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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?

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I thought they used IEMs (In Ear Monitors) to both drown out the noise and hear their fellow musicians? mixonline.com/live/applications/audio_ear –  Lee Kowalkowski Jul 23 at 14:49
I assume IEMs are useful as well, but if I don't have access to them, then ear plugs seem to be a good solution. –  Ryan Kinal Jul 23 at 19:12

7 Answers 7

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:

  • singing along doesn't really work -- from your own perspective, you drown out the music
  • talking to other people is odd -- it doesn't feel as if you need to shout, but for them to hear you, you do.

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.

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As far as "singing along" goes, do you have any experience with harmonizing while using earplugs? Do you find it difficult, perhaps in particular when matching volume? –  Ryan Kinal Jul 23 at 19:54
As an audience member I find that singing along feels odd because I can hear my own voice so clearly rather than feeling part of a crowd. Googling around, singers seem to say that earplugs are helpful but take some practice. –  slim Jul 24 at 8:54
I recently made the jump to custom earplugs and although they are relatively pricey, they are absolutely pitch perfect- there is no discernible loss of detail anywhere on the frequency range, it is just all quieter. My voice is still oddly loud, obviously, but aside from that I cannot recommend them strongly enough for any musician. They make a massive difference. –  glenatron Jul 24 at 11:04
If everybody should have earplugs, it makes me wonder why the music is amplified so much... –  Gabe Jul 24 at 17:22
@Gabe audiences like to be overwhelmed. As described, loudness covers up imperfections. Even with earplugs in, a loud bass will whack you in the chest. And, loud music drowns out annoying people who chat through gigs. –  slim Jul 25 at 9:01

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.

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This has to beg the question - when you practise, why do you play so loudly that plugs become necessary ? –  Tim Jul 23 at 19:02
Actually, this question was prompted in part because I was worried about my ears after last night's practice. –  Ryan Kinal Jul 23 at 19:11
In a small rehearsal room with acoustic drums, and everyone else turned up to match the drummer, it can be loud enough to justify plugs. –  slim Jul 23 at 19:19
Exactly what @slim said. Small space. Acoustic drums. Big amps. –  Ryan Kinal Jul 23 at 19:52

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.

this site can help with ear plugs and maintaining details: check out http://www.etymotic.com/hp/erme.html

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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/

enter image description here

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Are there specific ear plugs that are made to protect one's hearing and yet maintain some level of detail in the sound?

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.):

enter image description here


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):

enter image description here

Good fit on a 25 dB attenuator:

enter image description here

Bad fit on a 15 DB attenuator (or, like in this case, issue during the measurement):

enter image description here

Those speech maps were generated using Verifit.

enter image description here

Here are two of my pairs. As you can see, the left one is smaller than the right one. Different manufacturer = different quality.

enter image description here

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.

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Excellent description. –  Michael Martinez Jul 25 at 17:18

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.

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I have heard this phrase duplicated so often, that I don't think anybody gives it a second thought anymore…..

"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.):"

"follows the shape of the natural frequency response of the open ear" is that part where I don't understand makes any sense. It implies that at some point, someone did those Verifit curves that you show above, and graphed out the ear's natural resonance…..say at 65dB SPL, correct? And, that shape of the ear canal, at a 65dB SPL Input, which produces a certain effect in the brain regarding loudness across frequencies, is the shape that all loud music should adhere to? Am I ok so far?

But, we all know that our ears are not linear. As we turn up the volume control, we become more sensitive to differing frequencies. Loudness Growth (Fletcher Munson) right? Most audio engineers are still with us on that one.

So, the assumption here, or the one that this "follows the shape of the natural frequency response of the open ear", is that what sounds "normal" to the normal ear canal resonance, and at normal speaking volumes, would sound normal, using wide bandwidth composite signals such as music, and with the intensity of a loud environment?

I want my loud music to sound loud, just to not hurt or cause damage. Loud music sounds different than conversational speech, and it sounds different at different levels. Put it another, simpler way….."If I liked the way things sounded with an open ear canal resonance…..why in the world would I need earplugs?" We need the earplugs EXACTLY for the reason that our open ear resonance does not sound good at loud inputs. It clips our uncomfortable limits at different frequencies, and at different intensities which do not match the open ear resonance. A flat attenuator would only make loud music sound normal, if the response curve of your discrete UCL's matched the natural ear canal resonance AND we were attenuating enough to bring the SPLs below UCL. Input + Attenuation + Ear canal resonance = SPL at the eardrum.

Sure, we are trying to protect our hearing, but the physiological truth here is that the open canal resonance is not being "followed" at all. Once you have a resonating cavity, and you change all the parameters….especially intensity, and then you put a filter in the way, especially if it begins to occupy the outer part of the ear, and the pinnae effect changes, your ability to locate also changes. Most filters occupy the outer part of the ear, or at least block some sound to the pinnae. I also don't understand how those triple flange filters "teach" sound to only go down the center of that tube where the filter is…..is that magic? I mean, what keeps sound from going around the filter / stick portion and entering the ear through the flanges? When the attenuation testing is done….it is usually done using thresholds and pure tone stimulus. Music is composite, and location cues are critical. I have seen studies that show musicians have a greater ability to locate in noise. We can't take that for granted. Ok, I digress.

Again, how important is "following the ear canal resonance" when that resonance was designed for the primary benefit of amplifying speech, in particularly speech between (1KHz-6KHz)? This is the unvoiced range of consonants…..eg…(whispering "there's a bear over there!" Our ears weren't designed for the post industrial revolution Les Paul / Marshal amp era. (My apologies to the Creator, as He must have had a plan for a better earplug….revealed below).

I humbly suggest, that comparing the natural ear response at conversational level, and saying that shape should yield an acceptable earplug at loud levels, is something we should reconsider. I just want everyone to think about this …. and understand that they have options if they don't like the customs or the stick in the ear style.

Tthese multiple flange earplugs and filters (custom or generic) have had a great run, and they are far better than any foam plug of non-filtered device, as they will protect your hearing if properly inserted. Maybe this is a poor argument, but they have been available for nearly 20 years, and they have failed to achieve significant adoption rates, and that tells me something as I personally know so many musicians that just decided to take their chances rather than wear them.

As you can see above, different manufacturers can build them differently, and have a huge effect on your $200 pair of custom plugs, as one in four people have such jaw motion in their canal that will either cause the earplugs to loosen or cause dull aches after a short while rendering them as part-time systems. Further, if you have particularly small ear canals, the air/mass parameters required by the nominal filter they put in your custom earmold, will not be sufficient to give you the flat response attenuation curve which they claim.

In closing, I would love to hear your view on this tweak to convention…..as I am arguing for a flat frequency response filter versus a flat attenuator. A flat frequency response filter may generally preserve the effects of the ear canals open response (disregarding location cues)…. BUT that is the beast we are trying to tame. We just don't need an 18dB "resonator" (the ears natural resonance / gain at 2700Hz) in a 93dB environment. We need it for the soft phonemes, not the Ramones! Earasers fix these problems - all of the ones mentioned above. Earasers are a flat frequency response earplug (not flat attenuator) and they come with a 100% money back guarantee which no one else has. So, I am going to go with Mr. Martinez above on his choice for an economical HiFi Earplug!

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