Earplugs… A Love-Hate Relationship (Part 1: Options)


Ever rush out of the house in the morning and forget something that you always have with you? Your watch, perhaps? Or maybe your reading glasses? As soon as you realize that you’ll have to go all day without this beloved item, you start to feel uncomfortable, annoyed, and metaphorically naked. It is a truly awful feeling that I’ve experienced more times than I care to admit… and all on account of a pocket-sized plastic maroon case.

Mention the word “earplugs” in conversation with other musicians and you’ll find people somewhat polarized by the concept. There are those who love having them at their disposal… they reach for the buds at the slightest hint of loud music, relishing in their ability to actively protect against tinnitus. And then there are some who are completely anti-ear plug, thinking that it creates a disconnect between the listener and the music. Clearly, this is the “if it’s too loud, you’re too old” attitude.

Both of these approaches are fine, but they usually reflect how much someone relies upon their hearing abilities as well as their concern for long-term aural health. I remember one of my college recording tech professors spending two solid lecture periods on why each and every one of us “young kids” should get high dollar earplugs, especially if we intend on making a living out of listening. I also know that people who are rarely around loud music don’t necessarily consider bringing earplugs when they go to a concert, simply because they think one night of rock’n’roll isn’t going to impact them very much.

In any case, this column isn’t meant to dwell on why people should or shouldn’t use them… I’m not here to preach. Instead, I want to highlight the different kinds you can use, what they’re good for, and how to decide when it’s appropriate to use (or not use) them in a listening or playing scenario.

When it comes to the actual plugs, let’s think about the different varieties and what they can be used for. We have the standard foam or rubber earplugs that can be purchased at local pharmacies… usually branded as noise canceling or extreme protection plugs. They’re fairly inexpensive, completely disposable, and tend to be rated by how many decibels of noise they reduce. On the positive side, they don’t discriminate when it comes to noise… they’ll reduce guitars, drums, snoring, annoying neighbors, and loud machinery. On the negative side, they don’t discriminate when it comes to noise… sound gets cut out, and while some plugs may happen to reduce certain frequencies better than others, they’ll basically just cut the volume of whatever you’re listening to. Loud sounds will be quieter (which is what we want), but soft sounds may become inaudible.

Then, we have the custom earplugs that are molded to your ears (usually during a visit to the audiologist). The plugs typically come with a decibel filter, which cut out noise that is above a certain volume and which tend to be “flatter” than the foam or rubber plugs. Most companies make a variety of filters (from 5db to 25db). Due to the filter, you’re supposed to get a fairly accurate representation of the “sonic environment” minus the dangerous, earsplitting levels. It can be easier to chat with the person you’re sitting next to, since the volume of their voice won’t be diminished by the filter, and they’re generally more comfortable than the over the counter plugs. Although these may cost upwards of $150, they are a worthwhile investment if you’re frequently around loud music.

Whether you decide to go with the super cool bright pink foam earplugs, the white and blue three-tier conical rubber plugs, or the clear custom ones, you want to make sure that they aren’t “earitating” (yes, pun intended). The effectiveness of the plug will be determined by how well the size and shape fits your ear…. If they don’t fit correctly, they’ll bleed more than filter. It may take a bit of experimentation to find a plug that works for you (if you do actually intend on wearing them), but hopefully you can find some that are comfortable enough to wear for an hour… or four.

As someone that regularly uses earplugs, I try to have a little bit of discretion when using them, especially in new playing scenarios. Thankfully, having long hair disguises the plugs so no one really knows if I’m wearing them, unless they see me put them in before the set. If you don’t have long hair but still want to be discreet, avoid the neon plugs that will stand out like a sore thumb and use scissors to cut the plug down so that they don’t stick out of your ears.

When it comes to actually putting the plugs in, try not to make a huge event out of rummaging around the bottom of your gig bag halfway through the set. As part of my load-in ritual, I’ll make them accessible by putting them in my back pocket. That way, I can easily grab them in between songs or, if necessary, quickly put them back in my pocket if I can’t be bothered with getting them in the carrying case. I also like to have some spare earplugs handy in case my parents, friends, or band members come unprepared. Although I use the custom ones, I usually have a Ziploc bag with a few pairs of foam plugs that I don’t mind giving away.

So those are just a few of the varieties of earplugs, and a few things to consider if you decide to use them on a gig. If this column inspires you to pick some up at the local pharmacy or make an appointment with your audiologist, then I’m sure my college recording tech professor will be pleased. If reading about earplugs continues to fuel your distaste for them, making you even less likely to pick up a pair, then that’s okay too. I’m just here to provide some options.

In Part 2, we discuss when to wear them, when to put them back in your pockets, and how to adjust to using them on the bandstand.

What are your favorite brand of plugs, and where to pick them up? Tell us about it in the comments.

Ryan Madora is a professional bass player, author, and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and session work, she teaches private lessons and masterclasses to students of all levels. Visit her website to learn more!

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  1. Without a doubt, Sensaphonics has been a godsend for me. I have both the custom molded musicians earplugs and a 3D Active Ambient In Ears.

  2. I wish I had started to use earplugs back in my late teens, early twenties. Tinnitus sucks, folks. I’m at the point where I need some form of noise to drown out the ringing – can’t stand quiet rooms, anymore.

    • I agree Doug, aside from playing music, I also worked for 30 years around loud machinery and also suffer from Tinnitus that can be unbearable at times, if only…..

  3. I’ve been wearing plugs for a while and my ears are thankful for that!

  4. I’ve actually had tinnitus as long as I can remember, so I’m not trying to prevent it so much as keep it from getting much worse.

    Also, I have a pack of the standard foam earplugs that I wear to rock concerts, and by some miracle they actually allow me to hear what people next to me are saying significantly more clearly that if I wasn’t wearing anything. I think they may be magic.

  5. I have some Alpine ones, cost around £15-£20 and they’re fantastic. I’m at a music university so I’m very regularly around loud music (6-12 hours a week, or more), so I really need to protect my ears. I find the Alpines are easy to put in, comfy, filter very well and still allow for conversation. They come with 3 levels of filtering which I think is great, especially if you plan on using them for going to arena gigs and playing in small rooms or venues.

  6. I’ve had custom plugs with 25 dB filters for seven years now. As a musician/concert-goer/etc, it’s the best $170 I’ve ever spent.

  7. Top 3 things to take to a gig; Bass, Lead, Earplugs.

  8. Get Hearos! http://www.hearos.com affordable quality. I used to use the shitty ones you can get at the Dollar Tree, then my drummer told me to check out these new ear plugs and I haven’t looked back since.

  9. OSHA exposure guidelines – 97-103 DB: <15-30 minutes PER DAY. Pretty much every club at which I've listened to or played music runs close this loud, with higher peaks. The professional molded ones are fantastic, and do a much better job of letting in enough detail. Also, getting your hearing checked while getting the molds done is worth either peace of mind, or awareness of what range you've lost. For me, no loss (except normal for age!), and a little tinnitus.

    One other note – don't ever wear in just one ear. You end up boosting sound for the one ear – to experience this, try wearing two earbuds listening to music, set a good level, then take one out. Match the volume to what you heard with two, and then see how loud that actually is when you put the second one back in.

    • @[824828:2048:Ryan Madora] – a great player, instructor and writer!

    • I’ve been wearing molded earplugs for the last 10 years. They are an absolute must for every professional musician.

    • They cost me $150 but I’ve had them for 10 years. $1.25 a month is a very small price to pay to save your hearing.

    • I’ve read that 85db seems to be the threshold where damage starts to occur, I can’t imagine handling anything approaching 100db. It’s a shame clubs use loudness to try to sell drinks.

    • Andres – I have the DB Meter Pro app on my iPhone. It’s interesting (sad? frustrating?) that things get that loud. Musicians need to take responsibility for the overall volume – it hurts them, and it hurts their audience. More info on the H.E.A.R site – http://hearnet.com/index.shtml

  10. I’ve been using the molded ones for at least a decade – best $150 you’ll spend. Since I’m on a smaller stage a lot of the time & therefore much closer to the cymbals I had my audiologist make a solid piece to replace the filters and they work great. Obviously a lot of highs are lost, but I can a) hear the bass better, and b) hear my voice just fine whether there’s a wedge or not!

  11. Can’t say it enough, “Wear Ear Plugs.”….. Cause when it’s too late you’re be telling everyone you see the same thing.

  12. If it’s foam, it’s trash. I’ve got the Etymotic Research 3-tiered, silicone ones. They’re cheap, but cut frequencies in a very musical way, so I can still hear the band, just at a lower volume. I shudder to think of the damage that some of the musicians I’ve played with have due to never wearing ‘plugs.

  13. I’ve been using a custom molded set for last 3-4 years. Worth every penny and more. As a bass player, I’m almost always stranding next to the drummer. The drums are bad enough but it’s the cymbals that will really kill you, especially a crash right at ear level. I’m amazed at the number of people I play with who don’t wear any ear protection at all. On a related note, I played a bar gig on Sat night standing next to quite possibly the loudest drummer I’ve ever played with. It pissed me off because he over played and hit way to hard for the soul/r&b gig we were doing but more so because 2 days later my ears are still ringing. I have 15db filters but am going to look into 25db and also make sure I have spare foam ones in my bag.

  14. some 16 years ago I got myself a not wanted follower, tinnitus after playing a gig in Copenhagen. All that before it was common to use plugs. I stopped playing for some years until I settled with the handicap, but I learned to live with it, and to play with my plugs. I still long back to the times where I could hear birds sing in springtime without that bird in my ear. So Most times I use silicon plugs, and recommend others to do the same- or at least consider how to deal with the fact that ears can not separate music from noise.
    If that bird moves in, its often for a lifetime, and with some time for adjustment- mentally, and more practical, its possible to both play, hear and enjoy with plugs. ;-) So- take care out there, and share your music.

  15. I will never play without my custom plugs – I value my hearing too much.

  16. Etymotic Research 12.00 a pair.

  17. Having played in all settings from Orchestras to loud gigs, I thought my hearing was probably badly damaged even though I’ve worn plugs to most gigs, rehearsals and rock concerts for the last 20 years. Late last year I was offered a free hearing test. To my surprise and relief, my hearing is apparently above average and even better than the lady who tested me. So, get some plugs, put em in and repeat this procedure at every gig, rehearsal and jam session. I’ve used everything from foam to fitted plugs (recently). People hassled me some times, but I say now “in your ear!” coz it worked. :P

  18. i always use my cheap (£5 for 3 pair) soft mouldable silicone plugs and i am only playin bass at church volumes. just wish i had started to use them when i was younger