Waking up after a long gig you find a tiny mosquito has taken up residence in your ear. You can try to get it out, but no amount of prying will shake free this annoyance. The unfortunate fact is, you never will because the high-pitched hum doesn't actually exist. It's a very cruel trick your damaged ear hairs are playing on your mind. For most people who experience this disturbing reality, it dissipates after a day, but an unlucky few are left with it for life. For a dramatic and comedic version of this all-too-common tale, check out the movie It's All Gone Pete Tong (cheeky cockney slang for “it's all gone wrong”). It's what happens when a famous Ibiza club DJ gets tinnitus and eventually goes deaf from extreme noise levels. Hollywood exaggerations? Well, the average DJ booth is usually around 110 dB. According to industry standards, you should not be exposed to that level of noise for more than 30 minutes at a time before permanent damage can begin to take hold. Got your attention? Well, enough of the gloom and doom. Here is the good news: There is a simple way you can not only save your ears but also significantly clean up your mixes at the same time. All you need to do is let go of those clunky DJ headphones and try out in-ear monitoring.
DON'T TURN IT UP TO 11
In-ear monitor systems were pioneered in the early-'80s by Marty Garcia of Future Sonics as a solution for vocal fatigue and stress on musicians' ears. The Grateful Dead where among the early bands to tour with this groundbreaking form of personal monitoring that replaced floor wedges with tiny drivers placed inside plastic molded to the ear. Although the idea took nearly a decade to really take root, earphone monitors are now the industry standard for almost every famous performer you know. Because they provide clearer monitoring at safer listening levels, it's safe to say many careers have been lengthened as a result of this incredible technology. “The ears age with exposure to noise, not just with time,” explains Kathy Peck, the founder of H.E.A.R., a nonprofit dedicated to raising hearing awareness among musicians. “You can slow down your ears' aging by reducing their noise exposure.” H.E.A.R. recently helped pass a groundbreaking ordinance in San Francisco that requires all nightclubs to have earplugs available to patrons. That's great news for dancers but doesn't solve the problem of chronically deaf DJs.
In order to hear clearly, DJs need monitors that are louder than the combined noise of the crowd and the sound system — in other words, painfully loud. Today's earphones are usually designed with foam ear buds that expand to fill the inside of your ear just like an earplug with a little speaker inside. They can block up to 35 dB of outside noise, reducing the required monitoring level and delivering clear, hi-fidelity sound straight to the ear canal. Not only are you literally adding years of life to your healthy ears, but you're also gaining a sonic perspective of the mix that can only be matched by the world's best DJ booths.
In the past 20 years, the technology of personal ear monitors has progressed immensely. The quality of sound is now outstanding, and prices are much more accessible to your average performer. In-ears typically range from $100 to $500, and a quality pair of mid-level in-ears without custom molds comes in at around $250. There are many different manufacturers of earphone monitors — or “canal phones” — and two main categories of technology: armature and dynamic. The majority of in-ears are made with armature drivers (developed originally for hi-fidelity hearing aids). Armature drivers provide a detailed, flat picture of sound but tend to lack lower frequencies. To combat that, higher-end models frequently employ several armature drivers in a single ear bud. As many as three drivers connected by crossovers provide a complete sonic picture, which, with a proper seal, can reach down to 10 Hz in some models.
Shure, Etymotic and Westone are all strong companies that use armature drivers in models that many different types of performers have. In my tests, dual-driver armatures sounded detailed and precise. They make poorly recorded MP3s painfully obvious and long plane rides seem shorter. The only drawback is the apparent lack of bass in some models. In a club environment, that's not such a big deal because the subwoofers fill in the missing low end, but for personal listening, some models might be too bright for some people's taste.
The oldest manufacturer and innovator of Ear Monitors, Future Sonics (www.futuresonics.com), makes several excellent models that are all built using the other major form of headphone technology. Dynamic in-ears, in the same way as microphones, move air to create sound and have a frequency response more similar to a loudspeaker. As a result, users tend to enjoy a warmer sound that emphasizes the low end without the harsh middle range that seems to be more pronounced in digital music. Even the consumer model that retails for $149 blows your average iPod ear bud out of the water.
Ultimate Ears is another respected company that provides in-ear solutions to many of the world's top artists. They primarily use armature drivers but offer one model, the Super.fi 5 EB, which combines armature and dynamic technologies to get the best of both worlds into one tiny package. And M-Audio has partnered with Ultimate Ears to use the same dual-driver technology on its earphones, as with the IE-30s.
GIVE AND TAKE
I admit, this concept may require rethinking the way you DJ. Single-earphone cueing is impossible, and it's impractical to continually put them in and take them out of your ears. But there are several workarounds, including mixers with split cueing and using the waveform displays in some digital-DJ programs to check the phase of a mix. They will all require some patience and a little relearning, but the payoff is worth the effort.
The possibility of almost completely eliminating the noise problem offers a glimmer of hope for many DJs, including myself. I highly encourage you to try out the technology on your own and see if personal ear monitors can help improve and extend the life of your DJ career.