Something any drummer must address sooner than later is the prevention of noise-induced hearing loss.
What’s that, you say?
Yes, you heard me right my fellow groove-meisters; it is no secret that our ears (much like our limbs) are an integral part of our ability to make music. Consider this juicy fact for a moment: If you are somewhat of a heavy-handed player and you simply play an open hi-hat/kick/snare groove for four minutes by yourself, no crashes, no fills. The literal physical equivalent would be if you sat exactly 100 feet away from the launch pad of the space shuttle whilst it took off. That decibel level (150+) can actually cause permanent damage after only a few days of shedding.
But wait, there’s more!
You know how your ears feel a little plugged after a loud concert or an intense jam session? That is called noise-induced temporary threshold shift. What has happened is that your ears have actually experienced a temporary hearing deficit (aka hearing loss). The recovery on this is about 14 hours, provided you are not exposed to similar noise levels (or louder) in that timeframe. If you are consistently exposed to high levels of noise without any recovery window, after a short period of time that threshold shift becomes irreversible.
The effects of hearing loss are innumerable and even down right scary. Tinnitus, a permanent ringing of the ears, might easily be considered the drummers’ apocalypse. While objective tinnitus can potentially be cured, subjective tinnitus is like taxes—it is forever. There are a few reports of some tinnitus sufferers actually taking their own lives due to the depression caused by the constant ringing.
And now for the good news!
Gloom and doom aside, the drummers of today are lucky. Our fore-bearers did not have the luxury of the information age and quite often suffered in silence (literally). The development of more efficient earplugs and in-ear monitoring systems, as well as the option to practice with digital drums, has made our lives a little less dangerous. Ultimately no one can take you by the hand and make you put on ear protection. (Well, I could, but the logistics of being at every one of your gigs is a scheduling nightmare for me). There are a few things you can do to achieve hearing bliss without wearing the big ugly orange earmuffs on stage, even though that would be really cool.
The first gem comes to me from my friend and drum smith extraordinaire Ronn Dunnett. You can find the Peletor 3M hearing muffs at any hardware store for a reasonable cost. Simply take out the foam insert from inside the ear protectors. You will find that the drums actually sound incredible and while you have somewhat lowered the protection value by removing the foam, it is still substantial enough that you will not be causing yourself any permanent loss. In the rehearsal room or at a drum clinic, these babies are all the rage for today’s fashion-conscious drummer. Trust me, your 90-year-old self will thank me in years to come.
There is a plethora (yes, I said plethora) of more discreet ear plugs on the market today available through companies like Vic Firth and Vater. While these may make you look less like Princess Leia, the hearing protection value is somewhat lower than the aforementioned muffs. These earplugs are designed to filter out certain frequencies, creating a better listening experience and eliminating the muffled sound caused by foam earplugs—but still allowing your tender eardrums to thrive.
The best of both worlds comes in the form of the custom-fit silicone earplugs that an ear specialist might offer. They can be made to your exact specs and will fit your ear like a glove. You can also have your plugs fitted and designed to be in-ear monitors, thusly killing two birds with one stone. (Editors note: no birds were killed in the making of this article). The price tag on custom ear buds is quite high, but alternately, so are years of med’s to alleviate the agonizing ringing of tinnitus—or worse, hearing loss so severe that you are unable to play drums. Food for thought.
A popular working drummers’ solution is a decent set of ear-buds and a small sound board as a simple in-ear monitoring system. Many drummers, including myself, use this setup. First and foremost, get a decent set of ear buds that have some protective value. Companies like Shure and Sony have some great options for around $150. Secondly, be aware that this setup is not a fail safe. Being that you are running your monitor line direct into a small board and the output is direct into your ears via your ear buds, if you do get a blast of feedback with this setup it may be game over! It might be a good idea to also invest in a feedback suppression unit. Generally these are available for around $150 to $300.
As an alternative to your acoustic rehearsal space, your band may interested in going all electronic offering everyone the ability to wear headphones and have their own volume control. A set of e-drums, multi-effects processors and a Jam Hub would be substantially less expensive than a full band rehearsal PA and allow your band more options when it comes to rehearsal space (due to a serious lack of sound transference).
Lastly you may want to look at your own onstage volume. It goes without saying that as soon as one band member gets a little louder, the whole band turns up. For those of us who are touring in theatres and arenas, stage volume levels will have less impact than in a smaller club. When you are playing a pub or a lounge, ask yourself, Do I really need to be heard outside? Does playing loud serve the song or your ego? The mark of a true pro is the ability to play to the environment and to serve the song. In the end, don’t fool yourself; unless you are at a drum clinic, no one wants to hear the drummer drown out the singer.
Our maturity level (or lack thereof, at times) often leads us to the “it will never happen to me” belief. On the contrary, if you play on a loud stage consistently, you have already incurred some damage. It may not be evident until years later, but the deal has already gone down, my friend. For now it may not be an issue, but as you progress in your career and play more, you will advance that process and ultimately if you never wear any protection (minds out of the gutter here, folks) you stand a 99% chance of not hearing a word I just said (insert nagging spouse’s voice here).
Sean Mitchell is a drummer/artist, songwriter and the creator of Drum Geek.