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

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

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 and educator living in Nashville, TN. In addition to touring and playing sessions, she fronts an original music project, The Interludes and teaches private lessons. Visit her website to learn more about her music or to inquire about lessons.

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