5 essential tips to beat hearing fatigue and protect your hearing
Have you ever experienced earache, discomfort or tenderness after a long day of working on a project? It’s a problem many growers will recognize, but what many don’t realize is that there is a name for this disease – and it’s more dangerous than you might think.
We are talking about auditory fatigue. It’s a problem that affects thousands of people working in the music industry and countless others who subject themselves to extreme noise levels while performing, mixing or listening to themselves. Causing a range of symptoms including fatigue, pain and loss of sensitivity, hearing fatigue usually occurs after a long period of listening to music at high volume. It is perhaps most commonly associated with the use of headphones, although it could just as easily be caused by listening through monitors and speakers.
Auditory fatigue is commonly experienced by mixing engineers and audio professionals, who often spend hours listening to the same tracks during production and mixing. The biological mechanisms behind ear fatigue aren’t fully understood, but it’s logical to assume that – just like your muscles after exercise – ears can become worn and fatigued from overuse. When this happens, people affected by hearing fatigue can experience what is called temporary threshold shift, which distorts our perception of volume and makes quiet noises louder, making it more difficult to work effectively.
If you recognize the symptoms we describe, you may have suffered from hearing fatigue before and – if you don’t start treating your ears carefully – you could be setting yourself up for hearing loss later in life. Whether you’ve experienced it or not, it’s important for musicians and producers to stay aware of the signs of hearing fatigue and, more importantly, to understand how to prevent it from happening in the first place. Here are five essential tips to help you protect your most precious asset: your ears.
1. Maintain constant awareness of volume levels
If you’re anything like us, your monitoring levels can tend to spike when you’re working on a track for an extended period of time, as you gradually increase the volume without realizing it, until the levels get undesirably high. . It’s easy to do, but it’s a bad habit. It’s no secret that good music sounds better loud (in fact, there’s a scientific reason for that) but that’s no reason to spend hours working at ungodly volumes.
Instead, we recommend that you maintain a constant awareness of the level at which you are listening to your project. Of course, the mixing and production process inevitably involves listening to your track at varying volumes, and it’s often necessary to feel how loud the music sounds. The key is not to completely avoid this, but to limit these periods and only enter extreme territory briefly and when necessary.
So, at what level should you mix? There’s no right answer to this, and besides depending on the size and shape of your studio space and the monitors you use, it’s also a matter of personal preference. However, it is recommended to mix low most of the time (below 60-70db) and only turn the volume up periodically to check how the mix sounds at a higher level.
According to medical professionals, it is not advisable to exceed a maximum of 85 dB for prolonged periods of 8 hours or more. If you really want to stay on top of your levels, try downloading a decibel meter app on your smartphone and keeping it somewhere visible in your workspace.
2. Take regular breaks
This one is simple, but effective. Hearing fatigue is not only caused by extreme volume levels, but also by extreme durations. Yes, listening to the same song for hours at a time can be necessary when trying to find the perfect mix, but there’s always a limit. Don’t keep your track looping just for fun – every time you hit play during a session, there should be a reason for it.
Take frequent breaks throughout these periods to give your ears time to rest, recover, and recalibrate. Breaks are not only useful for resetting your ears, but also for refreshing your mind. Often we come up with some of our best ideas during short breaks taken directly after working on a project – these periods of rejuvenation can often stimulate new ideas and approaches to the task at hand.
3. Structure your workflow
Hard and fast rules are rare when it comes to production, but it certainly makes sense to approach the task with a concrete action plan, to avoid spending hours soaking up high volumes without making noticeable progress. The more organized you are, the faster you will complete the process and the less likely you are to experience ear fatigue. Think about the list of tasks you will need to complete and the order in which you want to complete them, write them down, and then execute your plan in a structured way. Consider giving yourself a delay for each and an overall delay for the mix itself. Things don’t always go as planned, but approaching the task in this way will reduce your overall listening time and give you the opportunity to take those essential breaks.
4. Try using open-back headphones
Many producers report reduced hearing fatigue when using open-back headphones that allow air to pass through the ear cups and drivers. This makes sense, as the design allows air pressure to flow outward rather than into your ears. They may be less practical for general listening purposes or for tracking in a noisy studio, but if you’re producing in a quieter space, they’re the most user-friendly option.
Many believe that open-back headphones also provide a superior listening experience, producing more expansive sound with better stereo reproduction. If you’re on the hunt for a pair, check out our buying guide to the best open-back headphones on the market in 2022, or dive into our guide to the difference between open-back and closed-back headphones.
5. Mix with your eyes (and ears)
We know, we know – producing should first and foremost be about using your ears. However, any producer worth their salt should also be able to use additional visual cues to aid in the mixing process, and this can be a helpful way to avoid pounding your ears and causing unnecessary fatigue. By frequently referencing tools like the Spectrum Analyzer, you’ll learn to connect what you hear with what you see, and gradually become better at using visual references to analyze and shape your mix.