Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Cochlear Implants, Music and Other Things in Between....

This has been on my mind for a while but I haven't found the time to sit and type, in a nutshell I'm knackered with the day job and usually collapse in a mess on the sofa once I get home!

I know a few of you have read the intro to the blog down the right hand side, it's time to give this an update. Along with the bikes, music is a big big big big love of mine and it is by and largely the reason why I went for the cochlear implant. My eldest sister ensured that I never, ever, gave up with music and I owe her a hell of a lot for that.

Now, before I get into all of this update I want to point something out... cochlear implants take a lot of work, time and effort, it's a different way of hearing. Quite a few people who go for the implants expect too much at first, or at least that's how I've seen it/read about it. You really MUST stick it out and be prepared for hard work. The garbled 'noise' at first, when it's first switched on, can be very daunting, but give it time and the whole world opens up for you. It really, really, is an amazing piece of technowizardry, it will assist your lip reading no end, that's for sure. You will learn to differentiate between male and female voices, you will recognise different members of family and friends from the sound of their speech pattern alone. It's absolutely bloody amazing! Granted a few of the people who have been implanted out there have not and never will get on with their adaptation, I also appreciate and respect that too. It's each to their own, everyone is different.

Now... I spoke with my audiologists about how I, well, let's say 'appreciate' music.

When on the move, day to day it's via my iPod Touch (another gadget I wholeheartedly recommend to deaf people out there who use a CI or normal hearing aids). I use this in two ways. The main one is via headphones of which I currently have two pairs; one a pair of large Technics DH1200 DJ headphones and the other a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-ES7's. The second way is via a direct connect wire that connects directly into the behind the ear CI processor unit with the other end into the iPod. (Please note; where any prices have been stated on the links above, you can get them far cheaper by shopping around).

Now, each is with its pro's and con's. I have had recent volume problems with my music files, I use recorded performances which have been subtitled. Being a bad workman I blamed my iPod straight away however as a process of elimination this didn't seem to be the case. Phil had a listen to some of my new music and said that it was fine, however when we're using the iPod in the car hooked into the stereo system and me using my normal CI ear hook he puts the volume up on the new stuff....!!! Hmmmmm *strokes chin*. So anyway... I'm waiting for another re-tune, it's due regardless as I like to keep on top of things.

Now, whilst working all of these things out I used my 'direct connect' cable. *Deep breath*..... I'm going to try to explain the 'hearing' with this, which is difficult.... OK, by using the direct connect cable it gives a full range of beats, pitches, tones and rhythms, although it can be quite 'tinny' at times. It's that tinny bit that is off putting, having said that, once you've had your iPod (or whatever music source) playing this way you get used to it and the brain, or in my case anyway, switches the tinnyness 'off'. The big downside of the direct connect cable, and I don't want to make any enemies at Advanced Bionics by saying this, is that the quality of the direct connect cable, is, well, pretty shit to be honest. I have had to have the lower thicker cable replaced, ooooh, once every two months, that's not very good. I'm also concerned about the thinner upper cable too, it's something that Advanced Bionics really need to look into and develop further. When I'm listening to my iPod on the move using the direct connect there is only so long you can take the screeching feedback of the cable when it's reaching the end of its life, which is often!

This details the direct connect wire, it connects half way down to a thicker cable before going into the music source.

This moves me onto the headphones.... first up are the Technics DJ ones, I got these because of the size of the cups, they will fit over the external behind the ear implant parts and I wanted to push the bass of my music. They're very comfortable to use, I use these with both the iPod and the Mac system, using a custom DAC amplifier with the computer set up. I did a LOT of research before putting the cash down for these, I knew I wanted big cups to fit over the implant parts and DJ cans were ideal. Sound-wise they're bloody good headphones, assisted by 50mm driver units so they give you some serious wallop.....at the expense of low range frequencies. Remember that DJ headphones are designed for use in loud night clubs. So, with this in mind I set off to find a second pair of 'phones and opted for the Audio-Technica ATH-ES7's. I tried a few on, I was looking mainly at the Grado range, but they're open-back headphones meaning anyone would be able to hear what I was listening to...... which is not a very good idea when commuting! The Audio Technica's are much smaller 'on the ear' headphones but they offer a greater depth of sound, they don't fit over the implant parts either, merely resting on them.... something I am very wary about when travelling in case of sound leakage.

This details the front headphone microphone, there are several interchangeable parts for the CI to make it as versatile as possible.

Technics DJ headphones, note how they sit over the implant parts comfortably.

Audio Technica headphones, don't offer the same coverage as the Technics ones but offer a greater depth of sound. This photo also shows the processing unit's switch, where you switch between each hearing map program (there's more on this further down), and the volume dial above that.

Even with the Audio-Technica cans I'm still not picking up the very low range when compared to the direct connect cable. However these headphones give me a really warm sound, a 'fuller' sound than the cable does. And it's this I wish to work on with the next re-tune. Another thing about wearing headphones with the CI is that I personally feel, how do I say this, hmmmmm, that I am more part of the "mainstream world" as opposed to a "deaf person", I'm more part of the world I used to be living in pre-1985. That makes me feel really good. I mean, look, lost my hearing at ten years of age, followed by 19 years of silence and then 'BANG', get my hearing back, albiet in a slightly different way. That's absolutely flabbergasting in my books, I'm often struck with a sense of personal disbelief that I can 'hear' again, it's amazing. I just 'hear' in a different way. It's also amusing when taking the headphones off and telling whoever you're speaking to that you're deaf, the looks on their faces are hilarious!

I have three programmes installed on my processing unit, the top is day to day speech and direct connect cable, the second is the headphone setting and the third was the supposed 'updated' headphone setting but it sounds bloody awful, the tuning session was rushed sadly. Without getting too technical, the processing unit can be set with percentages per connection and internal microphone, so with the headphones I think it's set at 20% internal microphone with 80% going through the front headphone 'piece'. (The 20% is so I can hear any sirens or alarms in the environment etc).

As for the hearing itself, although I slated electronic music in my blog intro this was soon after the switch-on and I was still growing accustomed to it all. I now have to say that I LOVE electronic music; Pet Shop Boys, Depeche Mode, John Foxx, Gary Numan, the more contemporary ones being Calvin Harris, La Roux and Robyn as examples. I reckon I cover the whole 'pop' spectrum from the mainstays of Madonna and Kylie (yes, camp as tits pop!) through to Hurts and The Drums, onwards through the alternative with Radiohead, Portished and beyond. Rock wise, as anyone who follows my Twitter feed knows, I am a huge, huge, HUGE Skunk Anansie fanboy alongside Marilyn Manson and Garbage. I pretty much like most genres. I feel life is too short to be discriminative with music! (I still hate Haircut 100 though, that won't ever change!)

Moving on to how I have my iPod set up, I have two 'areas' as such; the first is the whole lot of subtitled music performances, (well not the whole lot as I have several thousand on my iTunes but they won't all fit onto the iPod sadly *very sad face*), the second is a selection of tracks that I can follow without having to look at the screen, my 'Travelling Tunes' playlist!

Now, it may seem easy enough to read, however I must point out that a LOT of time has been spent listening and watching the tracks with the subtitles in place to match the sounds to the lyrics. BUT some singers are very clear when they sing, step forwards Pete Burns from Dead or Alive, yes really! Same with Skin from Skunk Anansie (but then I would say that wouldn't I!). Due to having the implant for so many years, it's a continuous learning curve, it won't end. I can work out specific words by sound alone, obviously not as fluently as an able-hearing person can, but for me this is magical. As I said before the CI is an amazing tool to assist with lip-reading, and indeed your own speech and pronunciation because you hear yourself back and not just with the 'sound' in your own head.

What I would like to see happen now is for Advanced Bionics to collaborate with a audio company, I reckon that by sharing their knowledge it would push the CI so much further with music reception. I feel the CI could be a lot smaller too, and indeed the direct connect cable issue really needs to be sorted out sooner rather than later as it's letting the whole system down.

On other notes I use the normal ear hook for concerts, cinema, TV, music via a sound system etc, it's very liberating. Having as I've said before it also takes 'work' on the recipient's part, and you do grow tired of using the implant, you do get sick of garbled noise (I really don't recommend busy pedestrian areas with implants, it will drive you NUTS!). I don't wear my implant all of the time, right now whilst typing this I'm sat in silence. I use it mainly with music, on my commute with the headphones on, at home with a subtitled DVD playing, at the cinema (when combined with subtitles) and the theatres (when combined with Stagetext/in house captioning). All other times it's rare I wear it. I am using it more now to assist with my lip-reading, in the old office there was a lot of background noise, it's much less so in the new one which makes it easier for me. It still takes 'work', people need to realise that.

I don't have hearing like an able-hearing person has, I never will have hearing like an able-hearing person, unless there's a huge advance in the technology available! But the hearing I have I treasure, I feel very lucky and very privileged to have had the opportunity with my cochlear implant. Sure, I'd love my hearing restored, show me a person who has become deaf later in life that doesn't, there won't be any! And yes, I do get very depressed, I do get very down, I do miss my hearing a great deal, to listen to music again in its full entirety remains a dream but in the same breath I also feel very lucky to be where I am today.

So there you have it the latest installment of how my hearing works!

Hope all goes well for you out there, will blog again soon!