Who hasn't ever come home from a show with their ears ringing? Most of the time, we take it as a sign of a good time—one that fades by morning. But what we don't like to think about is the fact it's also a warning sign. Because the grim truth is, one day it might not fade; and once you have it, hearing damage is irreversible. Detroit techno producer Carl Craig is one of many tinnitus sufferers—he's spoken out about listening to recordings of Tibetan singing bowls and practicing meditation to alleviate the symptoms. Sometimes all it takes is one tipping point to irrevocably damage your hearing: last year, house pioneer Lil Louis had his career thrown into jeopardy when someone blasted an air horn inches from his left ear, causing permanent hearing loss. And it can happen at any age: a couple of years ago, Grimes was forced to cancel a string of European tour dates after having problems with hearing loss and tinnitus, telling her fans she needed to urgently limit her exposure to loud music (she was only 24 at the time).
If preventative measures are all we have, then it’s about time ear plugs at clubs and shows lost their stigma and became cool—because the alternative is scary, to say the least. As festival season approaches fast, The FADER spoke to nine artists and DJs who spend their lives in loud environments to find out what kind of plugs they use—from the most professional to the most affordable—and why protecting their hearing is something to shout about.
DJ, Producer [Phantasy]
I've had [tinnitus] as long as I can remember. I used to listen to music on headphones even when I was around eight years old, and had slight ringing in my ears back then. I remember going to sleep wondering what that sound was...I think real tinnitus hit me around 2009.
What ear plugs do you use? My ear plugs are ACS PRO17s. I had another pair of ACS plugs but these are far better. It feels like you aren’t DJing behind a screen, which I felt a little with my old ear plugs. Style doesn’t really come into it, to be honest. I feel they are best when they are transparent: you don't feel they are there, but they are doing the job.
DJ, Producer [R&S, Noise Manifesto]
I couldn’t hear when I was born, and for the first five years of my life. After a successful operation, I appreciate hearing, and I love music so why would I take unnecessary risks? I started wearing ear plugs 14 years ago when I decided to DJ full time. Several of my friends who are DJs or producers had tinnitus at the time; they told me how miserable it made them, and how stupid they felt for not wearing ear protection earlier. One friend had to go to bed every night listening to white noise in order to sleep. Another friend told me how sometimes the tinnitus would drive him so crazy he wanted to end his life. Sounds pretty extreme huh? Well, it made me be sensible right from the go.
What ear plugs do you use? I got the Elacin ear plugs with the ER15 filter. They’re custom molded to my ears, [cost] about 150 Euros and [are] worth every penny. They are comfortable, discreet, and they help me enjoy the clubbing environment much more.
DJ, Producer [Fool's Gold]
I started feeling like I was losing some of my hearing in my left ear about two years ago, so I got really afraid and went to a doctor to get my hearing checked. Turns out my hearing was great, but I decided this was a warning of sorts, and had the doctor make me custom ear plugs right then and there.
What ear plugs do you use? Regular ear plugs that you buy at Walgreens just cover up all sound, they reduce everything by literally covering your ear canal. Customs are made to fit your particular ear canal as well as reduce the level of sound, not just mute it. Mine are custom fit Westones. Clear, no frills, with caps for decibel reductions of either 25dbl or 15dbl. When a club sound system is calibrated properly, I shouldn't need them. It's when I end up in a spot with shitty sound that I usually wear them.
DJ, Producer [DMZ, Hyperdub, Brownswood]
I'm totally deaf in my left ear, so I’ve always been careful. I spend my life producing records and playing music on some of the heaviest sound systems in the world; my ears feed my family, so it’s one of the most important things to me. Without ear plugs, the sparkle and hiss of the top end can feel more exciting, but it’s damaging. I’d say I use protection 90%—95% of the time. Once I got used to wearing plugs, I preferred the difference.
What ear plugs do you use? I've had custom ear plugs made from a few different places. In the UK, USA and most recently from a place called Lapperre in Antwerp, Belgium. All my plugs have been custom made. The reason I like the ones I have now is that I can change the decibel reduction level. If I’m just out in a club or loud music environment then I use -25dB or -20dB filters. When I’m playing generally use -15dB or -10dB reduction.
DJ, Vocalist, Producer [Lit City Trax]
My mom gave me some ear plugs before I left for my first European/UK tour, so that brought my attention to it. I’ve definitely had my ears ringing after some shows. Sometimes when I go in the crowd when I'm done performing to dance with my fans, I realize how loud the music is.
What ear plugs do you use? Honestly, right now I just use the brands you can find at your local drugstore like Walgreens and CVS. I usually like to get the nude color so it blends in with my skin, even though my hair covers them. I recently made an appointment with an otolaryngologist so I can get some customs. I play all my show with ear plugs now and I provide my dancers with them too. It's important to me because I'm not only thinking about my career, I'm thinking long term. I'm only 24 and I want to have a long successful life and career and to do that I gotta take care of myself. My ears are my money makers, I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t hear any more. Better safe than sorry.
Producer [Secret Songs, Cascine]
Last year I got into the habit of wearing sunscreen every day to protect my skin, so I also wanted to do the same for hearing by wearing ear plugs.
What ear plugs do you use? I'm using 3M's clear ear plugs. They are very durable and do a good job of blocking out annoying frequencies (and my neighbor's parties at 3am). I bought them for £2, so losing them won't be a heartbreaking experience. Prior to these I used a pair from Ear Peace, which was a gift, but I lost them. I don't find my current plugs to be significantly different in terms of volume reduction or clarity though.
DJ, Producer [Mixpak]
I go out two or three times a week as well as DJing, and usually I’m right next to the speaker. Even if it’s not the music, someone’s screaming in your ear. When you get home [from a club], if you think about how your throat hurts from talking so much, or your whole body hurts—you might not be able to feel it, but you ears are taking the same beating. You can tell when the sound is good in a place. If you go somewhere like Output, everybody’s like, ‘they need to turn the sound up!’ It’s like, ‘No they don’t. This is good sound.’ But if you go somewhere where it’s blasting your ear, then the sound’s bad. People are just so used to bad sound, that when they hear good sound they think it’s too low.
What earplugs do you use? The place that I went for mine was called Manhattan Comprehensive Ear Medicine. I recommended a ton of DJs to go there, because they were only like $150, $200. A lot of places rip you off. I got these Westone custom made ones. It’s the weirdest process, they fill your ears up; basically, you have this mold, and they keep the mold on file for you just in case. It took me a really long time to get used to them. You feel underwater. But now, if I’m away and I forgot them, I’ll buy somewhat more than just cheap stupid ones. [Cheap ones are] just uncomfortable. My ears are really small, so they don’t stay in. I also wear [my plugs] in my gym classes because the instructors like to pump up the loudest EDM possible and everyone in the class is going to go deaf.
DJ, Producer [No Pain In Pop]
I've been going to gigs since I was about 13. It's been a couple of years since I started thinking about ear protection. I was prompted by my worsening tinnitus.
What ear plugs do you use? I still haven't got round to investing in a pair of professional ones; at the moment I've just got to stick to my neon psychedelic ear plugs. They're pretty basic apart from the fact that they look trippy. There was an ear plug dispenser in a studio where I was working so I made sure I stocked up! I always have a bunch of them in my bag so when I'm out DJing or playing a show, they're there if I need them.
Shaun Sutkus, Perfect Pussy
Sound engineer, Keyboardist, Producer
When I was 19 I had an audio internship at a venue and would always wear ear plugs at shows there. The yellow squishy ones. I knew that if I was going to last as a sound engineer, I needed to start protecting my ears. The louder the sound, the shorter amount of time it takes to permanently damage your ears. Even "quiet" sounds can damage your ears if listened to over an extended period of time.
What ear plugs do you use? I’ve been using ACS PRO17s for a few years now. They had a table set up at a festival I was working and were giving artist out endorsements. I had lost a pair of Ultimate Ears a few months before and was in the market for a new pair...They took molds of my ear and set me custom ear plugs. I chose the PRO17s because of their flat frequency response and -17dB filter. Most of the time I have ear plugs in—my environment is in the 100-110dB range, which can permanently damage your ears in 15 minutes or less.
The plugs I'm wearing in the photo are DUBS. I don't like the way they sound or fit in my ear compared to the PRO17s. But, they are a good replacement for me and could be good for people that want a better sounding ear plug at an affordable price.