AS BASS PLAYERS, OUR LIST OF TYPICAL job-related hazards includes heavy lifting, late-night driving in less than ideal conditions, playing with substandard drummers, and dodging audience-flung projectiles. But the one hazard many players regularly overlook is hearing damage. Every time you plug in and turn up, you put your ears at risk of being hurt by crash cymbals, guitar amps, your tweeter, feedback through the monitors, or all of the above. Playing loud music, going to a show, or even cranking your iPod while mowing the lawn can cause irreparable damage to your hearing.
THE NO-FUN ZONE
Have you ever come home from a gig or rehearsal with ringing in your ears that took days to go away? That’s tinnitus, a symptom of hearing damage that most of us have experienced at one time or another. Deep inside the cochlear, the inner ear, tiny hairs called stereocilia help translate sound vibrations into electrical signals that are transmitted to your brain. When you damage them, the hair cells can make your brain perceive sounds that aren’t actually present. Tinnitus is an early warning sign that should not be ignored.
Another type of hearing damage is hyperacusis, which can make you oversensitive to certain frequency ranges, most notably the higher range. As you lose high-end hearing, the low frequencies become accentuated— you may have a hard time hearing normal, conversation-level speech, the TV, and specific notes, and you can forget about accurately applying EQ. If you suffer from diplacusis, on the other hand, your ear may perceive a single tone as two different pitches, or even as a buzzing sound. Diplacusis tends to make pitches sound flat— sometimes, the louder they get, the flatter they sound.
LOUD & PROUD?
“Too loud” is often a matter of opinion, but the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published guidelines for what they consider to be unsafe levels, and how long you can be exposed before damage occurs. Generally, 90dB is considered the level where sound can begin to cause damage. Normal conversation is rated at 50dB, a hair dryer is 70dB, and city traffic is 80dB. Eight hours of unprotected exposure to a lawnmower at 90dB is the OSHA limit. If you’re at a typical 120dB rock concert, you have about seven minutes before problems can occur, while a single shotgun blast at 150dB can cause immediate and permanent damage. There is a tendency to ignore the risks of exposure to high dBs—some people even think it’s uncool to wear protection—but no amount of denial changes the fact that by the time you notice a problem with your hearing, it’s too late. If you value your ability to hear clearly, use hearing protection.
DOWN, DOWN, DOWN
The most obvious way to protect your hearing, of course, is to simply turn down the volume. This won’t work unless all your bandmates are on the same page, but even something as simple as smart amp placement or covering reflective surfaces can have a positive effect.
Audiologists divide hearing protection into two main types: Passive attenuation, typically in the form of earplugs, and active attenuation, which requires additional equipment, such as an in-ear monitoring system.
These days, it’s common to see “roll down” or “push-to-fit” foam earplugs—Hearos is a popular brand—being handed out for free at shows and clubs. The soft material can be squished into a shape that expands in the ear canal. In a pinch, they will protect you, but the sound quality definitely suffers. These earplugs severely cut the high frequencies, making the lows seem disproportionately boosted, and if you insert them improperly, they can emphasize midrange frequencies and actually cause damage.
The next level of “universal-fit” solutions includes “flanged” plugs like Mack’s Hi-Fi Hear Plug ($12), rated for 12dB of attenuation, or the ER20 Ety-Plug ($7), which claims to reduce all frequency levels by approximately 20dB. The Ety has three soft rubber flanges that fit most adult ears, and the stem makes insertion and removal less problematic than with foam plugs. The Blast- Buster ($9) uses the Hocks Noise Breaker filter, a device that converts sound waves into thermal energy by means of compression acceleration. The Blast-Buster has six flanges, which makes them easier to fit in smaller ear canals. They are rated at NRR19, which is supposed to provide adequate protection for up to 110dB of constant noise. Alpine’s MusicSafe Classic earplugs ($19) offer medium- and high-level protection filters, but its Pro package ($30) includes three different filters for low-, medium-, and high-level protection. Vater Percussion Professional Musician earplugs ($18) are another set of generic-fit, three-flange plugs that offer two levels of filtering.
GET A MOLD
Universal fit options can be very effective, but generic plugs don’t always seat well in the ear canal. Besides, because many of the inexpensive choices are designed for industrial use and not discerning musicians, sound quality can be an issue. If you’re looking for custom, molded earplugs that fit your ears perfectly, several companies offer different attenuation options; some websites, such as Earplugstore.com, even offer kits that allow you to take an impression of your ear at home.
If you do have a mold done by a professional audiologist, consider getting a hearing test. The Westone ES49 ($179), Perfect-Fit ($150), and Etymotic Research ($160) sets are all custom models that feature interchangeable filters, available in -9, -12, and -25dB variations.
PUT ’EM IN
Over the last few years, there’s been a big shift toward in-ear monitors for live performance. Although in-ears take more time to set up, many musicians find that having a custom mix is worth it.
Having a personal in-ear mix is a great way to hear your band with full-spectrum audio and controlled volume. If you’re using in-ears, however, the entire band must be using them—having even a single onstage monitor defeats the purpose—and they work best if you have a dedicated soundman. In-ear systems come in both custom-molded and generic fit options, and they do a good job of blocking external noise, as well as providing a monitor mix. Not surprisingly, a full setup can be expensive; you can buy just the earplugs, but you’ll also need a wireless transmitter and receiver to connect to the PA system. One potential drawback is that using inears separate you from what the audience is hearing. Nonetheless, many top professional touring acts use in-ears for their convenience, safety, and sound quality.
Considering the many options, there really is no excuse not to use hearing protection. As a musician, your greatest asset is not your chops, your gear, or your stage presence—it’s your ears. Ignoring the reality of hearing damage is a mistake too many players have made, so don’t be a dummy. Whether you’re at a loud show, playing in a cramped rehearsal space, rockin’ highdecibel music, or just using your leaf blower for more than eight hours at a time, stick ’em in your ears!