04 May 2012

Musician's Earplugs

Most of us take our hearing for granted.

We joke about how loud concerts are and the morning-after ringing in our ears is synonymous with having had a good time somewhere the night before.

Except it isn't funny. Every time you're at a loud concert and you have ringing afterwards that's damage to your hearing that you can never fix. Ever. No seriously, it's permanent!

I'm not sure what took so long for me to get on board but lately I've been spending a lot of time on stages playing amplified with the band.  More than once I've felt uncomfortable with the volume level on stage and felt kind of bad. If this is what it's like behind the speakers what must it be like in front of them.

I have a friend Rachel who works at Expert Hearing Solutions in Vancouver and on her recommendation I went in to have custom earplugs fitted. I intend to use them at concerts where I am on stage but also when I go to music events. I really don't like loud music at clubs. They do it to overcome people talking. Except that people start shouting then and the sound needs to go up to painful levels. Having these earplugs with me will hopefully allow me to start going to live, non-classical and non-folky music shows again.

The Alternative: Foam/Silicon

Foam is fine but it doesn't really let through enough frequencies to use it with any reliability when you're playing music. I still want all the sounds just at about half the volume.

I've heard of violinists with hearing problems in their left ears just from playing unamplified over years.

Rachel said that foam is still better than nothing.

The Process

Getting the moulds made is a relatively simple process. First a little cotton is placed into the ear cannal to protect the drum from the moulding putty. Then a syringe of the stuff is emptied into each ear. The process was a little disconcerting but never uncomfortable. It took about 4-5 minutes to set and then they just popped out. I was completely fascinated to see a perfect shape of my ears expressed in clay. Ear canals are a lot more curly than I thought they were.

The Cost

These things are not cheap. The custom moulds and the time of the professional to make them adds up. Still, I feel like I am saving the following costs.
  • Buying a hearing aid/implant when I'm old and grey. X-thousand dollars
  • Extra speakers for my TV and radio to hear things. better. X-hundred dollars
  • Hearing the hovercar that would've taken my life and leaping to safety: Priceless
All told the total was just under $290 CAD.

The Result

A week or two later I got the call that my earplugs had arrived. Here they are:

I was surprised by how far they protrude. Rachel explained to me that this was because of the choice of model where the filters are replaceable. If I find I'm not getting enough attenuation I can get tougher filters which is great since I really don't know what I'm going to need.

I haven't had the chance to test these puppies out at a proper event yet but I will update this post when I do. I have tried putting on my headphones and turning up the volume with the earplugs in place. The results are really nice. The sound seems pretty equally attenuated across all frequencies (and if it's not then I can't tell). It's the sound I hear without the plugs, just less of it.

One weird thing I noticed was that while walking home my footsteps on the pavement were really loud like bass drum beats. My theory is that the plugs are providing some conduction through the bones in my head and providing a crude head-related transfer function (HRTF). We'll have to see if this becomes a problem when I'm stomping out fiddle tunes on stage.

I can't wait!

Filed in: Music  

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