I spend a lot of time, in and out of the studio, with my ears covered, plugged, or otherwise shielded from loud sounds. I do it to protect my hearing, of course, but I wasn’t always as diligent as I am now. The motivation behind my (possible over)use of earplugs was my discovery a few years ago that George Martin retired because of hearing loss.
The story saddened me deeply. I admire Martin and his accomplishments, so I empathized with his loss. But I also hope to work with music all my life, and the image of myself in Martin’s position, forced to retire from the work I love, is unappealing to say the least. More pragmatically, though, the odds are I’ll suffer some age related hearing loss anyway, and since gene therapy hasn’t progressed beyond the guinea pig stage, why would I take any chances with my hearing?
This is all fresh in my mind because of a feature in last month’s Mix magazine, Bring Down The Noise. If you haven’t spent much time thinking about the importance of your hearing, I urge you to read the article:
It’s a vicious cycle: Those who depend on their hearing to do their job put it at a risk by doing their job, day after day… But unlike a job foreman or the guy at the firing range, audio engineers are a sound-savvy group and have a pretty good idea of what they are getting themselves into.
So it should be a no-brainer: Engineers rely on their ears. The damage is preventable. Their hands are on the volume controls. Why isn’t anyone turning it down?
Why indeed? Preventing hearing loss is so easy: Limit your exposure to loud sounds. As musicians and mixing engineers, we even have an advantage over others who work in noisy environments. The volume knob!
The best defense
All musicians are at risk for hearing damage, not just live rock performers. So we all need to take some precautions. Experts commonly recommend a few easy steps that musicians and recording engineers should take to prevent hearing loss:
- Wear ear plugs like they’re going out of style. (I know they were never in style.) Disposable earplugs are cheap, so keep them everywhere. I have a pack in my studio, another in my gig bag, and a third in my glove box.
- Have your hearing tested every few years. We all fear the hearing test, or more specifically the possibility of failing. But it really is better to know if you’ve done, or are still doing, damage. The test takes half an hour. And for a recording or mixing engineer, there are few sounds sweeter than the audiologist’s voice announcing “your ears are fine.”
- Take breaks while you’re mixing. Your ears adapt to music at any volume, and over time loud gradually seems less loud. Take breaks to keep your ears honest.
- Realize it’s never too late. If you’ve already got ringing or some other form of tinnitus, you can at least stop it from getting worse. Even if you have a high frequency notch in your hearing, you can still learn to compensate, and produce good mixes. But if you take a “damage is already done” attitude, it’s a safe bet you’ll end up like George Martin.
And one last tip, specific to mixing engineers:
Be extra careful if you mix with headphones:
Another hearing phenomenon that seems to be more noticeable with headphones is a decreasing sensitivity to sound levels over time, as the ears adapt to loud sounds. The listener perceives a gradual drop in loudness even though the volume control setting hasn’t changed. The acoustic isolation of headphones tends to highlight this dulling effect. It is all too easy for headphone listeners to turn up the volume to the point where hearing is at risk. Interestingly, most people find it difficult to distinguish between 85dB and 100dB SPLs, despite that the latter is more injurious to hearing…
Finally, while it’s obviously no substitute for having your ears checked by a professional, you can test your ears’ frequency response right now using your computer and a pair of headphones. (And there’s no way to fail the test!)