Dubspot’s Michael Walsh explores the importance of hearing loss prevention and offers some earplug recommendations for musicians and music fans.
Would you trade your perception of sound for one night in front of the speaker stack?
Excessive exposure to loud levels of noise is often hard to avoid in today’s society, especially for us who enjoy music. I don’t know about you, but I’m always finding myself just a few feet from the bass bins at most music events. How many times have you been over there as well shouting at friends for 30 seconds before deciding to move? I’ve tried to change this behavior but like many of you, I’m a slave to the rhythm, and without realizing it I always end up in front of the speaker stacks. As a result, I’ve slowly but surely started carrying earplugs with me to help prevent irreversible inner ear damage. As a producer and a DJ, that’s a scary thought. In an effort to push hearing loss awareness, we will explore some different ways to help prevent hearing loss.
H.E.A.R. is a non-profit group that was created by musicians and serves as a hearing education resource for the public. They have some good information on their site that I recommend reading over when you have a moment. In the meantime, I’ve grabbed some essential knowledge on sound exposure from their website.
dB Level Awareness
When you notice a difference between loud sounds and quiet ones, your ears are perceiving changes in sound pressure level. Intensity (or volume) is measured in decibels (dB). Zero (0) dB is the softest sound that can be heard. Pain from hearing is subjective. Often, levels above 125 dB may be painful to some individuals. One way to reduce hearing damage is by paying attention to noise levels and realizing when they are too high. According to the United States Safety and Health Standards, we should not be exposed to more than 90 dB over a period of eight hours. If you work in a noisy environment, check out the decibel level you are being exposed to and take the proper precautions. There are several phone apps available that measure noise volume in decibels (dB). Another recommendation is to have your hearing evaluated at least once a year by a hearing health professional. In addition, turn down the volume, or remove yourself from the noise area when possible. It’s also recommended to give your ears a rest for 24 hours after exposure to dangerous levels of noise.
There is a variety of ear protection devices available today designed for different uses. For all you party and clubgoers, earplugs are the best protection for an event with a loud sound system. Like you, I love it loud. However, over the years I have experienced pain, ringing (tinnitus) and popping in my ears after long exposure to loud music. As a DJ and producer, I’ve made the mistake of turning up the monitors at events to heighten the feel of the music. At first, your ears will “bounce back” and you’ll be able to hear again after a couple of days. But over time the damage will compound, and your ears won’t bounce back the way they once did. Earplugs are a necessity these days for several reasons. Have you noticed how hard it is to work on your own music after a night at a club? It hurts… save your ears and be more productive with a proper pair of earplugs.
The good news is that there is more for your ears these days than conventional foam plugs that you find at the drugstore. These types of plugs are especially hard to play or mix music with because they block essential frequencies we enjoy when listening to music. Over-the-counter earplugs range from foam variety to rubber, silicone, and wax. They’re all affordable, comfortable, disposable, and provide important help in reducing the dangers of exposure to excessive levels of noise. H.E.A.R. explains the problems that musicians have with these types of earplugs:
- Existing earplugs attenuate more than necessary for much of the noise in industry and the environment.
- Regardless of their exact construction, existing earplugs produce 10 to 20 dB of high-frequency attenuation, and the result is that people often reject them because they can’t hear speech clearly.
- Conventional earplugs make the wearer’s own voice sound hollow (known as the occlusion effect).
- Many people risk their hearing by either wearing earplugs loosely or wearing no protection at all so they will be able to hear voices, machinery or music more clearly.
Earplugs for Musicians
Custom fit earplugs are recommended for musicians because they are comfortable, easy to insert correctly, and filter sound better than disposable plugs. They are made from an impression of the ear canal taken by an audiologist or other hearing health professionals such as Etymotic and HearNet.
Instead of cutting out the high frequencies and sounding muffled like traditional plugs, musician’s plugs attenuate all the frequencies evenly in relation to your hearing allowing you to hear a wider range of sounds while still protecting yourself from extreme levels. From personal use, I can tell you that they are a lot better than foam plugs.
The ER-20XS, Musicians Earplugs, and MP 9-15 models by Etymotic are popular custom high-fidelity earplugs for musicians that feature a special filter that lets the listener hear music at a safe level without sacrificing quality. They feature a flat-response attenuator that can be adjusted to set different levels of sound reduction while following the shape of the natural frequency response of the open ear. They both use a diaphragm, similar to a passive speaker cone as well to achieve the desired response curve.
Another popular set of earplugs are the Mack’s High Fidelity Hear Plugs, which replicate the natural response of the ear canal so that sound is heard clearly, just quieter and are a low-cost alternative.
Who Needs Musician Earplugs?
There are two types of people who could benefit from musician earplugs. The first type of people are those exposed to 90-120 dB sound levels for various time periods who need to hear accurately such as DJs, live performers, musicians, sound crews, recording engineers, nightclub employees, and other music industry professionals. The second type of people are those outside the music industry such as loud-music listeners, people with tinnitus or hyperacusis, spectators, construction workers, etc.
Musician earplugs offer better sound quality that is clearer and more natural. They also help to reduce fatigue associated with noise exposure as well over long exposure times. For example, DJs and live performance acts are subjected to loud levels of sound which can not only cause hearing damage but can also cause a shift in their perception of sound causing them to mix poorly or make bad decisions in a performance as a result of their hearing not functioning properly.
One mistake I’ve noticed many DJs make is turning up the headphones or monitors to compensate for a loud sound system when cueing the next track. The better solution is to turn down your monitors and your phones to let your ears rest and get used to the sound of the room. When the headphones are too loud you may confuse yourself in a mix in two ways – you will lose track of what is happening on the floor, and you will start hearing the track in the phones as running faster in the mix than it actually is. If you ever find yourself confused in a mix, turn down the headphones and ride the levels slowly until you hear the mix clearly. Try balancing the headphone levels down and up (keeping them low) before you touch the pitch and you’ll keep control of your mix.
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Most pioneering early electronic musicians had years of conservatory training in theory and performance but had access to very limited technologies. In today’s musical world, it’s the opposite: we have a powerful and versatile array of electronic music making tools at our fingertips, but often fall short in our theoretical understanding of how electronic music works.
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