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Earplugs 101

Hearing Protection for Musicians

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Earplugs 101

Westone ES49 Musician's Earplugs

Courtesy Westone Laboratories
As a musician or audio engineer, I'm sure you've got your tools that you prefer using to perfect your craft on a day-by-day basis. Aside from all the great gear you've acquired, you've got one really invaluable instrument that you use every day: your ears. Unlike the rest of your gear, when your ears break down, you can't just go to Guitar Center and buy a new set. And as we previously talked about, conserving your hearing (and understanding how it works) is extremely important.

Recently, a good friend of mine -- a very talented guitar player -- started telling me about the tinnitus in his right ear. And I couldn't help but think that his situation would've been a lot different if he'd started recognizing the value of his ears before learning the value of loud volume with his amp. Earplugs would've changed his outlook.

I know, I know -- it's not cool to wear earplugs, right? Well, losing your hearing isn't cool. Unfortunately, even exposure to an extremely loud concert for a period of three hours can be enough to cause lasting damage to your hearing -- in fact, according to OSHA, 115db is acceptable for only 15 minutes of exposure. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind, some concert PA systems are designed -- and requested, by the band -- to be able to hit 120db, at the mix position halfway through the room!

Arguments against earplugs

Many older musicians act as if their hearing loss is a badge of honor; however, chances are as they're bragging, they're also shouting and asking you to speak up. Besides the "cool factor", another argument against protecting your hearing is that that you'll be missing a lot of the show by wearing earplugs. Unfortunately, using foam or wax earplugs WILL cause a significant reduction in the high and mid frequencies, as, for the most part, they're causing your ear canal to be cut off from the outside world. You'll be limited to hearing mainly tactile frequencies -- the low end that you can feel via induction through the bones to your eardrum.

Musician's earplugs

Musician's earplugs are designed very simply -- the earplugs are vented and filtered using small diaphragms to allow attenuation evenly across the frequency spectrum, reducing the volume while still allowing you to hear relatively undistorted sound signature with decent response across the spectrum. These allow you to hear all the notes clearly, without the high decibel level.

For musician's earplugs, you've got a couple options. They're on opposite ends of the spectrum, based on their cost and availability.

Etymotic Research invented and manufactures the musician's hi-fi earplug. You can purchase universal-fit versions of their earplugs for around $15, marketed by Etymotic, Hearos, Mack's, or any number of other companies.
Another option is custom-molded musician's earplugs. This is the best option for professionals in the music business -- a custom-molded, soft silicone shell with the Etymotic filter in place. These will run you around $150, plus audiologist's fees for the ear impressions (a quick, painless process). These will offer the best protection and durability, but have a high start-up cost. You'll also need to change your molds -- at a cost of about $75 -- after a few years, or after any weight gain or loss. Companies like Sensaphonics, ACS, and Westone all make great versions of the Etymotic Earplugs.

Whatever you do, protect your hearing -- you'll be very glad you did. Having a long career in the music business, whether as a pro or a weekend warrior, is only possible with healthy, functioning ears.

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