Ears are important for your work.
Working in the music industry means ears and hearing are especially important, without good hearing it will be impossible to do your job as a musician, producer, instrument tech or engineer. As such it is vital that you protect your most sensitive assets. I am sure almost everyone is aware of that ringing in the ears after a night out in a club or at a gig. Well the bad news is that means you have likely exceeded the safe level vs time exposure period for your hearing. Do not panic, it does not necessarily mean instant and or permanent damage has been done. (although with very high sound pressure levels, such as 135dB-140dB it certainly can be.) However ringing is your ears way of objecting to the level and exposure time. These signals must not be ignored and the response is to use ear plugs, the basic means of hearing protection in noisy environments. I am sure all of us are familiar with the foam roll up type ear plugs and these offer a good level of hearing protection. This protection will attenuate sound between 125Hz and 8kHz (and above) by approx 20-40dB. The lower the frequency the lower the attenuation because the sound waves are very long at low frequencies and cannot effectively be blocked by a small 2cm foam plug. (i.e. at 125Hz the wavelength of a sound is 2.7 meters).
An additional concern and a relatively new development is very bass heavy sound systems in clubs and venues. Below 125Hz it is even more difficult for a small sized plug to attenuate the very long wavelengths produced. In addition these sub bass frequencies cause actual physical vibration of the skull meaning much of the vibration will be fed directly from the skull itself and not entering via the ear canal. Therefore it is not possible to block some of this vibration.
Protecting your hearing.
With all this in mind it means that you have to take responsibility for your own protection and assume that neither the venue owner or the ear plug will be providing guaranteed hearing protection. Common sense must prevail and you must take responsibility for your hearing and livelihood. Clubs are supposed to adhere to strict noise pollution regulations but it comes as no surprise that from time to time these are exceeded by accident. (often through means beyond their control).
Many musicians do not like the sensation of the dulling of high frequencies that comes with wearing foam ear plugs.These days it is possible to order custom ear plugs which are molded for your specific ear and allow insertable filters which change the attenuation response in such a manner where the music can be more natural sounding. (i.e. the filter kills less highs). These tend to be quite expensive (around $350.00 -$500.00) but your ears are definitely worth it. You can also purchase a standard (non custom molded) earplug that shapes the attenuation curve to sound more natural for playing music and hearing your stage monitors, these range in price from $30.00 - $300.00
In addition extra care must be taken not to listen to music for too long at high levels with headphones whether they be closed back studio headphones or in-ear types. If your ears ring you are definitely listening too loud. So back off the volume.
Educate yourself to protect yourself.
As an individual working in the music industry it is pretty much essential to educate yourself about your local authorities recommended safe exposure levels. These measurements are always both time period and SPL (sound pressure level in decibels) specific. The louder a sound is the less time you can be safely exposed to it. As an example SPL levels at 105dB can be damaging with more than a 15 min exposure time but sound pressure levels of 85dB-90dB can be damaging is listened to each day for a significant number of hours as well. It is very important to be aware of your local authorities guidelines and if you really want to understand your exposure a low cost SPL meter is made by realistic so you can get an approximate idea of what SPL you are being exposed to. This is very important as once hearing has been damaged (tinnitus, burst ear drums) there is currently no effective treatment so you really must take responsibility.
The goal of this article is not to present facts, as conditions will vary, but to get people in the music industry to take responsibility for their own hearing protection. (in addition to your local health and safety laws and regulation) The goal is to offer some advice to inspire further research and consideration. Everyone in the industry needs to take it seriously and protect their (and others) hearing so they can continue to perform their jobs as well as possible for the longest possible time.