It is a typical picture that drummers are wearing headphones while practicing, band rehearsals, recording, or live performances. But why are headphones so popular? Do they have some magic electric that makes them better than other products?
This list includes nine of the top reasons why drummers wear and should wear a good pair of headphones. They are not listed in any particular order, and there are a few more that are not on this list, but these are the ones that seem particularly vital.
Spoiler alert: Right at the bottom, you’ll find a funny bonus note.
1. Listen to a Click Track for Live Performances
Musicians need to stay in time with the rhythm. Basically, a click track is just a recording of a click sound that runs at the same speed as the song being played. This keeps them in sync with the beat. How do you do that? Now either at the right speed for the song (handy when you usually tend to get faster as the song progresses, or for dancers who need the music at an exact speed) or at the right speed for the remaining tracks that were already recorded and played back to the crowd.
These days the majority of touring bands are using click tracks. While the band on stage plays guitars, bass, keyboards, and drums, these sounds are filled with extra sounds that have been recorded before. Most of the time, these are additional keyboard tracks (e.g., where the keyboard player does the piano part, but the strings, organ and pad lines are on the tracks too) and backing vocals (which give a nice, full sound and are perfectly tuned). Still, they can as well include special effects or extra voice-overs or lots of other stuff.
To make the live band match the recordings, they must play at precisely the same tempo as the recordings. So the live band plays the same metronome click via headphones or IEMs (in-ear monitors) that was played to the studio musicians when the pieces were recorded.
It is not possible to record this on conventional monitors ( the speakers on the floor in front of the musicians) because this would mean that the audience will also hear a little click, which might mess up the sound mix. Headphones or IEMs can give the musicians the click without the audience hearing it. This makes the use of headphones a necessity, as any other method would mean that the audience would listen to these clicks. On some occasions, all live musicians hear the click, whereas sometimes just the drummer hears it.
I bet if you’ve seen a named live band over the last few years, approximately 9/10 of them have been using click tracks, although you might be thinking that they weren’t. The real entertainment starts when the click fails mistakenly making it going to the audience, so they are not only listening to the live musicians anymore. This is a terrible situation!
If you want to know further interesting information about why, why not, and how drummers should use a metronome for their playing, check out this article!
2. Hear the Monitoring Mix for Live Performances
Chances are you’ve seen artists wearing headphones at a live concert. Well, these headphones are usually smaller than studio headphones, so they fit in your ear instead of over your head. Then what exactly is the use of wearing headphones at live performances?
Those headphones provide monitor mixes. Being the drummer on stage, it will be hard for you to hear your bandmates and your kick drum. Not so if all your speakers are facing forward, and the kick drum speakers are not near you. On top of that, you will have the everlasting problem of not hearing your kick drum well. Headphones make it easy for the drummer to actually listen to what’s happening by pumping the monitor feed directly into your ears. At the same time, the headphones will also suppress drum noise to improve clarity.
3. Protect the Hearing
Drum headphones also constitute hearing protection that absorbs at least 20db of sound. Since drums are extremely loud, not a single component of them is ever going to be safe to listen to for a minute or less without causing damage to your hearing. When performing for hours with all the drums and cymbals working together as well as the monitor speakers, this can lead to severe and irreversible hearing damage. In fact, the first crash of a drum set is already sufficient to harm your hearing seriously.
In other words, drummers wear these headphones to reduce the drum noise to a far more secure level. On top of that, you can play the monitor mix through those headphones at safe levels, giving you a drummer who can hear and control the whole band while not sacrificing his or her hearing. To ensure that drummers and band members don’t have long-term ear problems, they will have pieces that block out some of the sounds and provide their ears with comfort.
One might wonder how the drummers can play the drums while simultaneously blocking the sounds coming from them. The earpieces block only the high-frequency sounds, so the drummers can always hear what they are playing.
I researched more in-depth and scientific information about why exactly good hearing protection is vital for drummers, as well as a short product overview. Read it here!
4. A Good Alternative to Loud Stage Noise
In-Ear monitors are not designed to protect you from a loud stage; rather, they are an alternative to the necessity of a loud stage. A stage is only loud when bands use both conventional monitors as well as large-scale amplifiers (which are essentially just another type of monitor). When most, if not all bands switched to in-ears, they would have little need for noisy stage monitors. This means that in-ears are not so much hearing protection, but rather an alternative to a far louder solution.
5. Listening to Onstage Instructions and Directions
Since the stage becomes extremely loud, it would be a difficult task to pass on instructions. A good pair of headphones would be helpful. With them, the drummer can hear the instructions and directions that may have been recorded beforehand and which effectively support the drummer in playing his music.
6. Listening to a Backing Track
You would see YouTubers usually do this as they listen to a track they can play along to, using their headphones to block out the sound of the drums to hear the song they’re playing to. This is mainly for solo gigs and no live application. When playing live, it’s mostly just a click track plus maybe a few extra tracks to support the band.
7. For Better Recording Sessions
When being at a studio for a recording session, you won’t want any microphones that pick up sounds other than your drums. During the recording of the drum set, if you want to hear music from a speaker, the microphones will capture the speaker’s sound interfering with the recording.
8. Testing the Audio for Recording
Audio monitoring is an intuitive concept that is very simple to follow. Most likely, you have monitored audio at some point in the past. Audio monitoring means listening to the recording while it is playing. For instance, a singer may want to hear his or her voice while singing something. When they like to know how much sound the microphone is recording, they wear headphones to monitor the sounds.
It is also possible to perform this operation before recording. Perhaps you have already noticed the usual “check, 1, 2, 3” phrase. Musicians do it all the time whenever being in the studio to see what amount of audio the microphone is recording prior to making the recording. They can, for instance, adjust the gain if the microphone records too little or too much.
9. Getting a “Headphone Mix”
The headphone mix refers to the recording of a song using the headphones. A typical consumer is likely to listen to music through their headphones. Both musicians and producers are aware of this, which is why it is extremely valuable to produce music that will also sound good through headphones. When they record audio, they aim to make sure that the recorded sound also works well over headphones. This process can, of course, be optimized later during the mixing and mastering of the track. However, they might also want to do it while recording music.
Bonus: To Keep Their Ears Warm
With good over-ear headphones, a small but amusing side effect is that they keep your ears warm. But yes, this is probably not the main reason why you would do this as a drummer 😀