Sound Of Metal - Drumming & Hearing Protection

Updated: Mar 4

Hi everyone. I’ve taken advantage of the bank holiday weekend to watch Sound Of Metal (recommended!) and it prompted me to think a little bit about the above - I’m not an audiologist, but I’ve played drums in a variety of musical styles, some of which were pretty loud…

I think I’ve always been careful about my hearing - it probably started when I was a drum-obsessed child and my dad turned up with a few pairs of ear defenders and said something like ‘seems you’re doing a lot of that, you have to wear these.’ To be clear, they weren’t headphones that you listen to music with or anything fancy like that, they were the cheap plastic red/yellow ones you might put on before using a pneumatic drill. Later I learned he had some mild hearing loss from working in a foundry for a few years, which might have made him a bit more aware of that kind of thing. Thanks Dad!

I found I really liked wearing them, which might have been because they just blocked out most of the ringing/rattling/etc caused by my inability to tune drums (I’ve since addressed this, kind of) and meant I could play really, really, loudly. I think I would even take them with me to any rehearsals/concerts I was doing; I probably played really, really loudly at those too.

At some slightly later point, I bought a pair of moulded earplugs with removable filters (providing reductions of 10db, 15db, and 25db) - it’s no exaggeration to say they’re probably the best musical investment I’ve ever made, plus they were a bit more socially acceptable than a pair of industrial ear defenders. I’m willing to admit that, on the rare occasions I thought I’d lost them, I was willing to try and get out of doing a gig rather than suffer through it.

I’ve also thought a bit about the appropriateness of different volumes (what’s too much? What’s not enough? Why?) and my current thinking, perhaps unsurprisingly, is… it depends. I’ve seen renowned studio drummer Matt Chamberlain say that when recording, you should play quieter as it makes the drums easier to mix, compress, and so on. But listen to any Led Zeppelin tune and the chances are that at some point John Bonham will be playing very loudly indeed (I think I once heard that in his pre - Zep days he was banned from a number of clubs and studios and dismissed as ‘unrecordable’). I know there’s at least a generation between those two and music has changed, but I think it’s safe to say they made their approaches work.

I studied jazz for a while and so was often playing in situations with minimal, or no, amplification. What I was told, probably more than once, was: ‘if you can’t hear everyone in the room at all times, you’re too loud.’ I don’t think that’s a bad rule, but it could just make you play very quietly all the time - I think learning to play quietly is a very useful thing, but even a quick listen to some legendary jazz drummers (such as Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, and Art Blakey) reveals that they definitely could play quietly but weren’t afraid to hit hard. This could be a good point to bring up the relationship between volume and intensity - a nice way to think about it, for me at least, is volume is vertical and intensity is horizontal - intensity is the ‘width’ of the sound, which can be turned up or down and not be any less convincing. It appears to me most people think jazz is quiet music, but that’s probably because it’s usually relegated to something barely discernible in the background of a restaurant. I’ll stop, that’s a different post…

Volume and intensity are a significant component of the ‘signature sound’ of many well-known musicians - I’ve been learning a bit more about guitar and bass and have realised that the sheer attack and aggression of players like Flea, Geddy Lee, and Stevie Ray Vaughan is a big part of why they sound like they do. Also, I don’t think the restraint of singers like JJ Cale and Joao Gilberto makes them any less compelling than Robert Plant or Ronnie James Dio. Distortion, now taken for granted by basically everyone, is just an electrical instrument that’s ‘too loud’. I’m probably not the first to say I don’t mind that too much.

To conclude: keep listening, it gives you a deeper well from which to draw your ideas and shapes your tastes. If your ears are ringing regularly, seek professional advice ASAP. At least consider earplugs or some kind of ear protection, particularly if you play loud music regularly. Try different stuff - think about the intensity/volume relationship and how you can apply it. How quietly can you play something? How loudly can you play it? Does it change how it sounds? How do you feel when you play it? How do other people react to it? Rehearse (hopefully we’ll be able to do that from now on, fingers crossed) and focus on a member of the group - can you hear what they’re doing? Play around! Don’t do anything you know might hurt/damage your ears, but there really aren’t any wrong ways to go about this, it’s just a chance to experiment and get some real world feedback. Not that kind. Enjoy!

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