Musician In-Ear Monitors and Earplugs
Many performing musicians use in-ear monitors or earplugs to regulate the levels of sound they absorb onstage while performing.
Musicians, from classical orchestras to rock groups, are exposed to high decibel ranges creating sounds sufficiently intense to cause sensorineural hearing loss. According to R.T. Sataloff, some hearing loss in musicians may be considered occupational hearing loss, and subsequently may interfere with the musician’s ability to perform the daily tasks of his or her profession.
Musicians suffer not just from hearing loss but also a ringing in their ears and various pitch-perception problems. Music lovers should be modest in the length of time and level of loud music to which they expose their ears.
Custom Hearing Protection
Musician in-ear monitors and earplugs provide mid to low-frequency hearing protection. These custom hearing protection devices also allow the musician to hear his/her own music clearly as well as hear other musicians’ music and voices while performing.
Conventional store-bought earplugs are great at providing hearing protection. However, they often provide too much protection for musicians, muffling speech, and sound in the process. They make music and voices sound very unclear and unnatural. While conventional hearing protection can reduce very high frequencies, this amount of hearing protection is typically not needed for musicians.
Most musicians do not need maximum protection. Instead, they need mid- to low-frequency protection. This can be accomplished through earplugs that are specifically designed for musicians.
Musicians who do not need amplified playback in their ears may benefit from custom-fitted musician earplugs. These are non-electrical earplugs fitted with custom filters to make specific sounds in the music spectrum softer, while not compromising the overall musical experience. Ordinary earplugs cut off high-frequency sounds, making voices muffled and the timbre of music dull. The natural sound from musician earplugs solves this problem by reducing the volume you hear without distorting the sounds.
Musician earplugs come in both custom and non-custom options. Ready-fit musician earplugs can reduce sound levels by approximately 20 dB, enough to reduce harmful sound without distorting speech or music.
These types of earplugs are deep in order to allow the earmold to seal within the bony portion of the ear canal. This deep fit reduces what is known as occlusion: a hollow or boomy sound in the musician’s own voice that is sometimes experienced with lower quality earplugs. These types of deep-fit earmolds are popular with musicians because of the quality of sound they allow musicians to hear while practicing and performing.
Musician Earplugs Are Not Just for Musicians
Musician earplugs are also a popular hearing protection option for the following types of people:
- Sound crews
- Recording engineers
- Band teachers
- Airline personnel
- Athletic coaches
- NFL football players
- Medical professionals
- Construction workers
- Industrial workers
- Truck drivers
In-Ear Monitors for Musicians
In-ear monitors ensure a proper balance of music and monitoring, usually at a much lower level. They are devices used by musicians to listen to music or to a custom mix of vocals and stage instrumentation for live performance or recording studio mixing. They are often custom fitted to an individual’s ears and provide a high level of noise reduction from ambient surroundings. Depending on the quality of the fit and length of the ear canal, a custom fit in-ear monitor will generally provide somewhere between 25 and 35 dB of noise reduction.
For musicians who perform for large audiences, in-ear monitors (IEMs) are the current standard in musician technology. They allow the musician to hear clearly the music they are making, as the audience would hear it, while still protecting the musician’s ears from extremely loud amplification systems and audiences.
IEMs work best if they are custom-molded to fit each musician’s ears personally. However, universal-fit musician monitors are also available. Universal IEMs typically come with interchangeable foam or silicone tips to allow for a semi-custom fit.
How do In-Ear Monitors Work
In-ear monitors are similar to hearing aids in that there is a preamplifier and usually one or two receivers (with associated crossover network). The microphone is replaced by a direct audio input from the sound engineer’s rack. A cable connects the ear monitors either directly to the rack, such as in the case of a drummer who does not need to move around, or via a wireless FM transceiver that allows mobility. The sound engineer and the musician determine the optimal settings of the musical mix. A hearing specialist can provide a musician with a frequency-by-frequency listing of the corrections necessary to obtain a flat response thereby setting optimal equalizer levels.
In addition, if a hearing loss has occurred, level-dependent corrections should also be provided such that the musician can wear the device like a hearing aid (with music input). The level-dependent and frequency-response specifications for hard-of-hearing musicians are obtained in the same way as that of any hearing aid prescription. Ensuring a flat frequency response in the ear of the musician requires some extra calculation.
Calibrating In-Ear Monitors
The calibration technique to ensure a flat response involves the use of a real-ear measurement system and a flat noise source such as a good quality white noise. Some audiometers generate a fairly flat white noise whereas others do not. A number of software programs can generate a perfectly flat noise source and this could be recorded onto tape or CD and fed directly into the ear monitor. The input cable for the in-ear monitor can be plugged into this white noise source via the audiometer or computer, and a white noise input can be generated at about a 70-dB audiometer dial reading. A probe tube can be placed in between the in-ear monitor and the ear canal wall in the normal fashion, and the output in that individual’s ear can be measured. Deviations from a flat response can be noted and provided to the musician to share with the sound engineer. For example, if there was an 8-dB resonance at 2000 Hz, the sound engineer could attenuate this frequency region by 8 dB.
The real-ear measurement system should first be configured to receive external stimuli. This can be accomplished by disabling both the reference microphone and the speaker. Various manufacturers of real-ear measurement systems have different methods of accomplishing this, but they usually involve setting the stimulus level to 0 dB or turning the reference microphone to off. Performing this 2-minute calibration ensures that any subsequent changes to the music are because of the musician’s personal preferences rather than any limitations of the in-ear monitors.
Both earplugs and IEMs can be custom made (using a mold) to fit your unique ear shape, usually by an audiologist or hearing specialist. The ear impression that is used to make the custom-fit earmold or in-ear monitor is the most important part of the process. The quality of the ear impression material and technique directly impacts the sound quality, sound isolation, and comfort that is achieved with the earmold. Because this part of the process is so crucial, it is important that you have experienced and trained hearing specialists like those at Apex Audiology to make impressions for high-quality musician earplugs.