Every DJ must be wary of the dangers of hearing loss.Those that perform music are much more likely to incur hearing damage, and unfortunately many do little to protect themselves. This is why we put together an ultimate ear protection guide for DJs.
The music world is loud, fast, and dynamic. Many of us were first attracted to music because of the energy and intensity - the sound waves blasting in our car speakers and headphones. It’s hard not to fall in love with it! Some of us loved music so much that we started playing the guitar, playing in the school orchestra, or even joining a band.
And some of us became DJs.
The DJ forges soundscapes. They take sonic material, like songs or other audio content, and manipulate it in ways that create a performance. It is an in-depth process that requires the DJ to practice, listen, and be constantly subject to audio. This exposure to audio for long periods of time can be dangerous without taking proper precaution, so it is wise that every DJ be on their guard.
Whether gigs are played in a club, at a party, or in a stadium, every DJ should be wary of their ear health. Ear protection is not an option - it’s a necessity.
Sound Pressure Level
Before looking into some of the ways the modern DJ can protect their hearing, it’s helpful to understand what types of environments are dangerous. Every performing DJ, musician, and producer should know what volumes are risky and how long one can be exposed to those volumes.
Sound pressure level (measured in decibels or dB) measures the fluctuations in atmospheric pressure caused by sound waves. Generally, the higher the sound pressure level, the louder the audio source.
When one is subjected to high sound pressure levels, there is limited time before hearing damage is inflicted. It’s a scary thought, but the sonic environments musicians find themselves in on a daily basis can be treacherous. However, there is no need to fear. OSHA's Laboratory Safety Noise requirements are the gold standard when it comes to determining if your hearing is in jeopardy. Here is what OSHA determined:
- 90dBA - 8 hours before permanent hearing loss
- 95dBA - 4 hours before permanent hearing loss
- 100dBA - 2 hours before permanent hearing loss
- 105dBA - 1 hour before permanent hearing loss
This is how long one can preside in 90 - 105dBA audio environments without undergoing hearing loss. OSHA determined that for every +5dBA in noise level, the amount of healthy exposure time is cut in half.
This information is incredibly helpful. Knowing when to step out of a room or when to apply ear protection is critical to your survival as a DJ or musician.
- Download an SPL meter app on your smartphone. If you don’t have a phone, an SPL analyzer can be purchased as a stand-alone device. Keep this device in check when practicing for the next gig. You can also keep it by your turntable or computer when performing live.
- If you are close to exceeding the sound pressure limits recommended by OSHA, take a step out of the room or apply ear protection (addressed in the next section).
As stated earlier, hearing protection should be a part of your performing rig. Proper protection is as crucial as any cable, computer, or console. Even if you’re just a DJ hobbyist, hearing protection should be at the ready.
There are many different kinds of hearing protection. On the lower end of the spectrum, you have foam inserts that be purchased for less than a dollar. These are not very practical for the DJ, but they are good for personal use when attending concerts and shows. On the higher end of the spectrum, one could use custom molded in-ear monitors. These are expensive, but they isolate outside sound - letting you enjoy crystal clear audio regardless of environment.
For the common folk, practical ear protection is anything that keeps sound from directly hitting your eardrum. Many companies produce ear-bud-style inserts that fit comfortably and keep out harmful sound waves. Some products are even designed to cut off frequencies in a balanced way - maintaining sound integrity while attenuating sound level.
Then there is protection for the music performer.
These forms of hearing protection coexist with audio monitoring. This means that your hearing protection is your audio monitoring system. Sure, in-ear audio monitoring could damage hearing. However, if one is careful, outside sounds will be attenuated, and the sounds going into your ears will be controlled...and hopefully quiet.
Here’s a list of practical monitoring/hearing protection devices for the modern DJ:
- Custom molded in-ear monitors: These have the most outside attenuation and practicality for the DJ. If too much isolation is an issue, certain models of in-ears give the user control over how much sound is let in.
- Universal fit in-ear monitors: While not as isolating as custom molded in-ears, universal fit in-ear monitors still attenuate a large portion of outside noise. Note that they don’t feel as comfy as their custom molded counterpart.
- Over-ear headphones: These are the “classic DJ headphones.” Many DJs still enjoy wearing these, but they don’t isolate as much sound as in-ears.
The term “stage volume” means what it sounds like: how much volume is playing from the stage in contrast to the main speakers?
Stage volume is problematic for a couple of reasons:
- Firstly, it can’t be controlled by the front-of-house engineer. The sounds that amps and on-stage monitors emit are prone to reflect off of backstage walls, creating unwanted frequencies and delays that can’t be EQ’d or fixed.
- Secondly, stage volume can destroy unprotected ears. Even if there aren’t on-stage monitors, small venues can be LOUD.
Keeping a “quiet stage” - using in-ear or over-ear monitoring - will save your ears and your sound. If you enjoy stage sound, just keep an SPL meter handy. Knowing when to apply ear protection is half the battle.
Loud music is fun, but it must be taken in doses. Make good music, jam out, and have fun. Just be careful while doing it!