Yes, I get the joke – monitor engineers are all deaf thanks to the job, right?
I made the decision early in my career that I didn’t want to fall into that trap, and I’ve been consistently meticulous about looking after my hearing. It seems to be paying off – a recent test showed that I have the hearing of someone 20 years younger, so I hope what I share helps you to take care of your ears too.
Keep It Clean
Let’s start with the purely physical aspect of good ear hygiene, because nobody, least of all a gigging sound engineer, needs an ear infection. We all know how dirty hands get on the road. If you’re using in-ear monitors (IEMs), that dirt gets transferred to earmolds (and thus to the insides of our ears) each time we pop them in and out.
While it’s obviously impractical to wash your hands every time you touch your molds, it’s certainly a good idea to do it – or at least use a wet wipe – when you’ve finished setting up and are ready to start listening. Likewise, I clean my molds every day before I put them in for the first time – a once over with a wipe and an excavation of any old wax keeps things hygienic. If you’re using generics, make sure you have a good supply of the foam or rubber tips and change them regularly – ideally daily, but at least every three gigs.
We also want to keep our ears themselves clean. The old saying that you should “never put anything larger than your elbow in your ear” (go ahead, try it!) may be a little extreme, but it’s certainly a bad idea to poke cotton buds down there. As satisfying as it may feel, you risk pushing compacted wax further down towards the ear drum and damaging the tiny hairs in the ear canal which help to transmit sounds waves.
A drop or two of olive oil into the ear softens any excess wax so it can naturally work its way out, and I find that a wet wipe wrapped around my little finger is just the right size to safely clean the ear as far as it reaches – it can’t physically go far enough down to risk any damage.
Ear syringing used to be the popular method for occasional deeper ear cleaning, but it too carries a risk of damage to the ear drum, and for that reason the newer method of microsuction – exactly as it sounds, a tiny vacuum cleaner guided down your ear by a trained audiologist – is a safer choice.
Whenever I’m in a loud environment other than the gig I’m actually mixing, I wear earplugs. The cheap foam ones are great for pure noise-blocking, and I tend to use these at festivals or when a support act is on prior to our set.
However, there are times when I want to reduce volume but still need to hear clearly, and this is when I use titanium plugs (mine are by UK company Flare Audio). Much of our hearing works through the bone conductivity of the skull, and the metal plug means that you retain this – and thus intelligibility – but greatly reduce the volume.
These are my go-tos when I go and see a band for fun as well – I get to enjoy the mix but retain control of the volume. Another great alternative for this purpose is attenuating molds, which many custom IEM manufacturers produce.
If you’re regularly using molds or plugs, you may find your ears becoming a little sore over time from friction. I put a small dab of lubricant (many IEM manufacturers will sell you a tube; personally I swear by Lucas PawPaw ointment) on my little fingers and wipe it around the insides of my ears before I put my molds or plugs in.
Not only does it keep them comfortable, but it helps the seal of the molds or plugs into your ears and encourages any wax that attaches to them while in your ears to come out when you remove them.
Keep It Down
As for actually mixing monitors – how then to best protect our hearing? Well, we can choose the volume we listen at! While there’s no denying that the live environment can be very noisy, you don’t have to listen to your wedge or IEM mix at the same volume as the artist or band member if they like it really loud – in fact I’d highly recommend that you don’t.
Some engineers actually create their own preferred mix to listen to during the gig, which I don’t do – we’re there to monitor the onstage mixes, after all – but we’re not being paid enough to permanently damage ourselves in the process.
Two Is Better Than One
In the early days of IEMs, when the technology was not too great, some people got into the habit of using both ears and wedges and wearing just one IEM. Here’s a fun experiment to demonstrate why this is a bad – if understandably tempting – idea. All you need is a sound source – your phone will do – and some IEMs.
Put one ear in. Turn the volume up to a level you’re happy with. Now, put the other ear in. Yeah – it’s loud, isn’t it?
But if you wear one ear, that volume is what one ear is still dealing with, without the summation effect of wearing both. When you wear both, you can turn down by about 10 dB thanks to this phenomenon. Not to mention the fact that if you leave one ear exposed, you also lose the protective isolation effect of using IEMs to shield your ears from a very loud environment (screaming audience, live drum kit) and create a more volume-controlled situation.
However, monitor engineers may encounter some artists who are so wedded to “one in, one out” that they just aren’t willing to break the habit. Then what? I find the best way is to wear both as much as possible, and when I take one out (to monitor the blend of IEM and wedge mix) to be very aware of what I’m doing.
I set my pack where it’s comfortable with both ears in, and I do not go above that. In theatres I alternate which ear I wear and which side my wedge goes from day to day, because I’m somewhat shielded from the room noise. But in arenas and stadiums, the exposed ear can quickly become fatigued from audience screaming, so (being stage left) I keep my left ear in and my right ear on the wedge when I have to check in – but as much as possible, I keep both in.
Finally, whenever possible, spend time in quiet environments to give your ears a rest. We all need regular “R&R” and our ears are no exception. Exposure to noise is cumulative, so give those ears a little love and stay out of noisy bars and clubs after the show, and they’ll be providing you with a sustainable income for many years.
The author offers thanks to London Audiologist Gisele Flower at Aid2Hearing for her advice on this subject.