Podcast VOL 5: Benj Kanters — Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago

"Be open to opportunities". How do you make a music club sound like a stereo system? How do you make a Gold record? Can you cure Tinnitus? How do you protect your ears from loud music? We discuss this and more with Benj Kanters, whose career is shaped by always being open to new opportunities.

Benj Kanters is Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago. Earlier in his career he had experience managing a music club, running a recording studio, touring as a live sound engineer for Pat Metheny and teaching audio courses to college students. Now he lectures on preserving our hearing from excessive exposure to loud music. Benj is a passionate advocate for hearing conservation. He has founded the Hearing Conservation Workshop and now, along with his teaching at Columbia, tours the United States, giving presentations on hearing loss and conservation to future sound and music professionals at colleges and universities and conferences.

Podcast Transcript

Narration: [00:00:05] Helping people enjoy amazing sounds and build satisfying lives in the field of audio,  this is the CEntrance podcast. Hi, I’m Michael Goodman, founder and CEO of CEntrance, the leading manufacturer of audio products for enthusiasts and industry professionals. This podcast features stories and life lessons from people who dedicated themselves to a career in audio. This podcast was recorded using our own MixerFace R4 mobile recording interface.

Michael: [00:00:32] Today we’re talking with Benj Kanters, Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago. Benj is a recording engineer, educator and a passionate advocate for hearing conservation. Earlier in his career he had experience operating a music venue, running a recording studio, doing live sound for a national touring act and teaching audio to college students. What a wealth of experience! I need to say that we’re meeting in a small lunch room at Columbia College. We brought the CEntrance MixerFace and a couple of condenser microphones to record this podcast. And while we have done our best to ensure perfect sound quality, you may hear the sound of the microwave door opening and closing in the background, as people warm up their lunch.

Michael: [00:01:12] Hi Benj! Let’s start with a club called Amazing Grace that you worked for in the 70s. Music critic Neil Tesser said this about the club: “An ambitious menu, wholesome food, very long hair, very good sound and one humongous Irish Wolfhound with a mean of an angelic child.”

Benj: [00:01:35] That was actually the second incarnation of Amazing Grace which was what they called a Quonset hut on campus at Northwestern. It was a real coffeehouse then, before I actually became a part of things. I want to say  that was in 1972 into the academic year 73, Fall of 73 that it moved into this Quonset hut called Shanley Hall and that’s what really kind of blossomed as a place that featured folk music and food. It was an outgrowth of the student strikes of 1970 and some degree of turmoil but at the same time it was definitely sort of in the. In the spirit of of what was going on. Spirit of community, the energy and art of music. It was the beginning of the 70s folk revival. I mean it all it was this convergence of factors.

Michael: [00:02:30] It’s amazing that we’ve had that in Chicago back then. Well not really Chicago — in Evanston, 20 minutes north.

Benj: [00:02:38] Again this was before I really got involved and it’s explained in the article that Neal wrote there were a couple of younger artists that kind of gravitated together. One particular Evanston-born artist named Bill Quateman came in and he started playing and then before we knew it people like Bob Gibson… but so anyway the point is we sort of happened at the same time that this revival was actually happening. So there was this interesting shift in music and music tastes that was swinging toward folk that appealed to us. I mean for the entire time that Amazing Grace existed through to the third incarnation which is where we branched out into jazz we were really presenting music that we liked. I mean I really have to say we were more impresarios than anything.

Michael: [00:03:32] Wouldn’t that be true about pretty much any club owner, that you try to originally satisfy your tastes?

Benj: [00:03:34] Oh yeah. I suppose. But you know at the same time there are those who run venues that are interested in you know making money and then drawing big crowds. And so the question of the the the venue owners tastes are not necessarily going to be at the front And it was always at the front for us.

Michael: [00:03:55] Would you say that Space in Evanston is sort of following in the footsteps of Amazing Grace?

Benj[00:03:59] Well absolutely. I mean they one of the people that got us started basically said that they they see Amazing Grace is as they’re carrying the DNA of of Amazing Grace. And I think they did it. They’ve done a very good job. I mean it’s a real listening room and they took care to design a good sound system. They keep the table waiting to a minimum at during the performance so there isn’t a lot of distraction for the performance. Amazing Grace there was no I mean in the last incarnation there was no food service, there was no liquor I mean it was it was a 400 seat concert room. And the sound system was really built from out of studio level technology Our PA speakers were studio control room monitors. We might have been the first to ever use condenser microphones in a live context and all of this was due to a fellow I’ll call our mentor. His name was Jim Cunningham. And Jim was one of the this fraternity of of engineers, and I mean real engineers, electrical technical engineers, who were part of. The 60s boom in the studio industry here in Chicago. Jim was involved with Bill Putnam and the Universal Studios which was a very famous room. Now gone. Jim worked with studio owners and he was the son may have heard of a plate reverb called the Echo plate. That was Jim’s and it was his design his modification of the older EMT plate.He was looking at the empty studying it figuring out what people were doing to make it different and then redesigned the plate reverb. And it was a very popular item and he. Anyway so the bottom line is getting back to what it was he was this local studio guy that kind of took us under wing and said: “Here, once you try these, you know, these compressor/limiters on your P.A. system and I think you’ll find the it makes the system sound a lot more robust” and sure enough it did, and could talk to us into buying AKG C451 condenser microphones and Electrovoice RE16’s  instead of the usual 57s. Not that we didn’t end up buying some fifty sevens anyway but the point is he kind of helped us develop what we were kind of going in the direction that we’re going in anyway which was to to develop a high quality sound system.  

Michael[00:06:20] And it was pretty rare back then. These days it’s becoming more commonplace. People are trying to improve the sound quality.

Benj[00:06:26] We’re talking 1973/1974. Not to say we were pioneers or leading the leading edge but we were just doing what made sense and the audience members loved it and they thought it was the game. It was like a big living room with a giant, beautiful sounding stereo system. And the artists loved coming there because people came to listen. You know, it wasn’t it wasn’t a social scene. It was it was a little mini concert hall with a really good sound system.

Michael[00:06:52] You mentioned Pat Metheny, who came through called it “The Grace”. And then in an interesting turn of events if I understand correctly you later became the touring sound engineer for Pat and his band.

Benj: [00:07:09] Pat played his first shows at my club. We actually knew him before he was. He had his own band. We first met Pat when he was still in Gary Burton’s band and Gary played two shows in the course of a year and a half where Pat was in the band and then Pat broke out and was leading in his own right. And not to say his very first but his first shows.

Michael[00:07:31] This is back in the 80s?

Benj: [00:07:33] No, this is the 70s. This is like 1976 through 78 and the  very beginning of that new style of Jazz. and we were closely aligned with a record company called ECM Records. Pat was one of many artists on the ECM label. I mean so again it was a cult part of this whole thing. But Pat broke out had his own band. Gary continued to perform with the evolution of his band and we saw Tiger Okoshi and John Scofield when John Scofield was playing in Gary’s band and so John was kind of Pat’s replacement and Steve Swallow who played forever with with Gary and  other other ECM artists. Keith Jarrett Eberhard Faber with John Abercrombie, Jack de Jeannette. These were all regulars and they were literally playing you know a couple of times a year.

Michael[00:08:28] Was it a conscious choice on your part to connect with ECM records so that you can get high quality talent into the club?

Benj[00:08:37] It was it was more a matter of the agent him Ted Kurland. I think he’s still running a business out of Boston. Again it was like a big network. Ted represented a lot of ECM artists. Ted got to know us because Gary comes back and goes: “This is a great club. I want to go back” and that’s how the relationship sort of developed. And so getting back to Pat Pat was a regular. He was playing a couple times a year and we we closed in July of 78 and Pat played his last show in the middle of July and I can kind of remember the moment we’re sitting at a Sunday night. We’ve struck the stage and packed everything up we’re all sitting around in a circle just chatting and talking and Pat goes well you know what are you going to do now. I said I don’t know you want a sound man. He goes “Really?” And that September I started. I actually took a trip in September, I started on the road with him. I drove his van sixty thousand miles for four or five months and after that I had my fill. And actually that was what got me off the road was an invitation from Northwestern to go and teach.

Michael[00:09:56] We share a connection with Pat Methen. One of our endorsers for the MixerFace is a guy by the name of Mark Egan who was Pat Metheni’s bass player back then. And so it was kind of curious when I mentioned that and he said “Oh! please say hello to Benj!” So it looks like we have a lot of interesting connections here. By the way, John Tatooles says “Hi” and he still remembers your contribution to his pivot to the audio industry. I just saw him last week. So you traveled around the country with Pat Metheny and at some point you realized that you’ve lived the life of a sound engineer, you’ve gotten the required experiences under your belt and you decided that you were done with that and you started something new called Studiomedia.

Benj[00:10:50] It gets back to what I was just saying. I literally was on tour with Pat and Amazing Grace which had close we did a few more concerts at a beautiful old theater in Evanston called the Varsity Theater as a means of just kind of keeping Amazing Grace alive. You know we were all doing other things but we said: “Yeah, let’s produce an occasional concert” and we did four concerts at The Varsity. Anyway our first one was with Pat. So I was literally on the road with the band and then later producing the show. Anyway it was it was this whole interesting convergence of moments and this is December of 78. I literally got a call from my old advisor at Northwestern who knew what I was doing and I had actually done some. I did an ad hoc majoring in audio when there wasn’t there were no programs at audio anywhere. And so I kind of built one of my own and that was sort of my ad hoc major and I taught a course he says — Would you like to come back and really teach for real? I said OK. This is a sign. And that’s when I also went to some classmates former classmates from Northwestern who had started this little eight track studio called Studiomedia in Evanston and these are all friends of mine from the school of speech now called the School of Communications. These were theater majors and music majors and I was a radio/tv major and we were all friends back then and I had actually sold them some equipment — when we ran Amazing Grace, we started a sound company and that’s how we bought all the gear that we were sell that we were using because the club was the showroom. Anyway so I had sold these guys some microphones and some stuff. I knew they were there and they knew I was there and they literally hired me to be their first engineer. They had this little studio that was basically a production company and it was an eight track Tascam room that they literally built themselves. And it really sounded good. It’s kind of Ron Cohen really really incredibly brilliant guy composer. He was an actor. He was handy with his hands and he kind of supervised the building of this little studio space on David Street in Evanston. Anyway so he said “Oh yeah well we’d love to have you we trust your ears we know you know audio” will kind of. And I literally learned on my own with with Ron’s help learn studio engineering in the course of the spring of 1979. That was the corner that was turned and then. And part of the reason they wanted to take me on is because they were beginning the planning stages of a larger facility down the street on Davis Street which was 1030 Davis that I later helped them build and that was 1979 and basically in the in the ensuing ten years they got out of the business and we got into the business — the engineers took over the studio and that was Studiomedia. So it was this — every change in my life has been a kind of a slow cross fade that takes a couple of years.

Michael [00:14:01] Amazing, but there’s always those signs that you were able to read very carefully and you were always fluid and effective in following what was thrown your way.

Benj[00:14:14] Yeah. Was just it. Yeah. It’s not like I worked at it. That’s all. That’s what’s weird. I was open to it and it revealed itself and I said “OK, well I guess this is what’s next.”

Michael[00:14:25] I think the theme here is “being open to opportunities” when they present themselves. 

I’d like to bring up the subject of podcasting. Ira Glass is a famous journalist on NPR. And recently he’s been talking about the fact that the podcasting explosion is kind of strange to him because in a way he feels that he’s been podcasting for a number of years and now suddenly that art form which he feels responsible for almost starting, which is a radio story is is now a completely different form that has a different name called podcasting, etc. I was thinking about that. You know, I’m not sure Ira Glass actually started that because even 50 years ago in America there was this concept of radio theater where you didn’t have TV and plays were reenacted by groups of professional actors on the radio and there were so exciting to listen to! The whole family would gather around a tube a radio to listen to a radio play and you know there were spy novels there are thrillers all kinds of things. Now we have podcasting because that art form has gone away but apparently the taste has not.

Benj[00:15:39] Well I think you said it a minute ago. It’s just a variation on the on the continuing theme of storytelling. And the only thing that makes it a podcast is that you can download it and play it back at your pleasure. I think that what Ira has pioneered is an interesting sort of reality storytelling. But what I think is of critical importance and again not that he’s pioneered it but he adapted it, is the effective use of music and sound effects and that you’re painting an aural picture in the process of telling the story and to some degree that was even a part of the format of NPR’s ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And I know that because one of my former partners from Amazing Grace, a fellow by the name of Flynn Williams was engineering in the D.C. studios for all things considered and literally traveled around the world with reporters to do the sound gathering that they needed to do the background sound for these interviews and reports that were going so he was not only recording interviews for NPR correspondent but he would also spend time going around the environment to capture sounds so that he could layer in the actual sound of where the interview was going on. So again it’s not that Ira was necessarily pioneering but he was adapting all of these techniques as a means of developing really effective storytelling. Podcasting can be anything from just literally the audio version of talking heads —  two people having a conversation to something as developed and story-like as what Ira Glass does to something that is even more developed and almost becomes art in its own right. When you look at like the Third Coast’s Audio Fest and where it’s really what we at Columbia College call “Sound art.” And so it is it is artistic production and it may have a little some kind of a theme in there but it ends up being as much about having this sonic experience as it is hearing a story.

Michael[00:17:59] Tell me about this gold record that hangs on the wall in your office here.

Benj[00:18:06] When I got my gold record I knew I could get on the studio business. The gold record is from a label called Windham Hill. That was a very popular label because I’ll  try to be as kind as I can but it was very kind of middle of the road, kind of jazz but very easy listening. It was sort of a forerunner of a sad era called smooth jazz which I won’t say anything more about that.

Michael [00:18:37]  Some people like it. 

Benj[00:18:39] Well yeah exactly. But it still is kind of easy listening but intelligently written music and a dear friend of mine Fred Simon who’s a piano player here in town with whom I had worked for years doing projects and he was in a band called Simon and Bard. I did did the records and Fred and I did tons of demos and worked for other people and so we worked. We were we were a partnership. And he scored a contract and did an album for four Windham Hill and which did fine I guess. But then what happened is Windham Hill produced a number of compilation albums and a very successful series called Winter Solstice and there were two of these Winter Solstice albums that sold very very well and Fred got onto one of the second one so so so basically the gold record is Winter Solstice too. And I engineered one song on the record and even funnier than that it was all sequenced. So literally all I did was set the balance dial up a reverb and plus press play on a sequencer on a sequencer. And although it did record straight to a what was called a 1610 converter. So it was it was it was a direct. It was all an Analog front end of synthesizers and sequencers and an analog console. But it was going to one of the very first generation digital recording systems, two track no multi-track at the time. And it was as it was called a Sony 1610 and it would record to a three quarter inch video DAC.

Michael[00:20:10] So you recorded the stereo mix, which ended up on the record?

Benj[00:20:17] Which  went gold. So that’s all. So I had this gold record in my office which is okay. That’s cool because look at it go.

Michael [00:20:23] That’s pretty cool! I want to say that we’re talking with Benj Kanters, the Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago. Benj is a recording engineer, educator and passionate advocate for hearing conservation. Benj has has been running the Audio Arts and Acoustics program at Columbia for a number of years

Benj[00:20:44]  Close to 27! Not that I’ve been running it but I’ve been a part of it.

Michael [00:20:48] What classes do you teach at the program?

Benj[00:20:51] Well over the years I’ve taught almost every recording course that we’ve ever offered — Basic audio production through a very Capstone  course which we call advanced practicum an album production where I’m literally leading a team of engineers in the process of co producing an E.P. with two of the music ensembles from the music department. So it really becomes a co-production. What I’m teaching now at this top level course is you know what is it. What’s the interaction like? What should the session feel like. How do you treat the musicians. How do you build a relationship that results in productive exciting rewarding recording sessions where it sounds great and the playing is great and everybody’s happy because that’s not easy. 

Michael [00:21:38] True. Very not easy and I do appreciate having gone through the program here at Columbia way back when  myself. I also did appreciate the fact that we did focus not only on the technical aspects but also on the people aspect. But getting back to the technical aspects just for a second I want to say that I was very impressed recently when I toured the studios here at Columbia and you said that you specifically devoted two studios to two very different practices in recording. One is an analog-only studio where essentially there’s not a single undo button in the entire studio and the other one is totally digital right.

Benj[00:22:14] It’s not quite that extreme. We do teach in all analog class in the first room that you mentioned but what is so different about the two is that the first room mentioned is a large a large studio capable holding up to a dozen musicians. Initially we’re still recording to pro tools, to a digital audio workstation but the point of the room is that it’s a traditional analog workflow environment that is again very much traditional and something that still exists in many studios the other room is a as you said an all digital room where there is no console. It is a it embodies a process of recording called in the box. It’s no different in terms of what you’re doing but the processes by which you’re doing it. The technologies that you’re using to do it are again totally digital and there is no analogue in many respects there’s no analogue signal flow in the room. Once you get it into the workstation  the project lives in the digital audio workstation until its completion. And then the point is when students actually get out there they’re going to see some range of possibilities between the two rooms that they experienced here. It’s going to be some combination of those two things. 

Michael [00:23:31] What struck me is this concept of the undo because you know we all live in the analog world and obviously once you’re done performing a take, there’s no undo on the part of the musician. They will have to redo the whole thing. So I think it’s very important to teach the student  this concept where you crossover from working with technology and working with real people — completely different workflow when it comes to real people, right? 

I have to do a quick plug for MixerFace here. This interview is being recorded with MixerFace but I’m doing this for a reason — MixerFace does not have a screen and all of the controls are tactile, so you can actually operate the mixer while looking at the performer, while looking at a human being and we find that more experienced professionals in the broadcast world and the music world appreciate that because they prefer to establish human contact with a performer and not be staring at a screen all the time because that really disconnects you from the action. 

Benj[00:24:33] It does completely. Relating that to what we do here in that first room we were talking about. We also teach another. Again this is confirming what you’re saying. We do actually teach an all-analog course in that first room there are analog machines in there. And as you say one of the most important things that the students learn while they’re two point two important things that happens one is they’re learning to work in an environment where there is no undo, every every decision is a final decision. And of course that goes to  the musicians as well because truly with the digital audio workstation we can patch together an excellent solo from five, six, seven eight nine ten different solos. Oh man. My first two bars were great in take five. And my second two bars were great in  take two and they literally will patch it all together something we never could have done. And so the musician is stuck in an environment where you know you’ve got to play the whole solo. We can punch in. We can do minimal stuff but there’s not nothing we can’t do the sorts of things in an analog environment that we’ve learned to be able to do in the digital environment. So this notion of what we call committed decision making is a huge piece of the analog recording environment it’s more like live right because you can’t fix everything. The second piece of it which is gets back to what you’re saying there’s nothing to look at. You have to use your ears. You know it’s a tactile environment you touch the console you know where everything is but if you’re to look at anything you’re going to look at the artists in the studio and you’re going to be using your ears much much more. And invariably when kids walk away from that class they literally and you experience that women. When we went downstairs and a fellow was just finishing a mix and I guess I said to you Michael he said kids walk away from the class go in. I get it now and current who is the the student in there goes yes absolutely. That’s absolutely your thought. I get it now. So it’s it’s what I think is fascinating is the degree to which at least in an audio. And I won’t say exclusively audio but certainly in audio we have in the time that I’ve been an audio engineer. We initially embraced the new technology to the exclusion of the old technology and over time we’ve discovered the elegance and the beauty and of the older technology so that in many respects we haven’t given anything up as we move forward. We still embrace you know great pieces of equipment because they sound good not because they’re new but because we listen to them. So you know I enjoy that aspect of the audio industry. I was just having a conversation with a dear classmate of mine from Northwestern in the 70s where we met each other and stuff and what I pretty much realized as I was talking to and I’ve said this in little bits and pieces but it really kind of gelled with my conversation with him last night. Is this diversification of options that we have to consume entertainment records aren’t dying there just a smaller percentage of a bigger and bigger array of possibilities. The LP is not dying, the C.D. is not dying, the freaking cassette isn’t even dying. I mean everything seems… There are two things that have died the 8 track and the mini disc. Oh and the debt. Those are dead. You know there were poor attempts at the technology that it had established itself perfectly well without them you know. But I think so radio is a perfect example.

Podcasts as you said it, podcasting is just a variation on radio right. Streaming is just the new radio station but we still have radio stations you know. So there you have pockets of traditional deejays. You know I’m gonna play you know who are hired because they have great taste in music and they get this slot and people tune in because it’s who is on you know 

Michael [00:28:36] A friend of mine is establishing a radio station in L.A. right now to play country music. Believe it or not that’s a market.

Benj[00:28:37] Of course it is. It might be the only marketplace where traditional record sales the paradigm of traditional  records sales l still survives —  in the country music. Absolutely absolutely. I mean big record companies are not going to die. Big recording studios are not going to die. They’re just a smaller percentage of a bigger array of possibilities.

Michael [00:28:59] True true we have tons of ways to consume entertainment. And I wanted to use this as a segway to your true passion over the last 20 years, your current true passion among many other passions that you have and that is  hearing preservation. I want to say just a little bit about that to enter this conversation. Now, Chicago seems to be a hub for hearing preservation.

Benj[00:29:24] It absolutely is. We have a lot of people here who are passionate about  that. Hearing preservation and just hearing technology and even audiology, the hearing sciences in the broadest sense really see a tremendous I don’t know it’s a it’s a it’s a tremendously strong community. I’m not saying anybody consciously did anything. It just seems to have spawned not only in Chicago but spreading out a couple of hundred miles into Michigan Wisconsin and just down to southern Illinois, Indiana. The hearing sciences are just flourishing.

Michael: [00:29:56] We have Michael Santucci, we have Dr. Meade Killian and the late Bob Schulein, of course… 

Benj[00:30:04] And the whole Knowles company. Well I’m almost almost every part of the signal chain, both acoustic and electronic. You know companies that address all those those parts of the of the auditory signal chain and audio and hearing science signal chains are here. It’s crazy. 

Michael:  [00:30:22] Let’s talk about your class in which I felt I was a great example that you presented for your students where you can tell the story better — you ask your students as part of your hearing conservation class to put in earplugs you walk around… cheap, roll down foam earplugs… walk around and then write a little essay  after which they say they get it. That’s another one of those “get it” experiences.

Benj: [00:30:49] The kids the analog class literally say that I mean that those are literally the words they use in the case of this particular assignment. We’re paraphrasing but what happens is there is number of sort of experiential assignments, projects you know do this and write a little journal. You know reflection paper on the experience. This assignment is called “experiencing hearing impairment.” And so as you pointed out they hand them out all these cheap you know dollar roll down foam plugs. And I say wear them as much as you can for two days and write about your experiences. And so you know there are the classic ones are “I’m walking down the street, I just I’m just not comfortable”. “I’m looking all around me because I don’t know where I am.” “I just I feel unsafe, I feel insecure.” “I’m trying to have a conversation and people just get pissed off at me because I keep asking them to repeat themselves.” You know, “I’m trying to mix music, well forget that!” you know all different interesting experiences that they have. And invariably a few will always say well you know it’s really nice because it’s really peaceful. So it’s it’s not all negative. But the bottom line is they all end up saying “I don’t want this to happen to me.” And that’s OK.


Michael:  [00:32:05] I think you’re touching on a very serious subject and I understand why you’re so passionate about it. I mean the way I see it is proliferation of cheap you your headphones the earbuds, right, has created almost an epidemic of high sound levels inside the ears of young people. And nobody’s teaching them to turn it down. The parents don’t know that they’re damaging the hearing because they can’t hear it. There is no feedback mechanism to help these kids protect their hearing so what do you say to people? What methods have you found to get across to them that they really have to manage the amount of auditory stimulation that is getting into their head.

Benj: [00:32:49] There are two issues. Let me just kind of start by saying there two issues. The first one is the fact that we have never taught ourselves that our ears are delicate and precious. We know more and do more for every other part of our body. Go to the drugstore. Look at all the products for every part of your body but your ears everything your mouth. You know oral care foot care skin care eye care. What about your care. There’s maybe six inches of shelf space where you’ll see those same cheap dollar earphones and maybe some ear wash and then two or three tinnitus remedies which are all snake oil because there is no cure for tinnitus and that’s all they do. So one of things that I do as I say you know “How many people here” this is in the seminar that I do a tour around the country do this this hour long hour and a half long seminar. So “How many people here enjoy two hours of sitting back and staring into the sun and they all kind of chuckle and say OK yeah I get it. How many here have enjoyed two hours at a a concert standing in front of the speakers?” and a third of the hands go up. I say how do we where do we get off thinking our ears or any more are any more bulletproof than our eyes. They aren’t. And that starts it where they kind of go oh where people begin to realize they’ve been ignoring their hearing. As Michael Santucci is kind of monitor is respect your ears. We don’t respect our ears. 

Michael: [00:34:13] Michael Santucci, a quick aside, is president of Sesaphonics, a company that creates custom ear monitors for all the famous musicians and famous touring acts in America and all over the world. He is quite well-known.

Benj: [00:34:26] It’s basically an audiology practice where Michael became the first to really pay attention to musicians and musicians issues and this has been he’s been doing this now since the mid 80s that’s when he started really looking into this. And so this is a 30 year process where he is now as Michael said he’s audiologist to the stars. There’s always a tour bus out front. I mean that’s just when they’re in town. They stop in to get their hearing checked. Michael makes the best custom molded in your products whether they’re earphones or in your monitors. And it’s because he has the technology and the he has the knowledge and he has the resources he has attracted the resources to really do the work to know what is one what is what is good quality one what is effective or to what is effective and three to be all doing all this in the context of knowing about hearing health. He’s really one of the few I won’t say the only he’s now only one of the few manufacturers or producers of in ear products where there’s actually an audiologist somewhere nearby. So as I say the first point the first part of this is awareness that we’re just not aware we’ve never been taught to take care we’re hearing we’ve never been taught Oh my God that’s too loud you should be cover your ears. We just don’t do it. And I won’t go into the into the incredible array of noise hazardous experiences that we have it’s not just music — entertainment forms of all kinds, recreational activities, sporting events, I mean Oh yeah you know, bars and just you know noisy places that we that we subject ourselves to without even thinking that it might that it might be dangerous. The the whole issue of an up and a point to what you just said earbuds. That’s all it’s about those earbuds. I said No it’s about every kind of personal listening device that’s out there. The dilemma is twofold. One it is acceptable now to walk down the street with headphones on your head. 

Michael: [00:36:31] It’s fashionable.

Benj: [00:36:32] That’s what I meant. It’s fashion. It’s so acceptable it’s fashion. When the Walkman first came out in the 80s one of the reasons the Walkman was successful because of the lightweight you could barely see them headphones. You don’t need a lightweight we barely see them headphones anymore. They need to be lightweight. But but but it’s OK to wear these big bulging headphones on your head. And so but but but but more to the point it’s headphones it’s earbuds it’s ear monitors. It is acceptable air quotes to just have something in your ear at all times. And so what’s really happening is we don’t know how loud they’re listening. And we don’t know how long they’re listening because the danger of hearing exposure is a combination of volume and and exposure time. You can sustain a loud shot of sound whatever kind as long as it’s in short duration you can sustain damage listening to a moderately loud sound if you’re listening for six seven hours I’m not saying everybody listens with headphones on for six seven hours. But the point is it is so normal and acceptable to be able to have some kind of personal listening device online that is just a you know it’s just part of the formula you know it’s part of the setup. And so the World Health Organization is has made it one of its primary goals is to address this question of safety. In personal hearing systems the statement they’re making is one point one billion young adults right 18 to 30 are going to suffer needless hearing loss due to over exposure. And so what they’re working on is a combination of learning from the hearing specialists and these are all colleagues of mine. I know everybody who goes out there to talk to them about well here’s what we know and here’s here’s what we know about damage. And they say “OK thank you.” And then the manufacturers come in. So they learn from the from the from the research people. And then they talk to the manufacturers OK here’s what you guys got to do.

Michael: [00:38:41] So what can manufacturers do?

Benj:  [00:38:45] The trick is this. And I’m gonna get technical for some of the audience right now. The trick is this how do you know how loud the earphones are. And I mean that in the broadest sense earphones headphones earbuds whatever you want to call it personal listening devices. How do you know how loud they are 

Michael: [00:39:03] “The louder the better”, right?

Benj:  [00:39:05]  Well here’s the point. We have to be able to establish a measurement of listening volume and short of a very complex piece of equipment called a probe to a microphone and a sound level meter when somebody is wearing the listening device and you poke this sound to probe sound. This this probe to microphone to actually do an actual real time measurement there’s no way to know is it too loud. “No it’s not too loud.” “You sure?” “Yeah, it’s not too loud.” Well that’s what Phil Collins said about as in your monitors and he can’t perform anymore because he blew his ears out using an ear monitors in your monitors are not safe. They can be but you have to know how loud your listening and all those sorts of things. And it gets picked back to the awareness thing. But more to the point you can measure what’s called the sensitivity of a driver. Whether it’s a speaker or an earphone or headphone then that set of scaled values sensitivity values is given to the player manufacturers the smartphone the player manufacturers, all the all the different devices that we used to play music has to have a little bit of software running that where you can tell the player what brand and model of your phone you’re using then it can tell you how you’re listening and then the second point is not only how loud you’re listening but based on the research that we have on noise exposure and hearing and hearing risk hearing loss risk. When you’ve been listening too long that an alarm will go off.The key to this is one awareness and a concern that this is really a problem. And that’s a cultural issue and that’s a very slow gradual process. I think there’s a lot of a lot has happened already. People are very aware of are becoming more and more aware of volume levels in performance spaces. There there’s actually some concern in some instances some artists who are very concerned about the volume level in performance.

Michael: [00:41:04] Not on the stage, but in the House?

Benj:  [00:41:05] Both. Exactly. Well if you can control the stage volume you’ll actually have better control in the house because the stage of the monitor system if there’s if there’s a monitor system it can be. I’ve done it. You know did the stage monitors are so loud I’m fighting the monitor raw to make the health system sound good. Dave Matthews is a perfect example the entire band is on in ears. If you’re standing on stage all you hear is the drummer. That’s all you hear because the only thing it’s acoustic onstage and so they don’t have that. So they can manage the front of house levels much more effectively because they’re not fighting the roar off the stage. A friend of mine was at a Grammy Awards show two years ago three years ago when AC/DC was on the Grammy show. Soundcheck: it was 140 in the room and that was the monitor roar. 

Michael: [00:42:00]  Well, you know, the old school. 

Benj: [00:42:02] Old school. And sadly but thankfully more and more of those old school artists are coming out and saying: “I’ve blown my ears out.” Huey Lewis has come out. Artists are now coming forward and saying “This is real. This is happening.”

Michael:  [00:42:17] And you know what maybe that would be part of the catalyst. To demonstrate how important it is to preserve your hearing and make sure that you you continue to hear well into your golden years.

Benj:  [00:42:30] Exactly and I think, well I have a video idea that’s basically is just like that — it’s well-known artists talking into the camera. Go on. This is important.


Michael: [00:42:41] That would be a huge public service announcement. I think that’ll convince a lot of kids to turn it down.

Benj:  [00:42:47] If  somebody wants to fund it, I’m ready to produce it and I wouldn’t even produce because I don’t produce video. I know the people who can do it but I think we could make a very effective three to five minute YouTube piece and it will go viral because of the people it will. It will feature.

Michael: [00:43:02] What an important passion that you have, Benj. Thank you very much for helping a generation of young people preserve their hearing for years to come. 

Benj:  [00:43:11] Thanks.

Michael: [00:43:12] We’ve been talking here with Benj Kanters, Associate Professor at Columbia College Chicago. Benj is a recording engineer, educator, and a passionate advocate for hearing conservation. Benj, I want to thank you very much for spending this time with us. It’s been very interesting and your experience in the audio industry is enlightening and outstanding. 

Benj[00:43:30] Thank you.


NarrationPodcast music by Paul J. De Benedictis. Recording and production by Daniel Martinez. Till next time, I’m Michael Goodman and this has been the CEntrance podcast.  

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