Protect Your Hearing
Hearing protection is an important consideration for all musicians. Since drummers are exposed to some of the loudest sounds, they need to take special care to protect their hearing.
Damaged hearing can not be repaired. The only way to preserve your hearing is to protect your ears from loud sounds. Genetics plays a role in how durable your ears are and in how your hearing will naturally last during your lifetime. Most adults will acquire some hearing loss as they age.
Hearing loss can end a musician’s career. It can also make daily living difficult. Here’s how I protect my ears. NR = Noise Reduction (higher is better)
DISPOSABLE EAR PLUGS: Never leave home without them. How to Use Ear Plugs
NR: 5 – 33 dB
Cost: 20¢ / pair
Use disposable foam ear plugs like the ones used in factories and work sites. They provide the best noise reduction and are inconspicuous. They are available in a variety of colors and sizes. Visit Conney Safety Products, Grainger or Amazon to purchase them. Try several sizes and brands to find the best fit. When you find the ones you like, buy a box of them. I buy a box of 200 pair, which lasts several years, for about $40.
Foam ear plugs are disposable. I usually get a week out of one pair. After several uses, they lose their ability to block sound – throw them away. If they get dirty or ear waxy – throw them away. I keep fresh pairs stashed in important places: in the car, back-pack, briefcase; things that I often have with me. I often carry a small pouch that fits in my pocket. I always get the highest dB ear plugs, usually 33dB. Disposable ear plugs are the best overall ear savers. My favorite is Howard Leight MAX-1. They are larger than some, so can cause discomfort after extended use. I suggest buying small packages until you find a style that is comfortable. Howard Leight makes smaller version, Howard Leight Max SMALL. You can also find some variety packs for sampling.
EAR MUFFS: Great for practicing at home.
NR: 15 – 30 dB
When practicing drum set at home, I wear earplugs along with these for the ultimate protection. Ear muffs are quicker to put on than foam earplugs. They are especially useful when you need to take them off and on frequently, like during drum lessons. Ear pads eventually wear out and need to be replaced in order to effectively block sound. Ear muffs will easily last 10 years. I currently use the 3M Peltor Optime 105.
My drum students’ favorite ear muffs are the 3M Peltor X-Series 27dB. They look great, perform nearly as well as the 105, and are less bulky.
MUSICIAN’S EAR FILTERS: Custom molded, professional ear plugs.
NR: 5 – 25 dB
Cost: $100 – $200
Designed for critical listening environments and lower volumes. Musician’s ear filters block sound equally on all frequencies so it’s easier to hear quiet instruments and understand voices. Foam ear plugs and ear muffs block high frequencies more than low. This makes it difficult to understand voices and to hear violins. Musician’s ear plugs are intended for use when playing in an orchestra or a similar setting where the volumes can fluctuate from very quiet to loud, or when the ability to hear speaking is necessary. If you are only practicing at home or in rock bands, you don’t need these expensive ear plugs; just use the heavy-duty stuff described above.
To purchase musician’s ear filters, you need to visit an audiologist. They will test your hearing and create a mold of your ear canal. A specialized company will make the custom-fit ear plug. You’ll return for a second visit to make sure they fit, and learn how to use them. It will take a few weeks to receive the ear plugs, so plan ahead. You’ll have up to 90 days to try them. If they don’t fit properly, they’ll make you new ones at no extra cost.
The Sheboygan Clinic has an excellent audiologist, Kristin A. Nytes, who is very knowledgeable of musician’s ear protection. Musician’s ear plugs will cost $100 – $200, including the audiologist visit. Health insurance may cover some of the cost. They will last for years, though you may need to replace the interchangeable filters if they get wet or lost. You may outgrow these as the size and shape of your ear canal changes.
Update: I recently discovered Earasers Musicians Plugs, which are a 19 dB filter, similar to custom-molded filters. Because they are not custom-molded, you’ll need to select the proper size. I’m not sure how to determine proper size, so do some research before purchasing.
IN-EAR MONITORS: Custom molded noise reduction with monitoring.
NR: 5 – 28 dB
In-ear monitors (IEM) are custom-molded for your ear canal. They are like musician’s ear filters, but more bulky (good for blocking sound). They contain tiny speakers, like ear buds, but are designed to block out sound. Alien Ears is one of many brands of in-ear monitors.
COTTON OR TISSUE: Only for emergencies.
NR: few dB
Cost: Permanent Hearing Damage
If you find yourself exposed to loud sounds unexpectedly, plug your ears. Get away from the sound source. If you can’t leave, find a way to protect your ears. Don’t be afraid to plug your ears. It’s not worth permanently damaging your hearing because you’re trying to be polite.
Always carry some form of ear protection. Bring earplugs to movies, concerts, and bars. I use earplugs when mowing the lawn, vacuuming, highway driving, using saws, hammers, and tools. I’m not afraid to plug my ears when quick ear protection is needed.
Use caution when the wearing of hearing protection prevents you to hear your surroundings. Don’t forget; listening to earbuds and headphones can easily expose your ears to damaging sound levels.
Protect Your Hearing! Once it’s gone, it doesn’t come back.
An article from Matt Dean with details about ear mechanics and sound levels.
H.E.A.R non-profit organization providing resources for musicians and music enthusiasts.
B.T.A. (British Tinnitus Association) Tinnitus is ringing ears and is a common symptom of hearing damage.