GK Music DrumPhones: Hearing Without Pain

DrumPhone

In my travels as a drum journalist, one thing I’ve heard from a lot of my interview subjects is that, during practice, they would learn from the best by playing along to records or CDs. That’s nothing crazy, but deep in the back of my mind the same question always rang out, “How did they do that without going deaf right there on the spot?”

You may know what I mean. In the past, whenever I tried to be a part of Pantera by putting my CD player next to my kit, listening through headphones or speakers, and playing along, I instantly got nowhere. The volume of the drum set, even when played at relatively low levels, was always more than enough to drown out all but a shadow of the music.

The only solution, of course, was to jack up the volume on the player to ear-blistering levels in an attempt to achieve a workable balance. Especially when doing this in headphones, (which was my only option 95 percent of the time) this usually meant listening at dangerously loud levels. I was always surprised afterward to see that I had the volume far higher than I would ever go normally, and the screaming in my ears was additional cause for worry. Besides, even under optimum conditions, the recorded drums would seem to “disappear” into this sound assault, meaning that if I doubled the part perfectly, I couldn’t hear it anymore.

That’s not a real good way to learn, and I doubt I’m the only to have that experience. In fact, I know I’m not, because GK Music (www.gk-music.com) has kindly created DrumPhones to address this exact situation. Designed by the busy Minneapolis-based session drummer/educator Gordy Knudtson, DrumPhones present a simple solution to the problem: equipping a pair of sound isolation headphones with internal speakers. The isolation reduces the external acoustic volume level reaching drummers’ ears, thereby allowing the music in the headphones to be listenable – with a great deal more clarity – at much safer levels.

GK Music currently offers three versions of the product. DrumPhones II ($69.95) offer 20db isolation with Walkman-type speakers, while SuperPhones ($179.95) and UltraPhones ($219.95) come loaded with more professional Sony 7506 speakers, offering 20db and 29db isolation respectively. All units have 1/4" and 1/8" stereo plugs. According to GK Music, the 20db isolation of DrumPhones II and SuperPhones is enough to protect hearing while still allowing ghost notes to come through, making them ideal for personal practice. Meanwhile, UltraPhones, while also usable for practice, are recommended for studio or stage situations where drums are miked and can be monitored electronically.

This is a relatively simple product, so I feel comfortable summing up the performance of all three units with a simple sentence: They work great. All three allow a drummer playing along to recorded music to instantly enhance the experience. Working on timing and duplication of parts becomes a pleasure, instead of a battle or a guessing game, and the ability to play off of the recording introduces a whole new dimension of flexibility and creativity into the process.

DrumPhone

Putting on the UltraPhones is like a vacuum sucking up all of the room’s ambient sound – suddenly, the outside world is very, very quiet. The deep ear cups combine with the headband to keep them firmly planted on your cranium without feeling uncomfortably tight, no matter how much you move. Listening to music from a CD player alone through the UltraPhones sounds sharp, very close to the response you’d expect from a normal pair of Sony 7506 studio monitor phones. In practice, they did what they’re supposed to – deliver the music cleanly and comfortably, while still giving me great feedback on what I was doing with my hands and feet. While tones definitely did go missing from the drums, everything came through quite well enough to illustrate how incredibly helpful this system can be for a drummer’s learning curve. The main problem was the lack of connection with the bass drum, which I had to play harder than usual to hear. Over time, this could lead to a skewed sense of dynamics that could carry over to performance from practice, but this is why they’re recommended for the studio and stage, not practice.

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With their 20db isolation, the SuperPhones may let in a little more noise, but they also feel lighter on the head. The reduced isolation actually turned out to be a benefit during practice, as the sound of the bass drum gained fuller presence, even as the balance between the music inside and the drums outside remained very comfortable and workable. My snare and hat came through with the most crispness, with the ride now seeming to be the hardest to hear well. As with the UltraPhones, SuperPhones took practicing with CDs to a whole new level. For the first time I really felt like I was truly playing with The Roots, without worrying about what they thought of my mistakes or creative explorations around ?uestlove’s rhythms.

Although DrumPhones bring up the rear on price, they do a perfectly good job. The performance from it’s Walkman-type speakers was noticeably less satisfying when listened to alone, but once I started playing my drums, the reduced sound quality was barely an issue. Interestingly, the DrumPhones were the only unit where I could clearly figure out how to adjust the headband – the other two either were not adjustable, or I simply couldn’t find the adjustment.

My only other complaint about the three units was the lack of a Left/Right designation. There are other markings on the outside of the phones, but this basic piece of information appears to have been omitted.

All told, all three DrumPhones models have the rugged construction and performance that make them ideal for all levels of players. If you aren’t practicing to CDs very much because you’re concerned about your hearing, DrumPhones will make it fun, exciting, and safe again. If you are practicing to CDs without them, well, you probably need them. For the best balance of performance and value, the SuperPhones seem like they’ll be ideal for most people. As a tool for improving your technique and expanding your musical universe while protecting your incredibly precious ears, I highly recommend them.

Details

Model: DrumPhones II, SuperPhones, UltraPhones
Prices: DrumPhones II, $69.95; SuperPhones, $179.95; UltraPhones, $219.95
Extras: SuperPhones and UltraPhones both come with vinyl carrying case