‘Come Feel The Noise’: Jonathan Cain

Recently, I had the privilege of touring Europe with the band I am a member of… Journey.  It was exciting playing places we had never been to, like Switzerland, Germany and Spain.  I have played keyboards with the guys since 1981 but we hadn’t toured Europe since the eighties.  Keith Nesmith, our friend and promoter, wanted us to finally come over and tour so it seemed like a great opportunity.

We have been using in-ear monitors by Futuresonic with Shure belt packs and receivers since 1998 that we’ve been pretty happy with. We have had the same monitor mixer for the last few years who has done an excellent job for us and we recently changed over to the new Digidesign monitor console.  It’s a far cry from the volume we had to live with on stage with massive S-4’s flying above our heads.

Overseas, we played smaller venues to enthusiastic audiences who could get quite loud when they started singing our songs as we played.  I noticed that the mix on my belt pack was getting cranked up pretty high and I thought it was due to the amount of loud ambiance we had been exposed to.

After the third week, my ears seemed blocked as if I had some kind of ear infection.  I had a doctor look at me before the concert and he noticed a lot of earwax that had built up.  He said if there was an infection he couldn’t see it because of the impacted wax.  He gave me a softener for the wax and an anti-biotic to kill anything that might have been growing.  He said that he used to syringe out the wax with warm water – a procedure doctors now know can damage the tympanic membrane.  The sound of doing that can be extreme to the middle ear… like a gun going off.

I was under pressure to get my ears to clear, as we had to fly in a couple of days and I knew I could really damage my ears if I couldn’t get it to come out.  As the days to our flight grew closer, the softener didn’t seem to be working.  The night before the concert, in Cologne Germany, I requested another doctor take a look.

He was a general practitioner who came to my room with his black bag in hand.  He was an older man who spoke English and I explained my problem to him.  Much to my surprise, he wanted to syringe my ear with warm water.  He assured me he had done it hundreds of times and never had any problems.  I was reluctant to let him as I just had a doctor tell me the reasons not to.  He convinced me that if I fly on an airplane with impacted earwax, I would be in pain and could do real damage to my ears.  I finally gave in and let him clean out the wax.

He had a small syringe and used warm water and cleaned my left ear and then my right.  The water seemed loud and just as he said, there were large amounts of wax in both ears.  After he finished, my right ear was feeling strange and he assured me that in thirty minutes everything would be okay.  Once the wax was gone he looked and said he didn’t see an infection or anything that looked suspicious.

I had a press interview at the venue, so they put us in a quiet room to record the conversation.  As we began, I noticed a hum in my left ear.  It sounded like a hum that you get from a turntable not properly grounded… around 350 cycles or so and it was pretty loud.  I had trouble paying attention to what he was asking, although his English was good.  As you can imagine, I was worried sick on the spot that the German doctor had just damaged my left ear with his syringe and water.  I apologized to the journalist and explained my ear issues and ran off to sound check.

As sound check began, I noticed the monitor level on my belt pack was now screaming loud in my ears.  I asked the monitor mixer if he had changed my mix, and he assured me he had not.  I turned things down and figured my ears were just highly sensitive to the volume after the cleaning.  I tried to remember the last time I had earwax removed.  It had to have been at least four years.  Had I been pumping extreme db levels into ears that were full of wax?  I didn’t know what was happening, but something had changed in my hearing for the worse.  The hum continued constantly, night and day.
When I described my symptoms to our monitor mixer, he said it was probably tinnitus, a ringing in the ears due to damaged hairs in the cochlea…the tiny organ that sits behind your eardrum.  I was shocked, depressed, and wondered if I had done permanent damage to myself.

I would have to deal with it.  I made the decision to let the German doc do his thing to me and it was over now.  Should I have taken my chances with the wax on the plane?  It was maddening to think about.  A weird phenomenon about tinnitus is the blocked feeling you get… almost like you have to equalize… but you really can’t, it’s just your brain searching for frequencies it’s missing.  I figured I would get to the source of my problem once I returned home to see my own ear, nose, and throat specialist.

Dr. Agbyani, an excellent doctor in Marin, Calif., has helped me with allergy problems over the years and he saw me immediately upon my return.  I’ve never had any trouble with my ears in the past.  In fact, as a scuba diver, my ears could equalize on their own easily to eighty feet without holding the nose.  After examining both of my ears, he said he saw no damage to my tympanic membranes.  I explained to him what had transpired and he said he thought it could be nerve damage.  In other words, my inner ear may have been traumatized through the volume of the music and the sound of the water roaring in my middle ear.  Water has tremendous energy as it moves and can be quite loud, he explained.  He told me it would be like banging your funny bone on something hard.

Ear trauma can go away in time or it can end up being permanent tinnitus.  I took a test and discovered the hearing in my left ear was down substantially.  The frequency I suspected was around 300 to 400 cycles along with a typical loss from rock and roll from 2000 to 4000 cycles.  My right ear was normal for a guy that has been around loud music for over thirty some years.  Dr. Agbyani said that some patients had improved with a drug treatment so he gave me a massive dose of prednisone to take over 10 days.

Prednisone makes you anxious, like you’ve had way too much coffee.  It affects people differently but it made me feel strange and edgy to say the least.  After the ten-day dose, I returned to the audiologist for another hearing test.  I told the technician that I suspected the frequency that was humming had moved up to ringing at around 1000 cycles.  After the test, I found I had been correct and my hearing had improved.  The hum was still there, just at a higher pitch.

Dr. Agbyani was encouraged by the low-end improvement of my left ear and said I could be coming out of the ear trauma.  I returned home only to wake up to experiencing different frequencies ringing daily.  In the morning, it would be a mid-range hum and in the afternoon I experienced sharp feedback tones around 2k, sometimes moving to 4 or even 8k.  There were multiple harmonics in my brain, I discovered.  Sometimes the level of the sharp tones would be louder, causing me extreme anxiety.

The sharp tones were so bad one day that I decided to go to Sharper Image to buy a portable background sound generator.  I hooked up a bud to my left ear and dialed in some swamp noise with crickets to drown out the ringing.  I slept with the crickets and the bud as long as the painful tone persisted but I realized I needed something else.

I went to the Internet and learned about all the celebrities who had tinnitus. The list, not one you want to be on, is a who’s who in the music business.  There are over thirty-three million people suffering from some kind of tinnitus or another.  I learned that William Shatner had an accident on the set of Star Trek when something exploded suddenly on the set.  He was very close to it and damaged his ear.  Tinnitus was the end result and he got help from a doctor in Maryland.  They built him a plastic mold fitted to his ear canal called a masker, which has a “shooshing” sound of white noise with a tiny volume knob.  I decided to get a masker for the bad times and made an appointment at a local hearing aid store.  After having a follow up hearing test, I asked my audiologist about maskers.  She understood that things had gotten bad when I walked in with my Sharper Image rig.

She told me she could get me the masker, but said that a good hearing aid can sometimes help cure the tinnitus.  She explained that filling the brain with missing frequencies could ease anxiety and that blocked feeling.  I was reluctant to try a hearing aid but I was ready to try anything to ease the ringing and hum.  I ordered the masker from Starkey and I tried a loaner Widex hearing aid.  It was the kind with a soft ear piece that slings behind the ear.  It was weird at first hearing stuff through a microphone, but when I took it off I realized how bad my hearing had truly gotten.  It was digital and totally programmable.  I quickly adapted to the hearing aid using different modes for different settings.  It has an omni mode that can be helpful bringing in ambient noise to drown out any ringing that might be happening.  There is not a lot of low frequency boost on this model, so I needed to get a different one.

I read that acupuncture could be helpful so I went for a few treatments with little success.  I might continue going for a while but after the first few treatments I remain skeptical.  It might depend on how bad things are in the inner ear.  Scientists and doctors have a lot to learn about hearing loss and cures for the different forms of tinnitus.

Presently, I have my masker for the bad episodes which can last anywhere from one to eight hours.  I am trying two different inner canal hearing aids that are fully digital and computer programmable.  The main drawback for some folks is that you hear your voice fairly loud in your ear.  These hearing aids are like wearing one headphone and doing a voice-over as you go through your daily life.  It was strange for me at first but once I turned down the level, the low-end boost seemed to calm my brain since that is where tinnitus usually begins in the morning.  The one from Phonac is sleek and smart but has an aggressive sharp high end.  It has a wind gate to silence the gusts of wind while I ride my bike or play golf.  The other inner canal hearing aid is a Widex that sounds very musical and natural at first.  It has a great low end for mixing music but, outside, the wind makes it rumble.  It also picks up sounds above 5k like S’s and T’s and seems to distort them.  While I was in a store waiting for my wife to finish shopping, I quite loudly heard some lady clanging plastic hangers from 10 feet away.  Even people who pop gum in their mouth are annoying if you are wearing one of these.  I guess I can tweak my choices a little more on the computer in the weeks to come. 

I have played concerts since my tinnitus has gotten more severe and I still wear both of my in-ear monitors but set them at a lower level.  Mix Magazine recently ran a great article about hearing loss.  They explain that wearing one ear bud can prove to be dangerous because the decibel levels you perceive are actually much louder in your ear.  I think it said something like 8 db louder which could really damage a fragile hearing system.

My point in writing this article is to remind musicians and others who work around us that your ears are very important tools in your life.  You must get your ears checked once a year especially for impacted earwax if you are using in-ear monitors.  Some people’s ears make more wax than others and the only way to get it checked is to see a professional.  That might have saved me from my present condition.  Once you are diagnosed with an ear trauma like mine, your life changes may be permanent.  The ringing can be maddening and even debilitating at times.  It has caused people to commit suicide in extreme cases.

I have had to get used to this noise and constant disruption in my head for the past two months and it has not been easy to get on with family and social life without feeling handicapped by my own private feedback.  I have experienced nasty mood swings, as I get angry about something I have no control over.  Since no one else can hear what you are going through, it is almost surreal as the various demons that come and go in your head bombard you.  The Who lyric, “No one knows what it’s like to be the sad man,” comes to mind when I have my sonic episodes.  I’ve had to quit caffeine and I drink decaf now instead of the “rocket fuel” I’ve been used to.  Caffeine really cranks up the ring quickly.  Some people say that alcohol, pot, and even salt can have the same effect.

It has been a challenge for me to get back to my recording studio and create the way I used to.  I suppose I have adjusted to the noise and I recently wrote a song during an extreme bout with 2k screaming in my head while wearing my masker.  I can’t think about it too much or I will start worrying that there will always be something between me and my music.
Since wearing a hearing aid, I realized how loud members of my family listen to television and music in the car.  I remind them they can end up like me if they are not careful.  The good news is that you can’t go deaf from the condition.  It’s just not you and your thoughts anymore.  You always feel like you have company present…  sometimes annoying, sometimes painful. 

After my latest hearing test, I was having a ringing episode and my test was worse than a month before.  I am back on prednisone for another treatment hoping it will stimulate the micro components in my ear that are stressed.  Ten completely jacked up days!  I hope my wife is ready for “Heeeeere’s Johnny!”

I pray they make progress with curing tinnitus and other inner ear diseases.  I’ve heard of the recent success with transplanting the micro hairs in the cochlea in pigs and mice.  They say it’s still twenty years out for humans.   However, I’ll bet it comes sooner than that. 

In the meantime… have you’re precious ears examined regularly and watch the sound levels on your belt pack or iPod.  Wear earplugs at concerts that you know will be loud and bring some for your kids when you come to Journey concerts, especially if your sitting in front.  I’ll be the guy playing the red piano.