Save Your Hearing While DJing in 3 Easy Steps

Have you ever heard ringing in your ears after a gig? If the answer is yes, then you suffered from temporary hearing loss. Chances are that your ears will recover, but over time this abuse adds up and eventually leads to serious problems – the worst of which could include severe hearing loss and the end of a career. Fortunately there are three simple things you can do to save your ears without changing the way you DJ at all!

First, I must give credit to the inspiration for this article: Johannes Krämer. Johannes is Richie Hawtin‘s personal sound engineer. He’s traveled the world making sure that Richie sounds perfect at every gig – while still keeping his hearing when performing! Along with doing engineering for other DJs and bands, Johannes brings 20 years of experience to the table. The following form a longer conversation about hearing loss –  so I will summarize the three main tips Johannes gave me.

It’s also worth pointing out that DJs are very unique performers in that they have to wear two different hats: the front of house engineer (making sure the mix is balanced) and the performer. Without sound engineers (many small club and bar gigs are like this),  the dj has to keep his ears in tune with the room in order to make sure everything stays on point.

1) DON’T DRINK AND DJ

“If I see a DJ take two or three shots during a set, I know for sure that he will eventually end up deaf. It’s only a matter of time.” – Johannes

I know this is a bit of a party pooper tip, but the fact is that alcohol impedes your ability to perceive when the sound is too loud. Simply put, while drunk you will do serious damage and not even realize it.

The Science: While the concept of “cocktail deafness” has been around for some time, there’s a fair amount of medical evidence that supports the claim that the more inebriated you are, the more you lose your hearing, meaning that you’ll turn up the track to compensate. One such study (The Acute Effects of Alcohol on Auditory Thresholds) reports:

Our results showed that there was a positive association between increasing breath alcohol concentration and the magnitude of the increase in hearing threshold for most hearing frequencies. […] Alcohol specifically blunts lower frequencies affecting the mostly 1000 Hz, which is the most crucial frequency for speech discrimination. In conclusion alcohol does appear to affect auditory thresholds with some frequencies being more affected than others. 

2) TURN DOWN THE MONITORS BETWEEN MIXES

For DJs, most hearing damage does not occur from loud noise itself, but from the amount of time you are exposed to that noise. By modulating noise levels in the booth, this is going to dramatically reduce a DJ’s noise liability and allow the ears to recover during a set.

Consider using a DB meter (see tip 3) to assist you in figuring out what a safe working environment in the DJ booth should be in terms of noise.

The Science: Keeping the total amount of time you’ve got the monitors blasting at you will keep you below the maximum safe repeated exposure time for loud noises – see this page on the CDC to get a better idea of how short these max times can be at high volumes!

Booth Levels are subjective but here is a general rule of thumb:  Run the monitors loud enough to cancel reflections during the mix and then turn them down to the point where they serve as a local fill. 

3) USE AN EXTERNAL DB METER

Once exposed to noise for a little while, the brain has a very hard time judging what is loud. This gets worse over time with more exposure as the set goes on. Therefore, without a tool for objective metering it’s nearly impossible to keep a check on your volume.

I recommend that Rich run his monitors at the following levels while mixing:

  • 100DB in a open air concert
  • 103 Db in a club with a low ceiling
  • 106 Db if there are really bad reflections

Then, once done EQing or mixing, I recommend turning the monitors down to 90db for regular listening. – Johannes

If you’re looking for a great and simple DJ meter, the one pictured at right is relatively cheap (around $23 on Amazon) and does the trick. This is a bit of an advanced tool to have in your DJ booth – but it could save your ears just that much more.

A lot of DJs will prefer to use their phone to check DB meters and there are some solid apps out there that do just that. Be warned -microphones on mobile devices can sometimes perform poorly when it comes to detecting low end noises and distinguishing levels greater ~100db, so they’re not precision tools. For iOS users, we can recommend the $0.99 SPL Meter by Studio 6 as a good simple mobile meter.

There you go, three tips on how to stay more healthy as a DJ. Do you have any during-gig hearing protection tips? 

Here are a few more articles we have written in the past about hearing loss:

Ean Golden - Author

Ean Golden is the founder of Dj TechTools and a worldwide Dj specializing in controllers and new performance technology.

Follow Ean on: Twitter  Facebook   SoundCloud   YouTube 

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  • PAB

    I use Mack’s High Fidelity Musician’s Ear Plugs or Mack’s Acoustic Foam Ear Plugs. Worked great at last weekend’s music fest.

  • DJ Ashhh

    Is the recommendation towards the Studio 6’s SPL meter app for IOs based on comparisons you did with pro DBmeters? Because I bought the app and it consistently shows levels about 10 dB less than all of my other similar (but free) SPL-meter apps (who agree between themselves)… Which should I believe now???

  • FLO

    Great article and advice. How about in-ear noise reducing ear plugs? Is there an affordable and specific brand to look into?

    -FLO

  • I use the custom molded earplugs at all times. I have been wearing simple foam plugs for years when simply attending events, but I found that the majority of my hearing damage was coming from poorly EQed monitors or monitor systems where I had no control over monitor volume.

    Now that I wear the customs while playing, I find that I can hear things more clearly (as all the crazy reverb and noise is gone) and I don’t feel like total shit with a headache and ear ringing afterward. I can’t recommend the custom musician’s plugs enough.

  • 4) Use fucking earplugs

  • Anonymous

    EAR PLUGS

  • chymera

    I have to echo some of the comments below and chime in with support for custom made earplugs. Any Dj who is not wearing these on a regular basis is going to suffer from some form of hearing loss one way or another. If you are just a random punter and don’t want to shell out the money for a custom set of plugs then silicone ones are also quite good.. Or you can even ER-20’s: http://www.amazon.co.uk/ACS-ER20-Musicians-Earplugs/dp/B000UJ8RHE/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1365582576&sr=8-1&keywords=er-20

    I DJ most weekends. I use my earplugs at all times when DJing. Once you get used to it there’s no difference in DJing as regards being able to perceive or hear the tracks properly, but the benefits it has for your hearing are immense. I also perform live however and that’s where the trickiness sets in. I need to hear every nuance of the detail and using earplugs cuts out most of the high frequencies. I have to turn down the monitors as much as possible, sometimes even just using the floor system if it is close enough to the booth. If there is a monitor beside my ear, I always turn and angle it towards the floor. It’s not a great solution but unfortunately I haven’t found another way. I tried using In ear monitor headphones but they are very hard to get used to, it’s like being in a cocoon and only seeing a party happening in front of you.

  • Ear plugs are the only real protection. The molded ones are the most comfortable and most effective 🙂

  • Charles Mykid

    I bought the V-Moda Faders and tested them last Friday, cant complaing.

  • Stereo Jones

    I def wear them through the venue, but I’m a fan of “Hearing” music.
    Once I hit the booth, the monitor comes down and I settle in to enjoy my set.
    Of course if the FOH is so load that it pollutes the whole area then sure the ear plugs go back in.
    But I get sick of seeing anally retentive djs with earplugs and soda water concentrating so hard that they send out no party energy what so ever.
    There’s a nice balance in there some where.
    Turn the booth level down enjoy your set, have a beer or 2 (not 10) and smile like you’re actually at the same party as the crowd.
    I just feel like we’re all becoming such pussies.

  • Anyone who is concerned with their ears but don’t want to pull out the wallet for big spending on molded plugs, just get any type of in-ear plugs with soft silicone. Wear them once or twice to get used to having plugs in your ears during a whole set…

    it’s a simple 20 bucks investment to see whether or not it’s your thing or if you wanna make a sequel to “It’s all gone Pete Tong”.

  • I’m not sure about those db Setting of 100db or more, it’s certainly not the case in a German club. Most have limiters that kick in when you go over 97db… I don’t care what anyone says about ‘that’s not loud enough’. It’s Fn loud enough to permanently damage your hearing with in 2 hours.

  • MarioMoxie

    Holy sh*t … few weeks ago I danced next to the DJ booth downstairs at berghain, while Ben Klock was doing his Intro … there is a volume meter at the booth , it showed ~118 dB during the whole set …
    i think i should continue wearing plugs … :O

  • bought the westone UM2 from here. they work!

  • Guy&Girl

    Wait, what? “Hearing damage does not occur from loud noise itself, but from the amount of time you are exposed to that noise.” This is not true. Get a spike of sudden volume at 130 dB, and it most certainly could do damage to your ears. That’s like saying an explosion doesn’t do damage to your ears. There are muscles in there that contract and vibrate as well, and going from total silence to a high dB could damage your ears.

    • Dan White

      Indeed – catastrophic noise spikes can be just as dangerous as prolonged noise. But for DJs in a booth, it’s mostly the long haul that’s causing damage. I’ve updated the article to reflect.

    • KIO

      You are actually contradicting yourself and confirming that the amount of time exposed to a certain noise level is directly related to the intensity of that sound. Just look at the table in the link given in the article above. The way it works is that doubling any sound intensity adds 3 dB. So according the table, if you point a set of speakers at your ears playing at 80 dB you’ll be fine for an 8 hour exposure. Adding the same set of speakers playing also at 80 dB doubles the sound intensity to 83 dB and consequently halfs your safe exposure time to 4 hours. If you keep doubling the amount of speakers until you reach 130 dB you have added no less then 50 dB and have doubled the sound intensity more than 16 times! That consequently means your safe exposure time to that sound has halfed more than 16 times. Doing the math this will bring your safe exposure time to a sound of 130 dB to about four tenths of a second. That seems pretty much like a spike of sudden volume to me.

  • Anonymous

    Invest in some high quality custom musicians ear plugs. An audiologist will mold them to your ear so they are comfy and there’s no leakage (a problem with over the counter plugs). Then they have a range of swappable decibel filters which reduce the volume but don’t alter the frequency range (a problem with solid plugs). You can wear em the entire night, especially handy if your in a place without a dedicated booth/monitor. I’ve had mine for 10+ years, work like a charm. Then visit the audiologist every year or so for a hearing test. They can tell you with certainty if you’re hearing is balanced left/right and if the loss (natural with age) is within accepted thresholds for your age group. Rock out!

    • Escalaid

      I can totally recommend them, they are not cheap (like 100€ each side), but I feel like they saved my life after gig!

    • my best dj investment so far.. elacin 15. so much better the next day..

    • These are great for wearing while you are waiting for, or hanging out after your set. Often other (less conscious dj’s will come on and run the monitors at full blast putting you at risk. Personally, I have lost 4 pairs of musicians ear plugs so now I opt for the much more affordable earplugs by V-moda:

      https://store.djtechtools.com/products/vmoda-faders-vip

      completely my best friend on the road, and due to the string design – I never lose them.