the online magazine for bass players

Search Menu

Saving Your Ears: A Discussion for Gigging Bass Players

Musician's Ear Plugs
Photo by Charles Kaiser

Q: I regularly gig in a blues-rock power trio, and I have to solo over one or two tunes. Every time, the lead guitarist asks me to crank up the volume because he plays at a really high volume… too loud in my humble opinion. I don’t want to crank up the volume because I think it kills everything from dynamics to articulations and more. I’m not as comfortable with blues-rock, which makes it an even worse combo. But my main concern is my hearing. I’ve found playing with ear buds doesn’t work for me because it kills some of the frequencies and I feel lost sometimes – especially when soloing. What do you recommend?

A: Many readers will likely agree when I say I feel your pain. The blues power trio is a notoriously loud environment. Most blues guitarists I know just “can’t get the tone” unless it’s ear-explodingly loud.

First and foremost, I would suggest hearing protection. Plain and simple, I can attest that tinnitus really stinks, and I haven’t heard true silence in over a decade. Most everyone hates generic ear plugs because they turn the sounds into a thumpy, muffled mess. I strongly urge you to get an impression made by an audiologist and get some moulded ear plugs. You can also get a number of different filters for different scenarios. Personally, I’m a fan of 1964 Ears. They are priced very competitively and I’ve found both their IEMs and moulded plugs to be fantastic and well made.

I find that -15db filters are a good general purpose filter and tend to have a fairly even and flat response. They don’t cut too much of any one frequency. I also like to carry a pair of -25db filters for extra loud environments.

Now, let’s talk about your guitarist.

I think that your argument is hard to dismiss. You’re 100% right in that when you start at 10, there’s no where to go dynamically. It’s nearly impossible to craft a good solo when you start of at top volume. If you guys are truly serving the music, everyone should understand a clear explanation that you want to start by bringing it down and then build something throughout your solo.

There may not be anything you can do about solos by the rest of the band, and I know just how loud a single Fender Twin can get.

The reality is this: ear damage is permanent. You need to either get ear protection, convince your band to turn it down, or at least do a little of both or suffer a lifetime of consequences. If you don’t, you’ll one day experience 24/7 ringing in your ears and will completely lose the ability to hear multiple frequencies in one or both ears.

You can also become hyper-sensitive to some frequencies, which can really hurt and is endlessly frustrating. For example, metal clanging will send me running.

So get ear protection! Talk to your band mates and try and find a compromise of some kind. If they won’t budge, then it is up to you to decide just how badly you want the gig and weigh the risks/rewards.

I know there are may of you with similar experiences. How have you dealt with this? Please share in the comments.

Have a question for Damian? Submit it to the Ask Damian Erskine Forum. Check out Damian’s instructional books at the No Treble Shop.

Get Ask Damian Erskine in your inbox

Don’t miss an Ask Damian column. Sign up for email alerts (every Wednesday).

Related topics: , , ,

Win an Ampeg Portaflex Bass Rig and SCR-DI Bass DI Pedal

Enter for your chance to win one of these awesome prizes from Ampeg!

Enter Now

Share your thoughts

Blaine Weisser

Blaine Weisser

Agree 100%, i always use earplugs. Molded earplugs are the way to go. No noise hangovers either.

Gian Boveri

I had a pair of these made about 3 years ago at a cost of $175.00. Mine were from Sonic Ear and molded at an ENT’s office. At the time I was gigging regularly in 2 hard rock/heavy metal bands, .this was the best money I ever spent!!! No more whining, ringing noises in my ears when I finally got to bed after a gig. I have tried all kinds of ear plugs, and they all had issues with cutting out certain frequencies. The only way to explain these is they just lower the volume.no loss of highs or lows. At this point I not only use them for gigs, I wear them to band practice, concerts even to bars to see friend’s bands play. I only wish I had these 20 years ago.

Braulio Manuel

This is so true man, I hate when the band doesn’t get it

Dan Baylis

Dan Baylis

I agree, best thing I ever did was get moulded plugs made, even rehearsals used to hurt, now I can play in peace!

Geoff Royall

Agree 100% – for me, it’s the drummer’s ride cymbal that’s done for me after years of playing. I have upper level hearing loss in my right ear and permanent tinnitus. £200 buys you an ear mould and I use -15db fitted ear plugs. Sometimes I use in-ear monitoring because that does away with the issue of bone conduction if you sing as well.

Per-Olof

Per-Olof

No band is worth getting tinnitus for. Quit before it’s suddenly too late.

Oz

Sensaphonics, molded at the audiologists office…$100/ear. Interchangeable -9, -15 and -25 dB filters. Money well spent.

    DaleC

    DaleC

    Best Gear Purchase Ever and I have REALLY nice gear.

    Oz too

    Oz too

    Sensaphonics for me too. Absolute best money spent. I’m on my second pair (I washed and dried my first pair… They lost a bit of flexibility in the dryer I think), in about 5 years and they’re perfect.

Chris

Chris

As an Otolaryngologist and an amateur bassist playing in different bands since my student years I can tell you what the scientific evidence says: 1.High frequencies are the most important acoustic trauma and tinnitus sources. So cymbals close to your ear and high pitch sounds as guitar and keyboards high notes are the first enemies. 2:Intensity: Sounds that reach more than 85-90dB not only in a peak but in a longer duration, also cause acoustic trauma and provoke hearing loss in long term exposition. That’s why there should be limitations in concerts as there are in the industry for example.Imaginet that in the industry if there is a continius sound over 95 dB, only 6hours of work per week are permited. Nevertheless some interesting studies performed in musicians showed that: Rock musicians that can move on stage and change the orientation of their ears to the sound source have less or no hearing loss at all compared to classical orchestra musicians that stay in the same position allover the concert. Moreover the 2nd violonists that are in front of the wind section, trumpets etc appeared to have the most intense hearing loss! To sum it up first of all be careful with intensity, high frequencies and hours of exposition per week if you play in more than 85-90dB concerts.

Steve Jenkins

The most valuable gear that you have are your ears and you need to take care of them. The best money you will ever spend will be getting molded earplugs. I’m lucky that I only have a slight, barely noticeable amount of tinnitus in my right ear (From standing next to the drummer). Besides gigs and rehearsals, I wear earplugs at concerts, at NAMM while walking around the main floor where the booths are, etc.

Gio Sanserino

Gio Sanserino

I have permanent tinnitus in both ears from playing with too-loud bands. I now use musican’s earplugs from E-A-R or Entymoic Research to cut the sound level by 10-15 dB for rehearsals and gigs, and also for most concerts that are ridiculously loud.

They are also amazing for those long airplane flights overseas. The white noise in a plane is deceptively loud – you have to shout to the buy 1 foot away! Put in the earplugs and the earphones over them or use noise-blocking earbuds such as from Klipsch or Shure. (NOT noise cancelling – they only cancel a small part of the audio spectrum).

In both cases – the molded earplugs are much better. You can also use them for sleeping in a noisy environment. The molded ones do not press against the inside of your ear like rubber ones and are much more comfortable for long periods.

Rob Morrison

Rob Morrison

I wish I had gotten my ear plugs sooner. I have very significant hearing loss in my right ear. Got a hearing aid a couple of years ago, but if I’m in a room with lots of background noise, I’m basically lol reading. Tinnitus as well if I am exposed to any loud noise for a surprisingly small amount of time. No going back for me so, protect yourselves and make the investment.

Dik Hedlund

Use L-pad type attenuators like the Power Soak and turn down the volume. Without dynamics, space and communication, there is no music — only noise.

Victor Malásquez Porth

Victor Malásquez Porth

I´m using earplugs (-20dbs) for 6 years, and it is the best option. Take care for yourself right now. Takes a little getting used to … but soon becomes comfortable

DaleC

DaleC

The BEST investment I have ever made are my Eytimotic Research “Musicians” plugs. I have filters for 9db, 15 db and 30 db reduction and will never give them up. Another advantage is that I can use the “ear molds” for my Shure IEM’s.

In a “power trio” arrangement, I will wear one plug in my “on-stage” (sometimes left, others right) ear to filter drums and guitar, but allowing me to hear the “room” and my vocal monitor.

Damian Erskine (Author)

I received this very informative email from a reader in Finland and wanted to share!

At the moment there is this discussion about noise at your
excellent and interesting pages of NO TREBLE. Here I refer
to WHO (World Health Organization): They suggest that there
is a certain amount of time that one can spend in noise.
When the levels change, the times change equally.

Hearing can be understood so that ears can take certain
load daily. If the load was exceeded, there is a potential
risk of getting hearing problems, shorter or life-long.

Load is equal if exposure time and sound level are combined.
As +3 dB means doubling the power, the time has to be
halved accordingly:

sound max. exposure
level time

85 dB 8 hours
88 dB 4 h
91 dB 2 h
94 dB 1 h
97 dB 30 min
100 dB 15 min
103 dB 8 min
106 dB 4 min
109 dB 2 min
112 dB 1 min
115 dB 0 min
120 dB the threshold of pain

Yes, I know you can find different numbers from different
sources but this 3 dB step is physiologically reasonable. I have
seen for example 5 dB steps but have not seen anything
from the literature that would explain its connection to
human perception.

I want to add that even though hearing is subjective, 120
dB (the T.O.P.) has been found to be a good average number
for humans. Some can take a bit more and some a lot less.

By the way, a common hearing problem is not that the
highest highs die (typically problem of elderly people). But
the most sensitive hearing area (at around 1 – 5 kHz) starts
to weaken. This usually affects speech understanding.

I do not find playing meaningful, if I should use ear plugs.
Our 12-piece (rock/pop/jazz) band has done a mutual contract
that too noisy (anyone has the right to say that) means a
pause and some volume adjustment. Works really well. We
have weekly rehearsals and no-one has to suffer from
exceedingly loud performances.

Few words about myself: I used to study acoustics (at a
university level) and music (and naturally bass playing) in my
youth. Now I stand in the back row of the band and enjoy the
possibility to play and do gigs every now and then. My daily
work has sometimes something to do with sound and vibration.

Denise

Denise

I play bass right next to a drummer who insists on smashing the lift out of the drums. The snare kills my ears. In order for me to hear the rest of the band in my monitor I put a Hearoes brand earplug in the ear next to the drummer. It dulls the impact of the hits. I do have constant tinnitus and have no periods of silence ever. Fortunately I can still hear clear enough to keep playing.

Per Kofoed

Per Kofoed

Agree so much. My ears was damaged some 20 years back with tinnitus as my follower for the future.
So sad we were not aware of protecting ears back then. So please- take care with your ears, you wont get a pair of new ones. Hope some day grace will give more peace to hear birds singing without a second voice. ;-) Peace and Bass…………PerK.

Ben Keeler

So for the beginner to intermediate player that doesn’t want to spend so much or have earplugs that cost just as much as their instrument. Hearos High Fidelity, which reduce up to 20db and cost only $14.99 on Amazon.com are an excellent alternative. Although they may not be the highest quality, they can be easily replaced if lost and don’t require a long wait time for custom molds to be made. Eventually you will want to pony up the dough to get custom molded plugs, but for now something is better than nothing.

Tony Hill

I agree to have good set of ear plugs.I suggest if you can go get a ear exam then tailor made ear plugs that are able to control the right frequencies that cause the harm.

Bassist Tony Hill

Kyle Newman

I play in a blues-rock combo too. I have a pair of the expensive, custom-molded ones and find they cut out WAY too much of the sound, even with the lowest filter in. EARasers M1 Musicians Ear Plugs work better for me. They don’t cut out so much of the mids and highs. They run about $40 a set.

    Kyle Newman

    And our previous guitarist used a Dr. Z attenuator. Worked great! He got all the drive he wanted without all the volume. My molded plugs are Westone ER20’s. They were about $300 a set. Fortunately I was able to get them at cost…about a $100. I’d be upset if I’d paid full price for them. Like I said even with the 9db filter in them, they cut out too many frequencies.

Trevor Soetaert

Trevor Soetaert

earpeace.com

$12 for -15dB, frequency flat generic earplugs.
Best bang for the buck, no matter how much that buck is!

Hilary

1) yes to ear plugs. I got some free molded ones from MusicCares; they seem to lower everything but almost eliminate the bass, unfortunately. Still getting used to them.
2) Power trio setting: the guitarist said that he plays so loud sometimes to compensate for my lack of volume on bass. When I turned up (and adjusted the tone) to make sure I was providing a very solid foundation and presence, he backed off, and only got really loud during peaks in his solos. This allowed for more dynamics all around! Paradoxically, me turning up has actually helped bring down the overall volume.

that bass guy

that bass guy

One thing not mentioned here is that the bass can be deafening without the apparent associated pain of a loud guitar. Too much sound is too much sound. If I was in a band situation as described above i would quit the band. Another comment here that really struck me was that you could lessen the impact of the sound if you can move around the stage. As a symphony player for 30 years I never once considered wearing plugs as the sound never struck me as being that harsh. It was only when I went back to playing electric jazz and rock that I started wearing ear plugs. It’s ridiculous how much power is being pushed onstage these days – even in small clubs. My first bass amp was all of 100watts and I never played it above 5 or 6. Now I have a 200w combo w/horn and I’ve played it up around 6 or 7 – not because i couldn’t hear myself but because others couldn’t hear me. I have a cousin who plays bass in an 80s cover band and he pushes 500w. That’s insane, folks! Get some plugs – you can’t buy new ears as good as the ones you were born with.

    paul h.

    paul h.

    I wonder if the equipment manufacturers are promoting this idiocy. Louder and louder means we have to keep buying equipment. Otherwise, we’d still be using that old gear since it seldom wears out.
    Beware of cymbal crashes. Lou Reed says cymbals are “guitar-killers.” He might have added “ear-killers.”

daniel

daniel

where i can buy one of these?

Rune Offerdal

I use Alpine Musicsafe Pro protective earplugs. Of course moulded plugs are the best, but these are reasonably priced and come with 3 different inserts so you can choose the compromise that suits you best. They certainly beat any foam plug I’ve ever tried. My band is a 5 piece rock/blues/pop cover band with 2 guitars, a drummer, bass player (me) and a singer. We’ve miced the kick drum in rehearsal, but other than that, the drummer plays acoustically. Soft playing is no option for him when the guitars go to town.

We do manage to keep it down at times, but those plugs are working ok and the pair a nice insurance that are always with me.

Lana F.

Lana F.

I was fortunate enough to have a good friend, my drummer at the time, who worried more about my hearing than I did (having suffered from tinnitus himself) so he got me a pack of Alpine Musicsafe Pro earplugs… I resisted it for a long time, also claiming that it prevented me from hearing certain frequencies I felt lost without…. when I left that band and joined a new one, the drummer was waaaay too loud and I couldn’t understand how anyone can even be in that room. My only reasonable explanation was that they were all already half-deaf from way too loud music :) So I started to get used to earplugs, I only take them off if we want to discuss something. I carry them around with me all the time on my keyring – people sometimes give me a weird glance or giggle when I go to a concert and they see me putting something in my ears, but when the music begins, I bet at least half of them wish they did the same :D I find the noise at the concerts today way too brutal and every time I go back home after the concert I send my friend a text message, once again thanking him for the plugs, I honestly don’t remember feeling this thankful to someone for a long time…Let’s face the truth – the guitarist is NOT going to turn his volume down or anything; you can’t do much to change adult persons, it would just be a waste of energy, he simply doesn’t share your problem and cannot sympathize. You do what you can do yourself – buy earplugs, leave the band, whatever, just don’t hurt your ears anymore, it’s not worth it.

    paul h.

    paul h.

    I don’t know whose idea it was to always play at deafening volume. Back in the 60s some people thought it was a way to make the music overwhelming like an LSD trip and some said it was petty and bourgeois to worry about your ears — RIDICULOUS! Why would a music lover want to destroy the organ that lets him or her create or appreciate music!? I think we need some lawsuits against venues and band-leaders who insist on injurious levels. Think of it as safe working conditions.

Davide Dondi

I tried molded plugs but found them less reducing than common yellow foam plugs (which I like since they reduce a lot of the mids and highs and leave me alone with a cool dubby bass sound :))
However I think the molded plugs that I tried were not so good at sealing… and I’ll try some other hearing specialist cause I play in a very loud band with an almost deaf twin reverb owner, who during sound checks plays as soft as Joao Gilberto… during the gig his right arm becomes incredibly heavier and the on stage loudness war begins!!

Matt

Matt

Sorry to all those that disagree, but if the music is so loud you have to shout for the person next to you to year you, then its too loud.

Enjoy the music for the music.

Volume is not music, but some people use volume to mask lack of ability.

Ralph

Ralph

I suffered career ending hearing loss and tinnitus. I’m a bassist and the source of my injury is high frequency sound like screaming guitars and cymbals. Always wear ear plugs is great advice. However it is possible to damage your hearing EVEN with earplugs. If you’re in a band situation like that – get out. It isn’t worth it. No one needs to play with extreme stage volume. That’s what the PA is for.

James Genannt

ALWAYS get SOMEONE, ANYONE, not in the band, to go out during the performance, to move around to various points in the venue and gauge the “loudness”. 9 out of 10 times SOMEONE HAS to turn down. Bass has dead spots, and that can be really frustrating because someone in a loud spot says you’re booming, while you cant even hear yourself, and others say they cant hear you. the length of the frequency wave at low E is 28 feet. look it up. that = dead spots.the guitarist is more even in the “loudness” throughout the venue, and is usually the one who HAS to turn down. do NOT be afraid to tell him/them that ! assert yourself.

Steve

Steve

My bandmates share a similar disposition when it comes to the loudness, it”s actually worse during rehearsal rather than at a gig. Everybody starts off reasonable then one guitar turns up, then the other, then the first one again……. And I’m just in tnt back like “hey guys chill huh? I’ve got 400 watts here but I really shouldn’t have to use them…” Anyway it’s typically the crash/china cymbals they drive me nuts and I’ve gone through a couple different things but I actually prefer to use noise canceling earbuds (the “suction cup” variety) to quiet things down. They’re very comfortable and don’t over-attenuate.

They get a bit of giggle out of it when I plug my ears up but then I remind them who’s going to be mixing our album. Lol I need all the detail in my hearing I can still reserve. It’s already bad enough from years of lack of protection on loud jobsites. I can hear the ringing right now…….

dave

dave

I would rather stop playing than wear earplugs….isnt music an aural stimulation??? just doesnt make sense

Brian Harris

Brian Harris

For those who can’t quite afford the molded ear plugs: I was really close to splurging and just going for them, after having tried virtually every set of inexpensive ear plugs on the market. Let me tell you what… DUBS earplugs are AWESOME! I am in no way affiliated with that company in anyway. My father, who’s also a musician, got me some for Xmas. He knew I was about to get molded ones and figured that these had just come out, might as well give them a try.
They’re really great and I recommend them very highly. They attenuate the sound in a way that is still very natural sounding but everything’s just a bit quieter. I now have 2 sets just in case I lose one. I’m sure molded in-ears are the best, but for $20, DUBS are really really really good. I love them.

Rafael Velez

Rafael Velez

You also need to practice with them on. You just don’t play at a gig with them in your ears, get comfortable with the earplugs.

Joe Gabatchko

Joe Gabatchko

I wish I would have seen this post 35 years ago.

Charlie

Charlie

I almost always use ear protection. I’m 63. I started playing bass in 1965. My ears have been ringing since I saw Blue Cheer at Sac State in 68! I sometimes play with crazy loud bands, but I have cut back on it. My hearing is pretty bad. I can hear bass well enough, and I am lucky since I am a busy working bassist. I find that I hear better with some attenuation, because it seems to soften the sound, but also makes it more clear. Whenever I forget to put my plugs in, and I am thinking it’s not too loud, I have to wonder if my hearing is getting damaged because it really is loud enough to do that, even though it might not sound loud enough to cause damage. At the very least, I use a ear plug on the loud side of the stage. OK boys, it’s the same lecture my dad gave me about “wearing a helmet” on a date! Just do it before it’s too late. Get your sound check so you know what’s up, but use protection before there is a problem, or you’ll end up like me.

Phil Weiss

Phil Weiss

Absolutely agree. I wear Westone -25db molded plugs to every gig and concert I attend. I just bought a new pair this week, as a matter of fact. It’s $200 well spent. Tinnitus sucks!

kim

kim

Whatever form of protection you think is best, always carry plenty of foam earplugs — in case, car, purse, etc. You can buy boxes of couple hundred pair for about $20, and they will save your ears when fancier protection is lost or forgotten. Also, freely give them out — a small generosity may say someone from a lifetime of debility. Not bad for about a dime!