Safeguard your greatest musical asset by selecting the right hearing protection

Who can forget fictional rocker Nigel Tufnel’s hysterical scene in This Is Spinal Tap, boasting his amp’s volume knob goes to 11? In reality, such ear-splitting decibels are no laughing matter. Performing night after night without hearing protection can be perilous, often causing relentless ringing ears—known as tinnitus, the inability to discern frequencies, and the threat of permanent hearing loss.

But the news isn’t all bad. A wide variety of noise protection devices—from custom-molded earplugs to fully integrated in-ear monitors—can help musicians of all stripes put on a great show and still hear whispers the next day.

Even if you’ve never worn an earplug in your life and your hearing is already impaired, renowned New York audiologist Dominick Servedio says, “It’s never too late to start protecting what you’ve got left.” Servedio, consultant to notables from all corners of the music world, joins veteran monitor engineer Kevin “Tater” McCarthy—who’s worked with Kid Rock, Linkin Park and Slash—to offer sound advice on the best ways to defend against ear-damaging volume.

How important is hearing protection?

SERVEDIO: We’re talking about protecting your most important commodity—your hearing. If you can’t hear it, you ain’t gonna play it. It’s well worth it to get an initial evaluation for a baseline, and then to get the protection that best meets your needs.

What types of protection are available to musicians?

SERVEDIO: There are two common levels of protection. Musicians’ earplugs are custom-molded to fit inside the ear canal and feature interchangeable filters designed to have the frequency response stay as pure as possible. The other segment is in-ear monitors. You get the benefit of ear protection and a feed from the soundboard so you can hear what the other musicians are doing. Both musicians’ earplugs and in-ear monitors are generally custom-made to ensure a good, comfortable seal. You can jump around onstage, feel safe and not worry about them falling out.

MCCARTHY: A lot of touring bands, like Kid Rock, use in-ear monitors—but it varies from group to group. When I’m on tour with Linkin Park, singer Chester Bennington uses in-ears, but we also use big, over-the-ear headset “gun muffs” from a company called Peltor. Brad Delson, the band’s guitarist, plays with drugstore foam earplugs and the Peltors on top. He has extremely sensitive hearing, and he’s as protected as anybody I’ve ever seen.

How does he hear enough to play?

MCCARTHY: He’s trained himself to listen like that—and in the long run, he probably won’t have any hearing loss even after thousands of very loud shows. Eric Singer, the drummer for Kiss, loves gun muffs as well. When he was with Alice Cooper he would put them on when it was his time to solo. A lot of people don’t like how those things look but I always recommend them for drummers.

What about foam earplugs?

SERVEDIO: A lot of musicians start with disposable foam plugs. The downside is that they will distort the music, so they’ll say, “I can’t play with this. If this is what I’ve got to deal with, I’d rather have no protection and take my chances.” It’s often better to invest and get musicians’ earplugs from the start.

Which do you recommend?

SERVEDIO: There are many different labs that make an impression of the ear and manufacture ear molds, but the filters come from Etymotic Research. They typically last three or four years—not because they wear out but because as we get older the cartilage in our ears wears away, so there’s more space. It’s important to replace them if they no longer fit snuggly.

MCCARTHY: Sensaphonics makes great musician-style earplugs with changeable attenuators—those are the ones I use. JH Audio makes great ones as well.

What about in-ears?

MCCARTHY: In-ear monitors originally came about to help you hear everything during a show, but they help by blocking out ambient noise, too. But if you turn up your in-ears, you can still hurt your hearing. I see young musicians either use them primarily as earplugs and then bring in the sonic elements they need to perform, or they want a full-on studio mix and crank the volume. Obviously, the first way is better.

SERVEDIO: I’ve had bands come in that never wanted hearing protection, but they grudgingly get fitted with high-end in-ear monitors. With one group, I got a frantic call three months later saying that the box containing the in-ears had vanished. The lead singer told me how attached they’d gotten to them. Not only did the monitors help them perform better, but they knew they were also doing themselves a good deed. Every time we upgrade a group from floor wedges to in-ears, the talent is always very resistant, but they come around.

How should you use in-ears correctly?

MCCARTHY: Slash’s lead singer, Myles Kennedy, is very concerned about his hearing. When he doesn’t need to hear, even for a minute, he mutes the sound so the monitors become earplugs. Slash plays a two-hour set, so with a performance that long, anything you can do to give your ears a break is good. I do the same thing when I’m engineering with Judas Priest. When I know I don’t have much to do for a certain song, I take my listening volume down by half.

What about electronic earplugs?

MCCARTHY: I’ve worked with some earplugs that have mics built in. You can turn them on to have some level of ambient noise filtered in at a lower level. We tried them with Chester from Linkin Park, but after the first song, his sweat leaked in and the mics stopped working, so I’m not a huge fan.

SERVEDIO: You can get filters that have compression circuitry, but those tend to be more for hunters or shooters. When there’s a sudden blast, the circuit has a very quick onset time to reduce the sound, and then it turns off very quickly as well. You can get those circuits added on to in-ear monitors or earplugs, but more often than not the nonelectronic filters will do the trick just as well.

Do musicians need protection when not playing?

MCCARTHY: I use them throughout the day. My ears can get more fatigued during load-in and load-out than during a show. The floor noise when we’re setting up is very loud, so I’ll put in custom-molded earplugs, and sometimes even put the Peltors on top of them.

SERVEDIO: A lot of hearing damage gets done by stock earbuds that come with MP3 players. Because the fit is so poor, the wearer tries to mask the subway, the street or other people talking, and they increase the volume. I recommend getting custom shells for your earbuds.

Have attitudes about hearing protection changed?

MCCARTHY: Many bands weren’t thinking about it until the last 10 years, but there’s much more awareness about it now. A lot of venues even sell earplugs to the audience, which is great.

SERVEDIO: Resistance to good hearing protection isn’t at the high end anymore. It’s mostly entry-level bands trying to watch the bottom dollar who shy away from getting the right hearing protection in place.

–Michael Gallant

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