Whether you’re jamming with a garage band or playing stadiums, it’s essential to protect your hearing. Our hearing is one of our most valuable tools we have as musicians, and once it’s gone it’s gone for good. In fact, if you leave a gig with your ears ringing, permanent damage has already been done to your hearing. Furthermore, if you constantly expose yourself to excessively loud volumes over a long period of time, you may develop Tinnitus, which is a constant ringing in your ears. In severe cases, that ringing may turn into buzzing, humming, or even singing sounds. Any kind of additional voices in your head is definitely something you want to avoid.
Earplugs are one of the simplest, most cost-effective ways to ensure your hearing stays with you for the long haul. There are options to fit any budget and preference.
A box of common foam earplugs is available for around $5 at the local drug store and will suffice for band rehearsals or if you are an audience member at a show. These can be used a few times before needing to be discarded and are very inexpensive, but may muffle midrange and high frequencies. Casual concertgoers and weekend warriors may find these to work just fine, but the cut in certain frequencies may be a deal breaker for more serious musicians.
High Fidelity Earplugs:
These dual or triple-flange designs are catered towards DJs, touring musicians, pro audio technicians, or pretty much anyone who wants an earplug that keeps more of the original sound intact and offers a flatter level of attenuation. Compared to foam earplugs, these are much more expensive, but last longer and can be reused over and over.
A high-end option is to go to an audiologist and have custom earplugs made. The audiologist will take an impression of your ears and create earplugs to fit them exactly, ensuring a high level of comfort. These are often made of high-quality rubber or silicone and can be adjusted to provide specific levels of attenuation.
Noise Reduction Ratings
While earplugs are pretty straightforward, when choosing the right pair you should consider its NRR (Noise Reduction Rating). This is always listed on the packaging and indicates how much, in decibels, the sound is reduced while using them. For example if you were at a show that was putting out 110 dB of sound at your listening point these 33dB NRR rated ear plugs would put the show at 77dB for you.
OSHA's permissible exposure for an 8 hour day at work is 90dBA. The “A” means A weighted – this is where the listening sensitivity of the ear is used to set the dB sensitivity. They lower the time in half every 5dB increase in sound level, so at a 110dBA show you could only safely listen for 30 minutes.
Here is the math: Time = 480 / 2 (110dB-90dB)/5 = 30 minutes
Reducing your 110dB show to 77dB, with the 33dB NRR plugs, lets you enjoy the whole show.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recommends 85dBA for 8 hours and changes the reduction of time by half every 3dB increase in sound level. This would put that 110dB concert at only 15 minutes. The 5 in the math above is changed to a 3 for the NIOSH math.
Do note the earplugs may not have equal frequency reduction, so, if you are at a bass heavy show and setting near the subs, your earplug may not have the same 33dB reduction in the sub frequencies needed to be as safe.
Making Adjustments With Your Earplugs In: Over Compensating
Wearing earplugs is not really a license to crank your amp, and making adjustments to your amp or the PA could put everyone else in a bad mix or worst in danger of hearing damage. You need to get used to the change in sound, especially going the budget route on the earplugs. If you are a sound guy, then you really need to know what has changed and you should probably go with the more expensive ear plugs. If your shows are not extremely loud - under 95dB at the board, then you can start the show for a few songs to get the mix set and put the plugs in for the rest of the night.
Note: If you remove earplugs during the show it will not sound correct for a little while. This is due to your brain adjusting for the plugs, so be cautious adjusting EQ settings and levels in this state.
If one member of the band is wearing 33dB NRR plugs and the rest are using 20dB NRR plugs, then you will have a listening issue. This especially gets tricky with bands playing at lower levels, where you could do a 2 hour practice without plugs inside the safe zone, but if one player uses plugs they will over compensate and play louder. This may raise the band’s level over the safe zone and cause some damage to the other players. This is solved by agreeing on the levels and earplug styles.
If you aren’t using earplugs yet, they should be your next gear investment! If you’re new to using earplugs you may feel a little self-conscious, but rest assured, countless musicians use them and no one will judge you. And, you’ll get many more years out of your hearing and music career.