It’d be funny to chalk it up to old age, but I’ve been super-sensitive to loud sounds since I was a kid. When stuff is too loud it’s painful, annoying, and can even be disorienting for me, so I always keep a pair of drugstore foam earplugs in my pocket. As a FREAKIN’ ROCKSTAR, I never know when I’m gonna be in a noisy situation or asked to give an impromptu concert to a crowd of 25,000, so it’s nice to be prepared. Foam earplugs are handy, disposable and cheap, but sometimes they make things too soft, and they always muffle sounds making it hard to hear what musical things are happening. Muffling is great sometimes– sleeping on airplanes, snoring pal, drag racing, weed whacking… but when I’m listening to or making music the muffling is a buzzkill.
Two of my musician pals, Dan Schnelle (a full-time jazz drummer from L.A.), and Kevin Niemi of the Joe Trainor Trio own custom earplugs that are made exclusively for musicians and they both love them, so I decided to look into them.
I made an appointment with Dr. Michelli at Handelman Hearing Aids (my local hearing aid shop) and told him what I was looking for, and he recommended the Westone 49, which is a custom-made earplug with snap-in noise reduction filters depending how much quieter you want your surroundings. The filters are made by Etymotic Research and come in 9dB, 15dB, and 25dB sizes, and they all snap right into your custom earplug. A pair of these earplugs comes with one set of filters (your choice; I went with the 9dB), as well as a snap-in plug that blocks almost all noise (similar to what a good foam earplug would do)– I think I paid $225 for these, and then another $50 for a second pair of filters (I chose the 15dB filters). So overall, we’re talking about $275 for everything, which ain’t chump change I know, but what good is a deaf musician? (Just look at Beethoven, Pete Townshend, and Evelyn Glennie. Completely worthless!)
So here’s how it went down:
And then he sent the molds out to Westone to get created. He asked if I wanted my initials etched into the earplugs, so I said sure. The earplugs themselves are clear, but they each have a different colored teeny dot on them so you can tell them apart. I figured in a concert situation with nutty lighting it would be hard to see the dot, so I took Kevin Niemi’s advice and got two different filter colors to make them easier to discern. I asked for the 15dB ones to be clear (figuring I’d probably use them less often), and the 9dB ones to be red and blue (R for Red/Right, and B for, um… Blue/Bleft?).
He had me try them on in the office just in case they needed to be adjusted or in a worst case, re-done. But yay– mine fit perfectly!
So how well do they work?
They freakin’ rule; this is one of those “I don’t know how I survived without them” kinds of things. I wore them out dancing to a loud thumpy club and I brought both sets of filters (the -9dB and the -15dB) since I wasn’t really sure which ones I’d want. The music wasn’t as loud as it’s been in other clubs, so I was very happy with the 9dBs. The music sounded great– I heard all of the highs, all of the thumpy bass, all of the tasty midrange just fine. I also use the 9dBs when we’re rehearsing Billy Joel stuff in Jeff’s basement– it’s smaller-sized basement with drums, saxes, four singers, and the Trainor boys with their amps cranked pretty good. I haven’t had a chance to try out the 15dBs, but I imagine next weekend while standing in front of Jeff’s drum kit during the Billy Joel tribute I’ll want them. I’ll keep you posted!
So I’ve had them now for a while, and they continue to be a must-have. Even as an acoustic duo, there are times when I really need them. (Of course, we’re not a typical James-Taylor-playin’ acoustic duo… we’re an acoustic duo that rocks Violent Femmes tunes in addition to originals like “It Only Takes Two to Rock.” So we definitely turn it up to 11.) For those smaller (but loud) venues, I’ll stick the -9db in one ear and either the -15db or the silent plug in the other, which kinda gives that “finger in your ear so you can hear yourself” effect so I can hear myself. For street gigs where we have very minimal if any amplification, sometimes I’ll throw the 9dB in one ear so I can be hyper-aware of my pitch while not losing any of that “stay connected to Matt” thing. So yeah… these plugs were totally, totally, worth the $275 investment.
Be cool, stay in school.