Dont go deaf- change your headphones.

Waking up after a long gig you find a tiny mosquito has taken up residence in your ear. You can try to get it out, but no amount of prying will shake free this annoyance. The unfortunate fact is, you never will because the high-pitched hum doesn’t actually exist. It’s a very cruel trick your damaged ear hairs are playing on your mind. For most people who experience this disturbing reality, it dissipates after a day, but an unlucky few are left with it for life. For a dramatic and comedic version of this all-too-common tale, check out the movie It’s All Gone Pete Tong

(cheeky cockney slang for “it’s all gone wrong”). It’s what happens when a famous Ibiza club DJ gets tinnitus and eventually goes deaf from extreme noise levels. Hollywood exaggerations? Well, the average DJ booth is usually around 110 dB. According to industry standards, you should not be exposed to that level of noise for more than 30 minutes at a time before permanent damage can begin to take hold. Got your attention? Well, enough of the gloom and doom. Here is the good news: There is a simple way you can not only save your ears but also significantly clean up your mixes at the same time. All you need to do is let go of those clunky DJ headphones and try out in-ear monitoring.

DON’T TURN IT UP TO 11

In-ear monitor systems were pioneered in the early-’80s by Marty Garcia of Future Sonics as a solution for vocal fatigue and stress on musicians’ ears. The Grateful Dead where among the early bands to tour with this groundbreaking form of personal monitoring that replaced floor wedges with tiny drivers placed inside plastic molded to the ear. Although the idea took nearly a decade to really take root, earphone monitors are now the industry standard for almost every famous performer you know. Because they provide clearer monitoring at safer listening levels, it’s safe to say many careers have been lengthened as a result of this incredible technology. “The ears age with exposure to noise, not just with time,” explains Kathy Peck, the founder of H.E.A.R., a nonprofit dedicated to raising hearing awareness among musicians. “You can slow down your ears’ aging by reducing their noise exposure.” H.E.A.R. recently helped pass a groundbreaking ordinance in San Francisco that requires all nightclubs to have earplugs available to patrons. That’s great news for dancers but doesn’t solve the problem of chronically deaf DJs.

In order to hear clearly, DJs need monitors that are louder than the combined noise of the crowd and the sound system — in other words, painfully loud. Today’s earphones are usually designed with foam ear buds that expand to fill the inside of your ear just like an earplug with a little speaker inside. They can block up to 35 dB of outside noise, reducing the required monitoring level and delivering clear, hi-fidelity sound straight to the ear canal. Not only are you literally adding years of life to your healthy ears, but you’re also gaining a sonic perspective of the mix that can only be matched by the world’s best DJ booths.

 

DUELING TECHNOLOGIES

In the past 20 years, the technology of personal ear monitors has progressed immensely. The quality of sound is now outstanding, and prices are much more accessible to your average performer. In-ears typically range from $100 to $500, and a quality pair of mid-level in-ears without custom molds comes in at around $250. There are many different manufacturers of earphone monitors — or “canal phones” — and two main categories of technology: armature and dynamic. The majority of in-ears are made with armature drivers (developed originally for hi-fidelity hearing aids). Armature drivers provide a detailed, flat picture of sound but tend to lack lower frequencies. To combat that, higher-end models frequently employ several armature drivers in a single ear bud. As many as three drivers connected by crossovers provide a complete sonic picture, which, with a proper seal, can reach down to 10 Hz in some models.

Shure, Etymotic and Westone are all strong companies that use armature drivers in models that many different types of performers have. In my tests, dual-driver armatures sounded detailed and precise. They make poorly recorded MP3s painfully obvious and long plane rides seem shorter. The only drawback is the apparent lack of bass in some models. In a club environment, that’s not such a big deal because the subwoofers fill in the missing low end, but for personal listening, some models might be too bright for some people’s taste.

The oldest manufacturer and innovator of Ear Monitors, Future Sonics (www.futuresonics.com), makes several excellent models that are all built using the other major form of headphone technology. Dynamic in-ears, in the same way as microphones, move air to create sound and have a frequency response more similar to a loudspeaker. As a result, users tend to enjoy a warmer sound that emphasizes the low end without the harsh middle range that seems to be more pronounced in digital music. Even the consumer model that retails for $149 blows your average iPod ear bud out of the water.

Ultimate Ears is another respected company that provides in-ear solutions to many of the world’s top artists. They primarily use armature drivers but offer one model, the Super.fi 5 EB, which combines armature and dynamic technologies to get the best of both worlds into one tiny package. And M-Audio has partnered with Ultimate Ears to use the same dual-driver technology on its earphones, as with the IE-30s.

 

GIVE AND TAKE

I admit, this concept may require rethinking the way you DJ. Single-earphone cueing is impossible, and it’s impractical to continually put them in and take them out of your ears. But there are several workarounds, including mixers with split cueing and using the waveform displays in some digital-DJ programs to check the phase of a mix. They will all require some patience and a little relearning, but the payoff is worth the effort.

The possibility of almost completely eliminating the noise problem offers a glimmer of hope for many DJs, including myself. I highly encourage you to try out the technology on your own and see if personal ear monitors can help improve and extend the life of your DJ career.

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  • Filterkat

    another solution, “musicians earplugs”. basically, theyre the opposite of a hearing aid.

    Most earplugs you get down at the local music store, the foam ones, or funny looking plastic ones, are OK, but they muddle the sound up a lot, and you dont hear the mid and high frequencies as well as you would the bass.

    I went to an audiologist, or whatever theyre called and asked if there was something simmilar, but that didnt “muffle” the sound. He suggested to me these musicians earplugs. theyre a freaking GODSEND!

    They take a custom mold of inside your ear, and create these little plugs that sit perfectly tight in your ears, and then fit them with little filters that still allow for the Mid and High frequencies to pass through, relative to the bass. so you get clear, balanced sound, MINUS about 35 DB… so from 110db, that makes it 75db, which is considered a safe level for long periods of time… well i chose 35DB reduction but you can choose this yourself when you get them made…

    Bonus… you can still DJ with your normal DJ headphones, do single ear monitoring, plus the various other advantages of mixing with a set of cans you can actually take off your head… just put them on over the plugs.

    they arent cheap… bout 300 bucks for a pair, but if you still want to be able to hear at the age of 50, id highly reccomend these.

  • J Jack

    @Anonymous – I’ve heard of DJs using in ear headphones under their normal headphones to help drown out the sound, but never heard of the using actual earplugs. Interesting though, I wonder why anyone would do that?

    • guest.sdfds

      Calvin Harris uses ear plugs under his Sennheiser HD-25s. It’s a very good idea to help in your ears longevity, you don’t lose much of the signal from your headphones.  Custom earplugs come with different filters for different levels of attenuation, mine are at 25 dB since I’m a DJ and frequent club goer. The least level of attenuation is usually 15 dB, if you’re keen on keeping a lot of the high frequencies in your club nights, those would be suitable. However, a lot of the clubs that I frequent have their systems so loud that even with the 25 dB attenuation the music is loud! I feel bad for the club goers who don’t realize how damaging the atmosphere is to their ears. Providing earplugs for club goers is a huge step in auditory health. Well done!

  • Tyger2204

    After reading this (and the other article on IEMs) I’ve been experimenting using my Sure SE110s at the club. Keep in mind I work 5 out of 6 nights a week as the primary DJ at the strip club, so it’s not the all out club DJ but I do as much as I can get away with. My ears ring most days already so I had been looking at various sound canceling headphones (Beats by Dre & Pioneer HDJ-2000 currently). Does anyone have any experience with either of these headphones vs the IEMs? Hoping to get a good idea before dropping $300 on one vs the other and the SE110s (as expected) aren’t the best for this application.

  • Tamay

    Refering to MsoB i just bought some of those earplugs myself. If you dont use in ear Monitoring you wont get the chance to stay below 95db in a club.. So i think combining earplugs with a proper Headphone might be a good and cheap solution which also offers the opportunity to do one ear monitoring which to me has always been an important factor. Not for looking cool with the headphone in the “dj style” pose, but hearing the actual Sound thats being delivered through the clubs PA always sounds different from the sound you hear through your headphones.. Each PA is different and furthermore hearing the actual sound and the crowds reaction has always been an inportant factor for me.

    I Found a site wich is specialized on those earplugs and in ear Monitors. Its called http://www.sonicshop.de/ and is a german site which also ships to all over the world. They offer a good value and many forms of earplugs with a great search mask which helps you finding the right earplugs for your needs.

    Might be worth a visit!

    Cheers and big shout to all of the DjTT community. Those comments are mostly a good addition to the original article!

  • I use the M-Audio in-ear monitors and they work great in loud situations but sometimes I have trouble re-adjusting if I have to take them off for a minute.

    I think the best way is to keep them in the whole time and just keep the volume as low as possible.

  • I've been using strictly in-ear monitors to mix for several months now and it has helped my mixing immensely. I spin at a lounge, where as the night goes on and ppl have more drinks they get chatty and loud. My setup includes a pair of etymotic er4 earphones connected to a small headphone amp. The sound is next to none. Being able to hear every little nuance helps me maintain near-perfect beat alignment and levels. The main sound system might sound different, but over time I've learned how to keep everything in balance.

  • Just ordered a set of Future Sonics Atrio earphones. Here's hoping they're awesome 🙂

  • FRGus723

    [quote post="37"]I’m guessing Dirty South probly has the custom molded ones which i can’t yet afford, but same idea.[/quote]

    You can get custom ear molds for the Shure 5 series. I have the SE 530's and you can get custom ear molds for those for $100. You need to go to an audiologist to get an earmold and then send those off to Sensaphonics. Check out the Sensaphonics website. I must say they are way more comfortable and don't produce the fatigue that"earbud" styles create.

  • DJ Anonymous

    I have been taught to take care of my ears since childhood. Crazy as it seems there are DJs here in Dubai and perhaps elsewhere too who think they still have the ear in good shape but because of faulty ears as they either blow up speakers or turn away clubbers from ridiculously unbalanced audio mix.

    It is dangerous to let ego overcome the realities of going deaf.

    • vijay bumbay

      i came across a dj in the jumeirah area who can’t hear the bass while at the far end of the hallway leading to his club, the bass is still so strong that when you’re in the club, your hairs move.

  • MsoB

    certainly 🙂 Thanks for creating this great resource and sharing so much of your knowledge with the community!

  • thanks a lot for that great contribution MsoB 🙂

  • MsoB

    I recently picked up a pair of shure e500 IEMs (late model, they are now called se530, but the drivers are identical) and I've been using them to mix. As Ean said, they are pretty impressive in terms of detail and accuracy, but there are definitely benefits and drawbacks, same as mixing in headphones vs. using monitors. I use Ableton, so beatmatching isn't an issue, but there are other things. Some music just sounds very different in IEMs than they do on a big old (bass heavy) club PA, and i find myself spending lots of time on all these subtle effects and tweaks, which I'm sure no one but me can hear… That being said, all the drawbacks i've noticed so far don't outweigh the value of my hearing 🙂

    Addressing imrod's question, I've tried something similar to this, using Etymotics ER20 hifi earplugs under my Ultrasone HFI 700 headphones. I'm guessing Dirty South probly has the custom molded ones which i can't yet afford, but same idea. This definitely works, as long as the earplugs don't protrude so far out that the headphones press them into your ears. I actually recommend those ety plugs for anyone who likes loud music and also values their hearing – they are cheap($12), reusable, and they provide a fairly flat 20db reduction across the frequency spectrum (unlike the cheap foam ones you get at the drug store, which muffle the hell out of highs and high-mids).

    Circumaural headphones with good isolation (Sennheiser HD280s come to mind) serve much the same function as the IEMs Ean was talking about, but again, you'd have to keep them on both ears all the time.

    I'm still undecided about what is my favorite way to monitor, but it's good to see other DJs actually caring about their hearing, and spreading the word. The one big advantage that old-style musicians (guitar, bass drums, vocals, etc.) have, in terms of monitoring, over DJs/Controllerists/(whatver the hell we are) is that they have a sound guy. All they need to do is focus on playing the music, and just trust that what the sound guy is sending to their monitors (in ear or floor wedges) is a close approximation of what the crowd is hearing. DJs (at least at smaller venues)are usually expected to be totally responsible for the FOH mix – which can be a big job when you are mixing 4 or more channels, using all sorts of effects, and/or playing synths.

    as a side note on IEMs: The strong low end response of the higher end models is really nice, but listening to music with lots of really low bass (I'm thinking along the lines of Benga) can be… unsettling. There is something weird, and kinda uncomfortable about having 25Hz basslines pulsing directly into your eardrums.

    …unreasonably long reply post over.

  • Anonymous

    At Ultra this year, I think i saw Dirty South put on sum earplugs before his set and using them under his headphones. Has anyone ever tried this?

  • imrod1988

    At Ultra this year, I think i saw Dirty South put on sum earplugs before his set and using them under his headphones. Has anyone ever tried this?

  • Ean

    your welcome!!! good luck with your ears.

  • My ears have been ringing for a minute. I have stoped using monitors and have been using headphones only. Now I'm gonna try these in-ear monitors and hope they help. I went out and purchased some m-audio's. The sound is amazing! Will be giging with them this week and will let you know how it goes.

    Thanks!