Ear plugs are likely a good idea for anybody performing amplified music (or even enjoying amplified music). But what is the effect on the ability to hear your fellow musicians when playing in a collaborative setting (i.e. a rock band)? Has anybody found this to be a burden? Are there specific ear plugs that are made to protect one's hearing and yet maintain some level of detail in the sound?
I write from personal experience -- I now always wear earplugs as an audience member in big gigs.
When music is very loud, it impairs your ability to hear detail. Pitch and even rhythm become difficult to discern.
At a certain level of loudness, your brain "fills in" the detail. This is why it's a good idea to play demo tapes loud to A&R men, but keep the monitors at a moderate level when mastering. If the music is loud enough, the brain reassembles bad singing into what it thinks it wants to hear - natural autotune. However that's not good news for the musician -- what sounds good the guitarist standing next to his up-to-eleven amp, might sound horrible to someone further away -- or on the recording.
At levels a bit louder than that, or with sustained exposure to loud music, the brain can get completely overwhelmed, and fail to discern much except the basic pulse of the rhythm. I have experienced this many times -- the music is so loud that I can't discern individual instruments; I can't understand lyrics; I can't spot a tune. Putting my fingers in my ears fixes everything.
Go even louder, and even the rhythm can become garbled.
It should be noted that even if the music isn't so loud as to distort in the ear/brain, it may still be causing permanent damage to your hearing.
Earplugs are the solution. Wearing earplugs when the music is loud should let you hear more detail, not less.
The cheapest earplugs are disposable foam ones designed as a sleep aid, or for ear protection in noisy environments like factories. They do the job OK, but they are designed for safety, not for music fidelity. They do not block frequencies evenly, tending to let more bass through than mid and treble.
Earplugs designed for music tend not to be disposable. They are described as being for music on their packaging, and are designed to attenuate frequencies evenly. If you find them uncomfortable, it may be worth spending extra for a pair custom made for your ears.
There are a couple of issues with earplugs, related to the fact that they don't block your own voice:
It may be possible to get stage levels quiet enough that you don't need plugs. If you're a drummer on an acoustic kit, you're going to need ear protection. Otherwise, the stage doesn't have to be as loud as the auditorium.
When I practice with my band, and when we do gigs, I always wear earplugs. It does not affect the ability to hear details in the music, to hear what the other band members are doing. Everybody else in the band always wears theirs. I use the earplugs that are sold at music shops (such as Guitar Center). (I don't use all-purpose foam earplugs.)
Edit: I would like to add that I use the "Earasers" brand ear plugs. They fit snugly, unobtrusive and seem to do the job.
I use ear plugs and the frequency range I'm hearing shrinks. I don't hear highs and lows as clear as I would without them. But I protect my hearing and it is worth it. Lowering stage volume and good monitoring system (in ear) will help if you choose no ear plugs.
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Yes, those kind of earplugs are called flat-response attenuators (or more informally musicians earplugs), meaning that the frequency response that follows the shape of the natural frequency response of the open ear, but at a reduced level.):
Since every ear is different (we can identify an individual by using his ear print), you need to get custom-fitted earplugs. Typically, this involves meeting an audiologist who will take your ear print, send it to some ear plug manufacturer, then testing the earplug with you to make sure that the fitting is good (it is not that uncommon to have fitting issues) using some speech map:
Bad fit on left ear, good on right ear, on a 25 dB attenuator (or, like in this case, issue during the measurement):
Good fit on a 25 dB attenuator:
Bad fit on a 15 DB attenuator (or, like in this case, issue during the measurement):
Those speech maps were generated using Verifit.
Here are two of my pairs. As you can see, the left one is smaller than the right one. Different manufacturer = different quality.
Once you have a pair of custom-fitted flat-response attenuators, you can swap the filters. Filters determine the dB reduction. I personally have 3 pairs (9, 15, and 25 dB) so as to adapt to the venue.
You can go even farther and use some in-ear monitors, but in this case, I highly advise to take one with dB monitoring to make sure you don't set the level too loud.
As for the feeling, it is much more comfortable when I dj. Since my ears aren't blown by some subwoofers, high frequencies or headphone surprises, I feel the earplugs enhance the perceived sound quality, it is easier to communicate with other people around, and after the event I feel more rested than if I didn't have any earplug.
To conclude, a good pair of earplugs can have a big effect on ability to hear the music, and that's a positive one.
I wear earplugs when I have to perform or attend in loud venues. The problem with earplugs is that I lose more of the highs than the mids or lows.
I use hi-fidelity earplugs that let me hear frequencies better. These have no substantial effect on my ability to perform, although my fun factor goes down a teensy bit.
Examples of hi-fi earplugs can be found at: http://www.etymotic.com/hp/
I used to DJ (well, still do, but not as frequently), and wearing ear plugs used to impede my ability to beat match. I still heard the beat, but all the finer points of the track (including the higher frequency stuff), felt "muddled" compared to open air listening, making it harder to identify the phrases in the song.
This was experienced even with high quality "practice/stage performance" ear plugs.
That said, it is probably a good idea to wear them, as sustained exposure to loud music (as with DJing) will likely damage your hearing in the long term to some degree. It might of been the case of me just not giving myself enough time to adjust to them, and if I had done that it would of begun to feel normal.