Acoustic drums are loud.
And you cannot easily turn down the volume on your drum kit, unlike other instruments.
- Hearing Loss in Drummers, is a real problem
- How much noise is too much?
- When should drummers use hearing protection?
- How do I choose the right hearing protection?
P.S. if you’re a concerned parent, I’ve published a list of the best ear protection for young drummers previously. Refer to it for some suitable hearing protection devices for your child.
I’ve realised that many recreational drummers and new drummers don’t take this issue seriously enough. Guys…
Hearing Loss in Drummers, is a real problem
Noise induced hearing loss is real – prolong exposure to high levels of noise can lead to permanent hearing impairment.
The most common symptom of hearing loss is tinnitus, aka ringing in the ears. According to Harvard Medical School, 90% of people who experience tinnitus have some level of hearing loss.
That said, if you have just experienced a loud concert (or had a one off exposure to loud sounds), your tinnitus may be short term. According to Mayo Clinic, tinnitus due to short term exposure would usually go away. Just make sure you are not exposed to loud noises again while you are experiencing tinnitus.
Although hearing loss has been around for centuries, there are no known cures or treatments available yet.
A study published in the Medical Problems for Performing Artist reports that percussionists are about 4x more likely to experience hearing loss. However, most recreational drummers don’t seem to take this issue seriously enough.
If you are in that group, here’re more statistics that’ll hopefully change your mind:
How prevalent is hearing loss in drummers?
According to a study published in Noise Health: drummers showed an occurrence of 80% of tinnitus and 40% of hyperacusis (a sound hypersensitive condition where everyday sounds become unbearable).
Not convinced by statistics? Read the real experience of hearing loss in this subreddit thread for drummers.
Hearing loss is not joke. Putting aside the impact it’ll have on your daily life, as a musician, hearing loss can affect your ability to continue making music.
Hopefully you’re convinced of the importance of hearing protection by now.
Now, before we talk about how to select the right hearing protection for yourself, you’ll need to have an idea of:
How much noise is too much?
To protect yourself from noise induced hearing loss, you’ll need to know when you’ll need to use hearing protection.
According to Creighton University, you should start using hearing protection from volumes of 85 decibels (dB).
How loud is 85 decibels?
As a gauge, normal conversation is about 60 dB.
Here’s a useful chart from the American Academy of Audiology:
The examples listed above are good as a gauge. Your level of exposure really depends on your environment, how close you are to the source of the noise and more. To get a clearer idea of the noise level you’re experiencing, use a free noise meter mobile app like NIOSH’s sound level meter (iPhone only) or Decibel X to get a measurement.
Exposure time plays an important role
Decibels is a measure of loudness. On top of loudness, exposure time is another important factor on the negative impact of high noise level.
In simple terms, a one-time, short exposure to fireworks (~140 dB) is less harmful than say, daily 8 hours exposure to 90dB of noise at a construction site.
For musicians who play in a live band, you’ll want to take note that concerts are rated at about 110dB. I believe this is rated from the audience’s perspective, but you should note that more than 30 minutes of exposure at concert level loudness can be detrimental to your hearing.
When should drummers use hearing protection?
Anytime you’re on an acoustic drumkit.
A simple practice session may last anywhere from 10 minutes to hours, if you’re in the zone. Hence, my advice is to have a pair of hearing protection device (HPD) on hand everytime you’re on the drum kit.
Your HPD should be as essential as your drumsticks.
How do I choose the right hearing protection?
I use the following criteria to select a suitable hearing protection device (HPD), I hope these will be handy for you:
- Effectiveness of reducing sound exposure
- High Fidelity
- Ease of use
Effectiveness of reducing sound exposure
First up, I want to know how much noise can the HPD reduce and how much protection can it offer.
I use the Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) of a HPD as a quick guide.
What is NRR?
NRR is the unit of measurement in decibels (dB) that indicates the effectiveness of a hearing protection device.
But take note! The product NRR rating should not be used directly because of the way it was measured. (To understand the science, read this and this.) Instead, you’ll need to subtract 7 from the product NRR, and then divide it by 2 to get the practical NRR.
- Practical NRR = (Product NRR – 7) / 2
Subtract the practical NRR from your surrounding noise level to get the actual noise exposure.
As a quick reference, I tend to go with hearing protection device with a NRR of at least 10dB.
NOTE: This really depends on your drumming needs. I’m not a performing musician, nor do I play with a band often. As a drummer who tends to drum alone with accompanying tracks, my usual exposure is about 90 – 98 dB. During the rare occasions when I get to drum with friends, I put on an extra headphones or noise isolating drumming earmuffs if it gets too loud to handle.
If you play with a live band often, you’ll probably want a HPD of a higher NRR. As a guide, if your ears hurt or ring after a gig, it’s high time to load up on your hearing protection.
The second most important criteria for me is: can I hear sounds accurately with the HPD in use, or are they muffled?
High fidelity earplugs reduces the loudness of sounds with a flat, uniform attenuation of all the frequencies. This simply means that you can hear clearly, even with the HPD in place. (everything will just sound softer, but not muffled).
I used to love the 3M foam earplugs – they are really easy to put on and are comfortable to have on over long periods. But, foam earplugs tend to reduce mid and high frequencies so everything would sound lower and muffled, pretty much like sticking your fingers into your ears.
It was only after I was introduced to some high fidelity earplugs, I realised that hearing protection devices could actually still sound good.
Using the foam earplugs is like swimming with a pair of foggy swim goggles – the goggle protect your eyes from the stinging water but you can’t see what’s under the water clearly. Having a high fidelity HPD is like swimming in a clear goggles with perfect eyesight – same protection, with perfect vision.
These days, I use the Etymotic Research ER20 XS. I got them a couple of years back, they come with a carrying case and a neck cord, plus they are very durable. The XS model don’t protrude out when I wear them, which makes it easier for me to have an additional pair of earmuffs on, if I choose to.
If you’re new to using HPD, i think having a high fidelity option will cause less frustration (with sound quality). This could be the main reason why many drummers choose to use use hearing protection when playing live.
Ease of Use
With protection and sound quality down, the next criteria would be: is it easy to put on?
If a HPD is a chore to put on, you’ll just end up throwing it aside. Hence, I prefer to use a hearing protection device that’s easy to put on. Usually I just lift my ear and slip the ER20s in, quick and easy.
Professional musicians may want to get custom earplugs for better protection during live events. However, those usually require either a visit to an audiologist or a DIY molding process.
I find those a little overkill for my use. However, if the environment you drum at causes pain or ringing in your ears even with the use of regular earplugs, you may want to consider custom ones. These tend to provide the best seal on the ear for maximum protection.
Next up, will it cause discomfort when used for a prolong period?
I tend to practice between 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on how my session goes. I want my hearing protection device to do its job without causing any discomfort or pain in my ears or ear canals if I were to have them on for a longer period.
Personally, I prefer softer material hence I had no issues with the foam earplugs nor the ER20s.
How comfortable a hearing protection device is really subjective. You could read reviews from other drummers or users to reduce your risk of getting a HPD that isn’t for you. But in my opinion, the best and only way to find out is to use the actual HPD.
If you’re using a HPD for the first time, it’s normal to feel awkward. Give it a couple of sessions before you decide if it’s for you. Pain is the best indicator.
Last but not least, budget/price is another factor.
Since I’m not a professional drummer who has frequent live performances, I wouldn’t want to overspend for a top-of-the-range HPD. The Etymotic Research ER20 XS cost me about $20 and have served their purpose well.
It’s best to find a HPD that protects you in your drumming environment, at a wallet friendly price.
As drummers, we are constantly exposed to loud sounds from our kits (unless you’re on electronic drums) which could be detrimental to our hearing. Long exposures to sounds above 85dB can lead to tinnitus and permanent noise induced hearing loss.
Hence, I would argue that hearing protection devices are as essential to drummers as our drumsticks are. Ideally, you shouldn’t be drumming without either of them.
I shared how you can select suitable hearing protection devices using 5 criteria;
- Effectiveness of reducing sound exposure
- High Fidelity
- Ease of use
Most importantly, understand your own drumming environment and find a hearing protection device that suits your needs.
Protect your hearing, and you’ll get to enjoy drumming and music for life!