Here’s an amazing Lennie Tristano contrafact from the album “Lee Konitz with Warne Marsh”, based roughly on “Almost like being in love”. It’s one of those lovely tunes that starts on the subdominant — always good in my book — and is one of the nicest collections of mezzo forte quavers ever put together. Enjoy!
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.
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.
- 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.
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.
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 9dB, 15dB, 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.
Here’s a common problem for people who own small electronic devices, especially power adaptors for effects boxes.
This is an adaptor from my compressor; it outputs a special voltage, has a special plug on the end, and is expensive to replace. I found that out when, as with every other adaptor like this, the extremely thin cable eventually broke at the point where it joins the body of the adaptor. Even if you’re really careful, a few months or years of wear and tear is usually enough to break it because whenever tension is applied to the cable, it is applied to the same place — a join with only very weak stress relief. The cable bends and flexes in all directions, weakens, and after a while either the coating or the wire itself breaks.
When I got the replacement I came up with a nice way of preventing the same thing happening again. I took a cable tie, wrapped it around the body of the adaptor and loosely threaded the power cable in and out of the tie, following it once around the body. Then I tightened the cable tie and snipped it off, as shown in the picture below.
This means that the join between the cable and body (the bit that always breaks) is never subject to tension and never moves, so it doesn’t break. Instead, pulling on the cable just smoothly induces a little bit of tension and only a slight bending at all the points where it crosses over the cable tie. The stress in any one part of the cable is never enough to break it, so it doesn’t break even if you grab the cable by the end and swing the adaptor around the place. And that’s magic.
The stats on my site tell me a few things. One is that, particularly on Fridays, my visitors are predominantly Gardener’s World fans who have arrived here through the TV show’s ‘Community’ page on the BBC website, thanks to a pretty nothingy post I wrote about it one time. It has 33 comments.
Another thing is that quite a few people get here by searching for ‘Laurence Cottle transcription’ (brave souls), which is the kind of visit I’d prefer to encourage. So…
Here’s a transcription — the hideously fiddly yet actually quite listenable bass part from Laurence Cottle’s ‘Quite Firm’. There’s a few versions of the track on his website, a couple on the big band album and a small band one from ‘Live!’. I’ve used the Live! version as a template and transcribed the head. It’s really good writing, fits in brilliantly with the horn lines and in a perverse sort of way falls quite nicely under the fingers — definitely a bass player’s line. Here’s the PDF:
And here’s a clip of me just about getting through the A and B sections (playing along to the ‘Bonus’ version from big band album, because the Live! one is out of tune with A=440Hz):
Some background info and assorted media (further down) from Tour 2012.
Leeds University Union Big (formerly Dance) Band, which I play bass for and used to MD, just got back from the annual tour of France. This involves going to the same campsite near Bergerac every year, which is nice because it means the gigs we play around the area are always sold out.
Matt Yardley and George Millard are MD-ing from lead trumpet and lead alto respectively this year and have taken this year’s talented group of musicians further than I imagined the band would ever go musically, so well done them. Recordings featuring them are further down this post.
What has been most fortunate though is that this happened to coincide with the presidency of James Kelsall who has done more, and done it better, than any performance-group-leader I’ve ever met. At last year’s AGM, dressed up in period drama costumes on tour, he had two ambitious aims: record a studio album, go and play at the North Sea Jazz Festival. The CD, ‘Swingin[g] from the Treehouse’ is now becoming available, and in July we’re going to play at North Sea. Along the way we’ve also recorded music and video for ITV’s upcoming drama Mrs Biggs and on 12th May we’re bringing the very famous Liane Carroll to Leeds for a gig. It’s all pretty amazing and makes me very glad to have happened to be studying at Leeds this year. Well done JK!
Here are some bootleg recordings from my phone and a few videos from tour.
Concerto for cootie — matt yardley, trumpet
Lovely Ellington chart, very very carefully arranged and excellently played. 2:39 onwards is pretty cry-y.
bei mir bist du schon — george millard, clarinet
Funny sort of dance hall style chart, the kind where on the video all the musicians’ bodies and smiling faces are perfectly stationary apart from e.g. drummer’s arm or conductor’s hands.
Samantha — George Millard, alto sax
(Featuring George on his main instrument.) Eyeshadow is even more fitting on this tune for some reason.
BBC Grandstand — arr. jj williamson
An arrangement I did a while ago to test out Sibelius 7 Sounds, finally finding use as a way to provide nostalgia for British ex-pats.
Under the sea — arr. jj williamson
I arranged this as a special request for a sea themed ball we did. Jamie Lambert’s vocals manage to be completely authentic without being racist at all.
Almost like being in love
Arrangement as done by Natalie Cole, and one of my favourite songs ever. Vocals from Loucin Moskofian.
Power ballad time. Corine Sheratte singing, George Millard on sax again.
Cheese and carrots
Brilliant band chart. George Millard on alto again (my dad seems to prefer videoing tunes with him soloing), and Ciaran Diston on trumpet. Hugely appropriate tritone substitution at the end, well done me. Also featuring my dad and little sister arguing about who has the dubious privilege of holding the iPad.
I used to be in a very nice band called Neon Kicks. It featured Chloe Elliott on drums, Natalie Graham singing and Rob Peck playing bass, and I was playing quite an old but good keyboard on which, in a near-perfect reflection of our music, the pitch shift wheel eventually broke due to overuse.
Rob is also quite clever with computers and synths and DJing, and I’ve recently been listening to some of his work. There are some nice long mixes which I’ve found very good for doing work to, and in particular there’s a great tune called Any One which I think (think) might be a Philip Glass remix — only because Rob told me he was working on one and this seems like it might be it [edit: now I don’t think it is, and can’t remember whether Rob told me otherwise..].
It’s one of those things which, as well as being good to listen to, has obviously identifiable musical peculiarities which it’s nice to go on about to your friends. In this case, I love the extra 2 beats on the leading tone which break up the harmonic movement but are smoothed over rhythmically by thumping electro-crotchetz. I also love the way the whole thing is just 3 notes over gradually more exploratory and wandering chords. It’s great.
Since recently discovering that my phone is resistant to water and very loud, I’ve taken to listening to music in the shower. Not owning a purpose-built bathroom audio appliance, the only other option is to open the door through to the kitchen and use that whole room as a sort of giant speaker.
Now, songs are different lengths, and so are showertimes…. so:
- Very short shower (late for work or conserving water): Melt Banana’s cover of Kraftwerk’s ‘Showroom Dummies’
- 3-minute pop shower: erm, McFly?
- Efficient weekday big band shower: ‘Manteca’, as played by the GRP All-Star Big Band
- Scary shower: ‘Shed’, by Meshuggah
- Medium length sophisto-shower: First movement of the Dvorak Cello Concerto
- Latin Jazz shower with an extended live intro: Michel Camilo’s Caribe
- Brilliant shower if you’ve got time: An aged Horowtiz playing Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto
- Normal shower
I’m aware that even by the standards of a blog where the first proper post was a picture of some pasta, this is kind of inane.
I’ve just finished an arrangement of Elgar/Parry’s lovely socialist hymn, ‘Jerusalem’. This somewhat confused adaptation was part of a last minute effort by Steve Wright and myself to provide patriotic material for one of the gigs on LUU Dance Band’s 2011 tour of France — the gig happened to fall on St George’s Day, so the enthusiastic and numerous ex-pat community of Bergerac had requested that Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory be played that night. We forgot about it until a week before the tour, during which Steve was very busy with other things, and fun ensued.
I hope soon to upload an export or recording of Steve’s wonderful jazz-waltz setting (yes) of the latter tune, but for now here is an export of Jerusalem using the Sibelius 7 Sounds library.
Due to a minor bug and the fact that it was made in Sibelius 6 originally (I think), the inbuilt export chopped off a few notes, so I used the terrifying and excellent Audio Hijack Pro, a great Mac application that is able to steal the audio from any program and record it to a file.
Paul Gambaccini’s Radio 4 show ‘For One Night Only‘ is quite a rare thing: a radio show about (rather than playing) music that manages to avoid being joyless, self-indulgent and too long. Perhaps it helps that each episode is built around a specific historical event — usually, and in this case, a live concert. This helps to keep things focused and grounded, and there’s much less of the conceptual tangent-wandering you sometimes get with programmes about the arts.
The episode I’m talking about is this one from 2008. It looks back at the BBC Prom of 21st August 1968, when (Russian) Rostropovich and the (Soviet) USSR State Symphony Orchestra played (Czech) Antonin Dvorak’s Cello Concerto, amid protests in London and calls for the concert to be cancelled. Why? Because, that day, Russian tanks had invaded Czechoslovakia.
I would have loved to see Rostropovich play at any time, but this really would have been something else. It is often said that music, sport, culture in general, can and should be kept separate from politics. This concert is a powerful counterexample. Shouting in the audience, protestors outside, tanks in Czechoslovakia, and on the stage a tearful Rostropovich playing the music in such a way as to make it ‘completely clear whose side he was on’.
The CD is available on BBC Legends, here, and now I’m going to buy it. But there’s a final, poetic sadness. On the recording that survives, the shouts of protest from some in the audience as the music begins have been removed. I’d take the original any day, sullied and tainted as it was by the low politics and human tragedies of its time. Just as live music should be.