Earplugs

Like any musician, in almost any genre or setting, I’m sometimes in the presence of very high volumes. Over the years I’ve gone on and off earplugs and used various different types, but for the last few years have been consistently using some custom-moulded ones which have taken out all the worrying, annoyance, and inconvenience that can be associated with using or not using earplugs. This post is a quick mixture of passed-on hearing-related folk knowledge from my dad, who’s a medical doctor (though I make no claim as to the exact accuracy of any physiological details here..!), and physicsy insights related to why earplugs do or do not work well and why they’re needed.

Why?

Here are some compelling reasons to use earplugs, some of which most of us are aware of, and some that make you go ‘ahh’:

  • Hearing damage can result from loud sounds, obviously.
  • Hearing damage is permanent — temporary whistling or ringing is the sound of some cilia dying (tiny hairs which receive vibrations and pass the signal towards the brain).
  • Hearing attenuation can be temporary — exposure to loud sound causes muscles in the ear to adapt to it so that it “seems” less loud (imagine if the sensation you get when you initially walk into a noisy club remained all night! This is why it doesn’t). Damage is still being done though, so this isn’t a good thing
  • Higher frequency sounds are lost earlier when hearing is damaged. This makes things sound less clear, since the high frequencies provide e.g. the sibilance that helps us to distinguish consonants. Turning up the volume of a sound results in increased perceived presence (stronger high frequencies), so we turn up louder to get the same clarity => more damage.

Earplug problems

  • Earplugs come in all different types. In the simplest case, the principle is basically to stuff something solid into the ear to block sounds out to some extent.
  • Just in the same way as your neighbour’s wall reduces high frequencies but lets bass come through more (that’s why you can’t hear the voices on their TV well), simple earplugs reduce high frequencies more strongly than low ones. This is why earplugs can make things sound “unclear” and why musicians often hate using them.
  • An ill-fitting or one-size-fits-all earplug might actually be counterproductive — it reduces overall loudness but the tiny gaps and misfittings can allow (predominantly high frequency) sound to come through unaffected. The reduced loudness means the ear does less to “defend itself”, but the damaging high frequencies are still allowed through. This is also why wearing sunglasses without UV shielding is bad — the eye does not think it’s receiving bright light so the pupils don’t contract much, but the UV light is still getting through and doing its damage.

Custom-moulded earplugs

The breakthrough for me (and recently for a friend, the excellent guitarist Mike Chisnall) came with custom-moulded earplugs. These consist of a casing made of something like silicone, which is moulded to precisely fit into the ear. This is good already, because the little gaps which could allow high “hissing” sounds through don’t exist. The really good thing is that these moulds are made to act as housings for a specially-designed filter.

These filters come in a number of strengths and, most importantly, have an essentially “flat” attenuation — all the frequencies are affected equally, rather than the high frequencies being lost the most, as with simpler plugs. The effect is then more like just “turning down” the outside world, rather than sticking a cushion on your ear and muffling the sound. Especially for musicians, this is vitally important because it means the detail of what you’re hearing remains, and the temptation to remove the plugs disappears. The poor performance of cheap/free earplugs is damaging to our ears in more than one way: 1) We remove them. 2) We tar the whole category “earplugs” with this brush, and don’t bother investigating better options.

Something Mike and I both note about using the custom plugs is that you also feel somehow more calm while playing. Compare the feeling when you come offstage normally, with ringing in your ears and a background “hum” as blood rushes around the vessels near your ears. With good plugs, you end up playing better, being able to focus more on e.g. reading or song structures or technique, while still being aware of everything that’s going on. It’s very Zen.

Conclusion

One of the most disheartening things as a musician is to play with bad monitoring, so for many people, imposing this on yourself by stuffing some foam in your ear seems like madness. However, the sensible part of all of us knows that this can’t go on indefinitely. Even in jazz and classical settings, ear damage will result after a while if protection isn’t used. When you hear a snare drum being hit and it seems to hurt, but then later on or in the mix of the performance you don’t notice it, that’s not your ear winning, it’s just being beaten into submission.

The point of this post is to highlight the fact that a solution is available which preserves the clarity of sound that musicians want. A custom-moulded plug with even a weak filter will help considerably and delay the onset of volume-induced hearing loss, and will almost always retain more than enough detail for you to be able to play sensitively to the context and to enjoy your performance. Custom-moulded plugs are expensive, but for the average professional working musician, the cost is not more than a few gigs’ pay. And they’re a tax-deductible expense too.

Please, please, please try them — the most damaging false dichotomy a musician faces in respect of hearing is that it’s either horrible foam or rubber earplugs or nothing. That’s simply not true, and the benefits of finding out why are more than worth the cost.

Say, where can I get these incredible earplugs?

The custom-moulding aspect means it’s not just a matter of ordering online. Instead, you go to your local high-street audiologist shop (somewhere that sells hearing aids, basically) and enquire. They will do a hearing test and take the mould, and supply you with the filters to go into the earplugs once they’re made. The strengths available are normally 9dB15dB, and 25dB (lower number = less attenuation = more sound gets through). I got 25 initially but found it made things too quiet, so went down to 15 which allowed more detail through and was suitable for my usual gigs (jazz or loud-ish function/pop, but not really rock or metal). It’s a nice idea to get more than one pair or filters (say a 9 and a 15, for my purposes), since they last forever and can be easily swapped as needed. The actual moulds can gradually perish over very long times, but mine have lasted 5 years easily so far.

Also — the mouldings can also be used as housings for in-ear monitors. You just take out the filter and stick the monitor in.

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