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Ear Grabber

An Ear Grabber

The following two circumstances have brought home the importance of hearing protection, giving me a constant reminder to proceed with caution.

— A top student from the past, a 16 year-old (at that time) named Kyle, was the leader of his high school drum line and played in two rock bands (including a heavy progressive group) when he gave me the grim news that he had suffered permanent hearing loss. To this day, I still feel horrible that I hadn’t been more aggressive in persuading him to protect himself.

— My longtime mentor and college drum teacher, Don Bothwell, who advised me on two of my drum books: Drumcraft and The Jazz Waltz (soon to be released) has severe hearing loss from many years of playing and teaching. I went over to his house many times during the past five years, and even with hearing aides, Don struggles with sound clarity (especially bass frequencies). He was the top-call freelance drummer in the Phoenix area back in the 70s, but is now relegated to playing by himself in his studio.

Listen Up

If there is one major downside to playing the drums, it’s that your hearing can be threatened by sound waves produced at high decibels (often measured in SPLs, or Sound Pressure Level). This damage can be caused by your own drumming or the acoustic instruments or amplified music around you, such as a tuba player aiming right at your head or a squealing monitor speaker during sound check.

If you don’t want to change the sound or feel of the drums by adding mute pads (see my DIY article on this subject), or you don’t want to cause a rift in your band by walking over to an offending humungous guitar amp and turning down the volume, you will need to find ways to protect your hearing. If not, you take the risk of ending up with tinnitus (ringing) and/or hearing loss due to loud music, and you will regret for the rest of your life that you didn’t try one of the following:

  1. A pair of good headphones that covers the entire ear and is designed to block out harmful frequencies — I use Sony Professional MDR-7506 stereo headphones in both of my teaching studios (I like the comfort and sound quality), but some of my students really like the Vic Firth SIH1 or the DB22 Isolation Headphones. (This model does not plug into a headphone jack.)

    Price: Headphones vary dramatically in price often related to the sound quality. Street price for the Sony 7506s is less than  $100; Vic Firth Stereo Isolation Headphones less than $50.

  1. Low-cost hearing-protection devices — I’ve been using Mack’s Pillow Soft Earplugs ever since Dan and Denny Gutenkauf (Phoenix area free-lance musician heroes) showed them to me during one my first casual gigs in 1989.  They are extremely comfortable in the ear and do a good enough job of noise reduction (and therefore hearing protection). These are made out of silicone and are easy to form to the outside of the ear canal. (By the way, these come in big chunks of material. Unless you have giant ears, you will need to split these in half and shape before inserting.) Once they get dirty, they lose their tackiness and are meant to be thrown away.

    Other companies also make similar silicon ear plugs, but I am a loyal Mack’s customer.

    Another variety low-cost earplug is made of foam. These expand once they are inside the ear canal, and therefore do a good job of creating a seal between harmful sound waves and the inside of your ear.

    Price: Mack’s Pillowsoft Earplugs currently cost $3.99 for six pair at Walmart.

  1. Filtered ear plugs — Devices such as the Vater VSAS or the Vic Firth VICEARPLUG are designed to provide a safe level of protection while allowing for a truer outside sound. These are washable and therefore not meant to be disposable.

    Price: $19.99 per pair

  1. Custom molded ear plugs — If you make an appointment with an audiologist (they can normally be found in the office of an ear, nose, and throat doctor), they can check your hearing and fit you for these devices that do the best possible job of protecting your hearing. These are also washable.

    Price: Besides the cost of the audiologist appointment, these plugs (one pair) start at around $150.

    NOTE: For more information and discussion on plugs, check out Earplugs: Pros and Cons on the Drummer Cafe Community Forum.

  1. In-ear monitors (IEMs) — IEMs such as the Shure E2 are headphones that fit inside the ear canal. Some of these are custom fit to provide the best possible protection from outside sources, while others look more like ear buds. I don’t have a lot of experience with these, but many of my fellow drummers are passionate about them.

    Price: The Shure E2 in-ears are $300.

    NOTE: For more information and discussion on IEMs, check out In-Ear Monitors on the Drummer Cafe Community Forum.

  1. Electronic Drums — More and more amateur and professional drummers are enjoying the versatility and relative quiet of electronic drums.

    Price: $500 to $7,500

  1. Baffles — Products such as the Clearsonic S5-2 Sorber deaden the drums by absorbing the sound waves coming directly off the instrument and reflecting off walls.

    Price: $170

This May Sound Strange

Many drummers (and other musicians for that matter) stay away from hearing protection because of built-in bias against such devices.

    • Looks — In the same way that people become self-conscious at the very thought of wearing hearing aids, musicians and listeners often scoff at wearing protection
    • Social Dynamic — Once a drummer puts in his/her ear plugs, it is common to hear from another musician, “Are you putting those things in your ear because you don’t like my song or my guitar tone?”

Now Hear This

These are both silly notions that should not be taken seriously. Don’t allow this kind of bullying or peer pressure to cause you to keep your ear plugs in your pocket. These are cherished body parts after all and central in allowing you to forge and maintain your musicianship. Learn from Kyle’s and Don’s misfortune and be safe out there!


Andy Ziker

Andy Ziker is a teacher and professional drummer in the San Jose, California area. He has authored several instructional books, including Drum Aerobics, Daily Drum Warm-Ups, and Drumset for Preschoolers, and The Jazz Waltz.