound design and sound mix, they've got a much better starting point.

Sony MDR-7506 Headphones

How does this affect me now? Greatly. But I have found ways to overcome the issue for now. How long I can keep this up is unknown though. I currently use a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones in the edit suite, these have a totally flat EQ response and fit perfectly over the top of my ears when I have my hearning aids on. Now, the sound may not be totally accurate, but I'm able to switch between the studio monitors and headphones and find a sweet spot which seems to be allowing me to get the mix in the right place. I'm also quite meticulous when using any meters to judge things like LUFS etc.

But, I do feel sad, knowing that I may not be able to do this one day. This time may come one day. But I'll keep enjoying it until that day.

Innovations In Hearing Technology

I've now been wearing my hearing aids for 9 months. My ENT Consultant told me they would be transformative, he was 100% correct. I don't feel uncomfortable wearing them. They are wonderful tool provided by the NHS for free that allow me to make it through the day. They improve my ability to hear speech and also reduce the level of Tinnitus. I still struggle in busy athmospheres to understand conversations. Pubs and restaurants are quite difficult to deal with. But let's face it, I've probably been in the pub twice in 2020, for obvious reasons.

One key element I've been struggling with is audio from my phone, largely in the form of Audiobooks, Podcasts and Music. I'm not a fan of wearing enourmous headphones over my ears walking down the street (or when I listen to Audiobooks in bed to drown out the Tinnitus). And unfortunately, no phone really comes with a global EQ that you can alter to boost those missing frequencies in your hearing. Well, until now.

In Apple's lates iOS14 update, Hearing has been included in the Health App and can now be used in combination with the phones Audio Accessibility features to remap your headphones to accomodate for hearing loss. Sounds complicated... It's not. It's really fantastic.

Apple AirPod Pro's

Before describing this any further, I must state that I saved up some money to buy the latest Apple AirPod Pro's. WHY?! I can hear you shout... Because, of the Noise Cancelling technology. This for me, was the first step in improving my listening experience with hearing loss. NC on these AirPods is truly fantastic. When walking in a busy city, I now have the volume set at 50% lower than I did before.

The new Custom Audio Setup options in iOS14

And, as I said, that was the first step, here's how I set the rest of it:

  • First I downloaded an App called Mimi Test. I used this to take a hearing test on my iPhone.

  • When you complete the hearing test, Mimi will ask if you would like to share your data and results with the Apple Health App. Hit YEAH.

  • You can now view your results as an Audiogram in the Health App. Awesome!

  • Now, this test isn't 100% accurate, it's nowhere near as callibrated as having an actual hearing test with a professional. So, I checked my results against my last hearing test with the ENT Consultant last year to see if it was far off... It actually wasn't too bad at all.

  • Next, on your iPhone, go to Settings --> Accessibility --> Hearing --> Audio / Visual and then turn on Headphone Accommodations. Press Custom Audio Set Up and you can then select Audiogram from the list below (be sure you have your headphones connected at this point). And viola! You can then hear a before and after to make sure it's working. And my god... It totally does.

Just like my hearing aids, this is transformative too.

In terms of how this could have a positive impact on my work in the future, I'm left wondering whether Apple might implement this on their desktop computers? Could I eventually map the system to accomodate for my hearing loss so that the studio monitors are callibrated for me? Of course I would want to be able to switch it back to standard when someone without hearing loss is in a review with me. What do you folks think?

How important is sound to you? How important is sound and storytelling to you?

I'm now 38. I'll be having a professional hearing test at least once a year to map my prognosis. I was initially sad at the thought of losing my hearing, but now, thanks to the continual innovations around the world, I feel a little safer knowing that it may not be all bad after all.

Stay safe and well.

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