Can You Hear Me Now? – Hearing Protection, and some Sound Engineering ideas as well

Grateful Dead Soundboard

I know exactly when it happened. I was playing at a jam for a few hours, and everything was going great. The room was good size, and the levels were sane, confirming my initial assessment that my earplugs were not needed. I took a break to let another bassist play, and went off to refill my water bottle.

When I returned, several players had changed, and the music had shifted from 80s rock to 70s Led Zeppelin. I was cool with that, and since the other bassist had to leave, I jumped in. Oh yeah, in my absence it had gotten a lot louder. We started playing Whole Lotta Love, and the woman standing next to me was belting it out with authority. Just before the bridge, I moved closer to the drummer so I could follow his lead through the changes. At the same time, the singer really screamed out the final words of that verse, clipping the monitor speaker next to the drummer. In less than 5 seconds, I knew I had done some harm to my left ear. It immediately felt plugged up, and the tonal balance had changed a lot.

Two days later, my left ear still didn’t feel right, and I had significant ringing in both ears in the morning for several days later. I hoped it would get better – BUT IT DIDN’T! Every morning, I wake up with a significant ringing in my left ear – it’s been over 6 weeks.

I’ve been to a zillion rehearsals, gigs, and concerts, and never have I messed up like this. I was 10 rows back for Aerosmith (the Pump tour) – it was so loud my heart was forced to beat in sync with the kick-drum, but I had my earplugs in and it sounded great!

For 40 years, I have prided myself on having very good hearing. I’m the only guy at work who can hear the computer monitors whine just before they blow. I can tell whether the ringing telephone is real or from the television. I can fix a live mix in under 10 seconds. In short, I’ve got good ears, and I just did them serious damage! So I promise you, this is not a 5th grade drug-awareness warning, this is the real deal (well, so is the 5th grade D.A.R.E class). Protect your ears!

Every time you walk out of a concert, gig, or rehearsal and your ears hurt, or feel stuffed up, you’ve done some harm to your ears. Usually, if it doesn’t happen too often, or the sound wasn’t dangerously excessive, your ears will recover. But if it happens every week, or you stand in front of the PA speakers without earplugs, you can – and will – damage your hearing permanently. The technical term is tinnitus, and you can learn more from

So let’s review some basic principals:

1) Every gig gets louder every hour. This is because our ears get used to the level, and it starts to sound dull, so we turn it up.

2) While extreme volumes will hurt your ears, distortion does harm much more quickly, and at lower levels. This is due to the higher harmonics and relatively long periods that they are produced. Such high-frequency energy would never happen in any naturally occurring music, including distorted guitars. The distortion produced when you clip a power amplifier or mixer/pre-amp is the nastiest sound possible in live music.

Note: Distortion from guitar amps is different than the distortion from a clipped PA amp or overdriven mixer input. Guitar amps and effects are designed to give a “natural” distortion, if that’s not an oxymoron. See the Guitar Noise articles on the Quest for Tone. The mixer and PA amplifier are designed to not distort at all, which means that when they are overdriven, it sounds terrible.

3) It takes courage to admit that everyone’s too loud, including yourself. And if you’re playing with strangers, it’s almost impossible to control it.

4) It used to be that people thought that earplugs were “un-cool”, but after the publicity provided by Pete Townsend, it’s now OK to have neon green corks sticking out of your head. The guitarist of The Who had such a bad case of tinnitus – the ringing in his ears was so loud – that he couldn’t hear whether he was playing the right notes.

5) Hearing protection is like safe sex – it’s your responsibility. Even though others may choose to risk the health of their hearing, you should not.

6) Even smart people make mistakes – arrggh!

For the Musicians

Here are some things to consider when you’re playing:

1) The drummer sets the level of most rehearsals and gigs. If the guitars are louder than the drums, turn them down!

1a) Drummers need to learn dynamics, just like the rest of us. Also, drummers should learn the difference between “louder” and “sharper”. I’m not a drummer, but I know there is a difference.

2) Vocals are the most important part of the music. If you are so loud that you can’t hear the vocals clearly, then you need to turn down. This will save your voice as well as your ears.

3) Dynamics are important too. If you have loud and soft passages, then the loud parts don’t need to be as loud. If you only have loud and louder, it’s a lot harder to keep it sane.

4) Keeping a lower volume at rehearsals is more important than during a performance. I’ve said this several times, when you’re playing in a small room, you’ve got to turn it down. As noted in Rehearse and Rehash, this is also a better way to run a rehearsal so you can hear each other clearly and work on dynamics and harmonies.

For the Sound Engineer

Here are some things to consider when you are engineering or buying PA equipment:

1) The #1 Problem is PA distortion. Remember these items when you are shopping for PA gear:

  • Power: You need enough wattage to be heard clearly without clipping the amp. Bigger amps are not that much more money. Figure you need at least 200W per channel for vocals only for a small club. Much more if you need to add the drums or bass into the mix. Speakers need to be able to handle the power easily. Note that it is hard to “clip” a speaker, but if you over-power it, you can break it.
  • Limiters: You should always use a limiter on the main and monitor amps. Note that many amps have integrated limiters, and those are even better because they don’t need to be adjusted. Limiters keep the loudest sounds just below the threshold of clipping, so no matter what, you can’t harm the amp, the speakers, or your ears.

2) Hearing fatigue. Our ears (like all of our senses) will get used to certain conditions if given enough time. Usually, after 15 minutes or so, you will no longer think the music is really loud, and if you are running the mix board, you will turn it up to make it sound “alive” again. Some simple things to combat this:

  • Turn it down between each set. Let your visual clues help you. Where were the faders? How many yellow lights were lit during the first song? Be aware that your own ears can get fooled.
  • Don’t use the smiley-face EQ (see Kelley’s article). Taking out too much of the mid-range fools you into thinking that the music is not as loud as you think. Leave the settings from 400-2KHz close to flat (0dB).
  • Don’t let the house CD music run too loud between sets. This will continue to force you to get louder.

3) Learn how to use the mixer properly. Any clipping that occurs in the mixer with be faithfully reproduced by the power amplifier, and since it’s in the main signal, the amp’s limiter will not catch it. The gain stages should be arranged so that there is always plenty of headroom, so clipping is almost impossible. You can also use compressors on vocals and other dynamic channels to help keep the overall volume under control. Compressor/limiters are not that expensive. Several companies make 4-channel compressors for around $150; they’re not studio quality, but they’re good enough for your live gigs and rehearsals.

4) Mixing for the Monitors. Believe it or not, for many current road tours, the stage level is much lower than the front-of-house PA volumes being sent to the crowd. If you are playing bigger gigs, pay attention to this, and realize that the monitor mix can drive the stage volume too high. During the sound check, play at least one song with just the monitors on to get a sense for the overall level.

Last – and always – carry your earplugs – and wear them! I know I won’t forget again.

I welcome comments and suggestions on any topic. Email me at [email protected]