MAGAZINE

A Festival Sound Technician Breaks Down Your Earplug Options

by Michael Mooneyham Sat June 02, 2018 | 10:45 AM

So there you are, walking or perhaps floating back to camp in the predawn light. You're tired from a long night wrapped in rapture on the dance floor; getting high, getting down, and everything in between. As you lay in your tent, you can’t seem to fall asleep. There’s a deep, insistent ringing in your ears: the swan song of cells that will never regrow.

These delicate cells are called stereocilia. Living deep inside your inner ear, they convert sound waves into electrical impulses that get decoded as acoustic information by the brain. Their action is a crucial step in rendering sound pressure into the deeply satisfying and enlightening thing we call music. They fill in vast details in the mind, giving shape to the rich texture of a singers voice or the fuzzy warmth of big heavy bass.   

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) research shows that these irreplaceable and important cells can only be kept healthy in environments below 90 decibels. Modern sound systems are easily capable of producing sound pressure levels above 110db (the max volume of many mp3 players with headphones) It’s not uncommon to see main-stage systems with ratings above 140db (equal to the sound pressure created by a jet aircraft at 150 feet). Suffice it to say, these are intense listening environments. Remember that sound pressure follows exponential curves: music at 106db is twice as dangerous as 100db. I took some measurements at the gig I worked last night and watched the DJ go up to 103db with one push of a fader.   

Another crucial variable is the time span of exposure. Once again these considerations are based on exponential curves. 8 hours at 85db would be considered safe, but only 15 minutes at 100db, and only 1 minute at 110db.   

I’m not trying to harsh your festy vibe with some stuffy PSA. I love music on all levels, from writing it to watching it to performing it to mixing it live. In some ways it's the centerpiece of the festival experience. After hundreds of shows, I can literally show you the notches in my hearing, a graphic representation of the damage done. I want your next festival to sound as good as your first. Full Sap Alert: I want you to hear the full range and color of your kid’s voices. The next time you want to nap, meditate, or dance ecstatic directly in front of the subwoofers, maybe bring some earplugs. But what kind of earplugs? I’ve tried multiple different types of earplugs at different price points, and I’ve compiled a list of pros and cons about them.

Foam Earplugs

Your average every day earplugs. I always keep a stash in my tent in case I lose my professional plugs (FML, again!?). Price: $3-10

Ear Plugs 2015   4

Pros: 

- They’re cheap.
- You can find them anywhere.
- They're sold in large quantities, and are easily replaced if lost.
- If your friends just read this article and are all freaked out about their hearing you can play Camp-Dad or Mom and happily hand them out.

Cons: 

- They aren’t that comfortable, often putting pressure on the inside of the ear canal.
- They can fairly easily fall out.
- They cut out over 30db. You might in some cases put this in the ‘Pro’ column, for instance if the music is just that bad but it happens to be your boo's favorite band. For me, this muffles and disturbs the tone of the music, and makes the music far less enjoyable. I’m tempted to take them out entirely, and then there I am laying in my tent, listening to shrill ghostly echoes of the show.

Filtered Earplugs

Rather than offering protection through sheer physical blockage, this type comes with a filter designed to baffle sound specifically at different frequencies. Companies like Dubs and Etymotics offer models with different filter characteristics. When I lost my pro plugs—the third time—I used a pair like this for a few months and I was fairly impressed. Price: $20-35

Ear Plugs 2015   1

Photo by: DUBS

Pros

- Gives the music much higher fidelity while offering good protection.
- Generally more comfortable than foam earplugs.
- Easy conversation in the middle of a loud dance floor (I’ve lost my voice after days of shouting over the music). 

Cons

- Harder to replace if you go all out on the first night of the party and wake up in a random hammock with only one plug in.
- Filters are sometimes built with medium quality, and can fall out. They are quite small and easily lost.

Custom Plugs

The Cadillac, The Funktion One of earplugs. They are specifically molded to your ears. They come with various filters with different frequency response curves. I have been using these plugs for over a decade and highly recommend them to anyone. If properly cared for—and not lost, again?!--they can last a lifetime. Companies like EmTec/Noisebreaker  and Westone are the big players in the industry. Ask your local audiologist for an appointment to make the molds. Price: $120-180

Ear Plugs 2015   2

Photo by: Emtec

Pros:

- Made of high quality polymer, a lifetime investment.
- Extremely comfortable
- High quality filters that are easily changed.
- Various options for decibel levels. 

Cons:

- Expensive (but come on, whats the price of your hearing?)
- Hardest to replace (unless you’re a baller and you bought two sets).

Michael Mooneyham is a Stage Manager/Audio Technician for Lucidity and an Independent Live and Studio Sound Engineer. He's currently founding Full Moon Audio and always wears ear plugs at festivals.