Earplugs… A Love-Hate Relationship (Part 2: Where, When, and Why)

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski

In Part 1 of this series, we looked at two different types of earplugs, the over-the-counter ones as well as the custom molded ones, and some of the benefits of each.

Now, let’s think about when to use them and how to get comfortable playing with them in.

Before we jump in, let me say that this is a completely subjective topic. You’re the one that decides when to use them and when to take them out. I’m just here to bring up some points that you may not have considered before.

As someone who always carries the plugs, I’ve come up with my own “screening process” over the years and it differs depending upon whether I’m listening as an audience member or playing in the band. Listening, I usually always have them in… especially when there are electric instruments and/or drums in smaller music rooms. Although the music might not seem particularly loud, your ears may deceive you. Plus, as the night goes on, the band is likely to turn up (the volume of a band during their first song is probably far lower than during their 5th or 10th). Even if I’m listening to an acoustic group, or a singer with an acoustic guitar, I’ll still use my earplugs. A good rule of thumb… if the instruments are going through the PA, I know it’s better to protect my ears than risk ringing later on.

If you really don’t want to wear earplugs (or you forget them), be aware of where you’re sitting in the room. Don’t sit directly in front of any of the amps or in line with the PA. Sound coming from the speakers will be fairly directional, so try to avoid the line of fire. Depending upon the room and the sound equipment, you can still have a decent seat and a favorable audio experience without punishing your ears.

Playing is a completely different story. Standing next to a crash cymbal can be rough, whether it’s for 30 minutes or 3 hours, so be aware of how much you and your ears are willing to handle. If you’re playing a fairly quiet gig in a small venue, such as an acoustic gig or a duo without drums, you won’t have to wear plugs since the overall volume won’t be excessively loud. Similarly, if the scenario begs for complete aural attention, don’t sabotage your ability to keep in line with the music. Subbing in a band, playing material that you’re unsure of, or playing a particularly important showcase where you need to be “on your game” may warrant biting the bullet for the evening.

On the other hand, you may have good reason to wear earplugs in an unknown scenario if the band is uncontrollably loud. If you’re taken aback by the intensity of the drummer’s volume or by the Marshall halfstack you’re standing next to, wearing the earplugs may help you hear the rest of the band (or at least you won’t wince with every snare hit). Case in point: there’s a fine line between wanting to protect our ears and having a bit of aural freedom. Do your best to assess the stage volume, and don’t let a maniacal addiction to earplugs dictate how well you do a gig. You want to protect your ears, but not at the risk of paying your bills or being called back.

In musical scenarios that are a bit more comfortable, it’s a good idea to consider using earplugs (especially if the band is loud). By knowing the material, and what to expect if there are any changes, you may not feel as dependent on having “open ears.” Playing with the earplugs in does take a bit of getting used to, but at the end of the night (and the next day, and thirty years from now), you’ll be glad that you used them. As long as you can play with the same amount of accuracy and conviction, then you’ll be doing your inner ear a favor.

If you’ve never played a show with plugs, try to get acclimated to the sound by playing with them during a rehearsal. You want to get used to hearing the mix of your bass with the band through the filtering of the plug so that when it comes to playing with them live, you won’t be caught off guard by what you hear and what you don’t. If you happen to have custom plugs, you may find that you prefer the way the band sounds with them in. I’ve found that with the filtering of the sound, I can hear my bass better in the mix, it’s easier to hear myself singing, and I’m not bombarded by loud cymbal crashes that normally drown out the rest of the band. That said, it’s possible that your perception of the mix will change with the plugs in… although you may hear yourself loud and clear, you may be lower in the overall mix (especially when it comes to singing).

In order to avoid that situation, try getting comfortable with your levels during sound check. Start without the plugs so that you get good tone and presence with the band. Then, put the earplugs in so you can get acquainted with the filtered mix. You want to notice the difference between the two so that when you go to use them during the performance, you won’t be surprised by what you hear.

At the end of the day, the decision of whether or not to wear earplugs comes down to the feel of the music versus the feel of your ears later that night. Are there shows when I’ve taken my earplugs out and have felt freer and more comfortable on stage? Yes. Are there nights when I wish I had them because I can feel the sonic abrasiveness of the band against my eardrums? Yes. There are positives and negatives to using hearing protection, but considering the fact that I want to play bass for many years to come, I’d rather take some precautionary measures before it’s too late. Then, if I do go a night without wearing them, it’s almost like a treat (similar to splurging on a giant ice cream cone). Since we all love listening to (loud) music and we all love playing (loud) music, why ruin our ears earlier than we need to?

What’s your routine with earplugs? 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. I would also point out the very high frequency sounds are extremely damaging. Mainly crash cymbals with their overtones cause the trouble.

  2. I have some moulded earplugs that I’ve used for years, I find that they are really useful for separating different instruments sonically so you can really hear what’s going on.
    I tend to use them in any instance where I can’t be heard over the music without raising my voice and as a result continually score a long way above average for my age on hearing tests despite playing in a band with a loud drummer every day.

    It might take a bit of getting used to the change in sound at first but it’s worth the time (and money) a hundred times over when you lie in bed with no ringing in your ears!

  3. can anyone recommend me a company that makes good moulded earplugs?

    • ACS Custom, I use the Pro Moulds and I find them incredibly useful, I don’t really go a gig or rehearsal without them. Like in this article I just do sound check without them and get everything sounding sick and then pop them in afterwards. You definitely see a difference in your hearing and especially for people who enjoy mixing and listening to music regularly (which seems to be most of us these days).

  4. I’ve used a lot of different plugs over the years, mostly custom-molded ER-15s by Etymotic Research. However, I always had problems hearing normal conversation onstage between songs, or at rehearsal. I just bought a set of Etymotic Research Music Pro electronic plugs, which only attenuate when sound levels reach a harmful level. You can get a straight -15 db or a mode where you have “enhanced” hearing of +6 db at normal levels and -9 db reduction when needed. These things are pricey, but have been great so far. They’ve solved a lot of problems I had, which caused me not to wear hearing protection when I should have.

  5. I nearly ruined my sense of hearing during a gig I played. My ENT Doc could even tell me by measuring the loss of freq. wich instrument was causing the effect. (In fact the Twin Reverb of the guitar player & the crash-cymbal of the drummer) After this I bought me (finallly) some moulded earplugs with replaceable filters (-9dB /-15 dB / -22 dB). Since then I ALWAYS use them, regardless if I’m doin’ a rehearsal with a band, play a gig, or go out to listen to a concert, even when I go to a party & on the dancefloor. Was the best expense I ever did. IMHO it’s so important to protect your hearing, especially when you love music.

  6. Earplugs are essential to some industries. Why not to loud music? But, what about when you have to use in-ear-monitors?

  7. I use Bioears Soft Earplugs they r silicone and antibacterial and really mold to your ears and without them I would no longer b able to play bass as I am now suffering from chronic daily migraines.

  8. Jamie

    I’ve been using Earasers in a fairly loud trio I play in. I really like them as they’ve taken the harsh sounds off the top while still allowing me the ability to have a conversation if necessary. I stand right next to a very loud drummer and a guitarist playing his Hughes & Kettner Switchblade TSC 100 SUPER loud and this has tamed the entire experience for me. they attenuate the entire range of sound but really cut out the harsh high ends that do the most damage. They’re fairly discreet as well.