“Hearing protection is for sissies,” says my guitar playing friend Pete. He casually signs the internationally understood words for “earplug” and “feather weight” in my direction. Years of thunderous nights in tiny clubs have left him aurally impotent. It’s sad to see. With proper ear protection, his life may have turned out differently.
There is an ever increasing number of deaf musicians in America—modern day Beethovens hitting their instruments harder and harder, in hopes of squeezing out just a little more tone. They will strain to hear their music over the ever-present high pitch scream of tinnitus. Many will give up their quest for rock stardom and turn to silent pursuits, while those who learned to deal with the hassle of wearing ear protection play on, hearing and self-esteem intact.
The Science of Hearing Loss
If you play too loud for too long, you will go deaf. And all of us play too loud. By too loud, I mean above 90 dB. Most rock bands easily pass the 110 dB threshold and stay there all night. To put that into perspective, that’s jack hammer volume. Sustained volume of only 85 dB for as little as eight hours will cause permanent damage.
To put it bluntly, you have a choice: Hearing protection now or hearing aids later. If you want to play into your golden years, listen up. We took some of the world’s most popular earplugs out for a completely unscientific test drive in the field, literally.
The Field Test
I love my tractor, followed closely by my chainsaw—two magnificent rip-roaring machines with the power to make your auditory membranes null and void.
First, I tried a pair of industrial strength MSA Safety Works earplugs with a 31 dB noise reduction rating “when used as directed.” They come in fluorescent orange and green, very classy. Truth be told, if you don’t wear them “as directed” you’ll look a little dorky. It is very uncool to have those bright spongy nubs sticking out from the side of your head on a gig. Besides looking like Shrek, they won’t work worth a darn like that, either.
Earplugs properly installed, I fired up my tractor. After three hours of mowing, I stopped to check my hearing. I was pleasantly surprised by the sound of wind in the leaves and birds chirping. And the results were the same for Hearos Xtreme Protection earplugs, a wide variety of Uline plugs, and the 3M Classic Foam plugs. All of these brands are washable and reusable. TIP: Leave them in your pocket and let them run through the wash. It works.
I did not like any of the corded devices (earplugs on a string). Reminds me of idiot mittens, and hanging a pair of used earplugs around your neck is disgusting. Do not even think about using them on a gig. You’ll look stupid. And you’ll feel stupid when you hook a guitar peg under the cord and yank a dangling plug out of your ear. I also do not recommend Peltor Delux Earmuffs either.
I did try a pair of those “musician friendly” brands. They claim to filter out all the bad sounds and leave in all the good sounds. There’s a bunch out there. I chose EARasers. Fit and insertion are important, but it’s easy. They come in three sizes. And there’s a little plastic string that sticks out for easy removal. The surgical plastic is clear and they all but disappear when inserted. Nice!
It didn’t sound like I was getting much blockage. In fact, when I started the tractor I swear I heard all 26 horses. Halfway through my run I caught site of the little missus. I stopped and throttled down. I distinctly heard her asking if she could bring me a nice cold beer. Sweet! I might have missed that with the classic foam jobbies. Even so, with only a 19 dB noise reduction rating, I think I’d still recommend industrial strength ear protection when working with machinery.
Band Practice and On Stage
I couldn’t stand using any of the standard earplugs at band practice or on the gig. It was very hard to hear the nuances of my tone. And although I could hear my own voice quite nicely, I couldn’t hear anybody else clearly at all, particularly speech. The musicians’ earplugs, on the other hand, performed beyond my wildest expectations. Singing, talking, listening to conversations, and playing all felt very natural.
I also field-tested all these plugs onstage, backstage, and in the audience. The EARasers were top dog everywhere, except in front of the PA system. Sorry, nothing works out there. It’s a no man’s land.
Keep Them Handy
By the way, sooner or later you’ll get caught in some dynamic disco with DJ Dan cranking his awfulness to beyond painful. For this reason, keep cheap sets of earplugs tucked away in your car, purse, and jacket pocket, at all times.