If you have ever been to a live concert or band rehearsal or have seen any drummer really, you have probably noticed that they tend to wear headphones while performing.
This practice may seem counterintuitive to non-musicians: “Why are they wearing headphones if they are trying to hear themselves and their fellow bandmates play?”
There are several different reasons why drummers wear headphones while performing. This article explores those reasons and benefits that a good pair of headphones can bring to any drummer.
Table of Contents
Why Do Drummers Wear Headphones?
Most drummers will wear headphones simply for protecting their ears against the loudness of their instrument as well as the other performers around them.
While safety is a key factor, there are also performance-based uses like click tracks, IEM’s, monitoring a mix, backing tracks, and more.
If you are a drummer and you do not wear any kind of ear protection while performing, you should definitely consider it.
Headphones can promote ear health but also give a drummer more control over their performance environment, including what they hear and when/how they hear it.
What Do Drummers Do?
This may seem like a silly question, but you would be surprised by how many beginner drummers and musicians tend to miss the fundamental purpose of a drummer in an ensemble.
The drummer is responsible for maintaining important cornerstones of performed music like rhythm and tempo.
Drummers who perform with other musicians are relied upon by those musicians, and hold a great responsibility toward the proper execution of a musical piece. In other words, a sloppy drummer = a sloppy song.
So what does this have to do with headphones?
The following reasons for wearing headphones while drumming tie into the overall responsibility of the drummer to maintain the flow and movement of a piece of music.
If a drummer cannot hear what is going on during a piece of music, or cannot hear what he or she is playing, that spells trouble for everyone else relying on the drummer to drive them through the music.
Hearing Click Tracks
Live performances can be particularly volatile environments for any musician, let alone a drummer.
With the noises from the crowd, the other performers and a room that may or may not distort the drummer’s ability to hear the performance as she’s used to hearing it, being able to keep time becomes paramount.
A click track is a recording of a clicking sound that is moving at the same speed of the song that is being performed. The drummer listens to this click track via headphones while performing.
This click track recording allows the drummer to stay in time, becoming a human click track for the rest of the ensemble to follow. This way, everyone is in time, even if the drummer can’t quite hear what everyone else is playing.
A click track can be used by other musicians as well, not just the drummer.
For example, if you have been to a concert with professional musicians performing, you may have noticed that some of the musicians, especially the singer, are wearing little earbuds while they play. These are known as IEM’s or in-ear monitors.
These devices can give anyone the click track along with other aspects of the performance like the onstage mix.
Hearing the Onstage Mix
There are a lot of factors at play when performing live. A drummer’s goal will ultimately be to hear as much of the ensemble as possible in order to get the proper feel and rhythm of the songs.
However, most drummers have very specific preferences for what they do and do not want to hear when performing live. This is where IEM’s are a huge advantage because they give the drummer the flexibility and precision to decide what he or she hears at any given point during the performance.
For example, one drummer may want to hear a lot of the vocals and guitars, while another may want just bass and nothing else. The preferences are as diverse as the drummers that have them, and IEM’s can serve just about any of these.
It is also important to note that drummers can actually have a hard time hearing their own kick drum while performing live. When this happens it is a pretty big deal because the kick drum is the bedrock of the drumset, dictating at what time and rhythm the music will unfold.
Performing live is, not surprisingly, a rather loud experience depending on the genre. This can often be the case for the musicians on stage who are closest to their amplifiers or loudspeakers, making the stage a noisy atmosphere that some may find unappealing or obstructive.
If live performers are not using IEM’s, they are most likely using stage monitors. Stage monitors are box-shaped speakers typically sit on the stage floor, pointed at an upward angle toward the musician.
Stage monitors allow the musician to hear what they are playing, as they will not always be directly in front of their own amplifier. Stage monitors can also give the musician the choice of who or what else they would like to hear from their bandmates.
Stage monitors, however, can be quite loud, especially when there are numerous musicians on stage all using monitors. Drummers can wear IEM’s or headphones to get a good mix in their ears, but also tune out the blaring monitors of the musicians around them.
Hearing Backing Tracks
Backing tracks are pre-recorded audio that allow a musician to perform more elements of their music that would not be possible to perform live due to lack of performers or the nature of the audio itself.
Backing tracks flesh out an artist’s performance and typically offer finely tuned, well executed vocals and instrumentation for the musicians to play off of.
For drummers, these backing tracks may need to be emphasized or deemphasized, which can be achieved with the use of headphones or IEMs.
The ability to hear these backing tracks can allow the drummer to play properly, but can also be controlled by the drummer. There are often times when the drummer is the person that triggers certain backing tracks at certain moments of the song, making their ability to hear everything a top priority.
It is a performer’s nightmare to have their backing tracks misfire or not come on at all, so make sure you can hear everything that’s going on!
Tracking in a Studio
If you have ever been inside of a recording studio or seen anyone record in one, you will notice that all of the performers are wearing headphones, including the drummer.
This is even true if the whole band or ensemble is playing together and can hear the raw audio just fine. The reason for this is to receive a clear, mixed version of what is being performed so that the musicians have the best possible musical template to work from.
In other words, headphones allow you to control which instruments you hear while you record as well as what your instrument sounds like.
For drummers in a studio, having the ability to hear certain aspects of the drum kit with clarity is crucial to achieving a successful take while recording.
While most DAWs can salvage a lot of iffy takes with the right mixer pushing the buttons, nothing beats the quality of a well-executed, live-recorded take. Wearing headphones while drumming in the studio gives you the best chance of achieving that quality.
Maintaining Ear Health
While this is a simple concept to understand, it cannot be overstated. Playing the drums, or any loud instrument, can have detrimental effects on ear health if the proper precautions are not taken.
Exposure to loud sounds can damage cells and membranes in your ear, something you want to avoid at all costs, especially if you are a musician who exposes themselves to loud sounds for a living.
Wearing headphones or IEM’s while playing the drums can protect vital parts of your ears and preserve your hearing for many years to come. You may be used to loud music depending on your background, but do your ears a favor and protect them when in loud environments.
You won’t regret it!
Drummers wearing headphones or in-ear monitors is a common practice in the live music world as well as in the studio.
Drummers are constantly exposed to loud frequencies due to the nature of their percussive instrument, but also due to the other instruments that are typically amplified around them.
Wearing headphones while drumming can keep your ears safe from sounds that may otherwise degrade your ears over time. Wearing headphones or IEM’s can also heighten your performance experience due to the control you have over your listening environment.
Ultimately, headphones and/or IEM’s are essential to any drummer who takes their craft and their ear health seriously.
Tom D’Agustino has spent the past 10 years songwriting, recording and touring globally under various pseudonyms including Active Bird Community and Homeschool. His firsthand experience in music production and live performance inform his passion for writing about music, technology and the restorative nature of songwriting.