Ear Fatigue and Mixing Music – Know the Signs, Avoid Mistakes

by Andre Calilhanna on February 1, 2013 · 14 comments

in Fast Forward,Recording & Mastering

FatigueEar fatigue is one of those ambiguous conditions that can occur while recording – and more likely during mix down – that you may not even recognize is happening until after the fact. You’re in the studio, you think you’ve nailed the mix, you’ve been adjusting things right and left, up and down, tweaking everything until it seems to sound just right. Then the next day, you pull up the mix and think, “What the heck were we doing?”

You probably won’t get a physical sensation in your ears when fatigue starts to set in, it’s more of an inability to discern particular sounds, especially in the midrange. Everything starts to blend together, and it becomes difficult to determine whether something is sitting correctly in the mix. You pull up the vocal a bit and it sounds too loud, you pull it back and it seems to disappear. That’s a warning sign that you’re ears are fatigued.

The best way to avoid this situation boils down to your having an understanding of what the signs are, for you, when this situation arises, and controlling what you do before, during, and after a mixing session.

Before and after your session
Try to protect your ears the day before, the morning of, and in the time between sessions. Ear plugs are not a bad idea, nor is minimizing the amount of sound you are exposed to in the hours leading up to a session. It’s not always possible, of course, but not going to a loud club or noisy environment the day before a session is a good first step.

“There are so many environmental factors – it’s not just about what happens in the control room,” says Jon Weiss, long-time producer/engineer and recording studio owner. “Let’s say I was in my sedan on the ride over, and I’m listening to music, and I don’t have a subwoofer. When I get to the studio and hear bass, it’s going to be different than if I came to the studio in my other car, that has a subwoofer. I might over-compensate for the bass after hearing music without the subwoofer, and I might go the other way if I’m riding around feeling that bass the whole time just prior to arriving at the studio.

“Or let’s say you’re in a city, and you’re taking the train to work – or there’s a tractor-trailer or a school bus, or a jackhammer or siren. Anything that makes a lot of noise can affect your hearing, so you need to try to avoid that. And some of these things, they’re not necessarily physically affecting your ear, they’re not causing ear fatigue, but they are changing your perception – the way you interpret sound and different frequencies – when you sit down at the console.”

It’s not solely about resting your ears, but also about your general health leading up to a session. Resting, getting plenty of sleep, and being well-nourished and hydrated when you enter the studio environment will all add up to your being as physically ready for the day’s session as you can be.

This holds true for after the session as well – considering that you’re likely going to be in the studio the next day having another go at your mix down session. It’s a fact of the music business, whether you’re in your home studio or a pro studio, that you’ll be working into the night and then having at it the next day. It’s not always possible, but the more rest and recuperation time you can reasonably build into the recording and mix down processes, the better your decisions and enthusiasm will be when you’re at the controls.

During your session
1) Take five. Taking frequent breaks is the easiest way to minimize the likelihood of getting fatigued to the point where you’re unable to discern frequencies properly. There’s no hard and fast rule, and you will find that some days you can roll for hours with no ill effects, while other days you’re questioning what you’re hearing an hour into the mix.

A rule of thumb is to take a break, maybe 15 minutes, every two hours. Get up from the console, grab a cup of coffee, get a bite to eat, make yourself leave the control room and give your ears a rest.

One thread on the GearSlutz forum regarding this has some good pointers, including “When you first get the temptation to turn up the volume, that’s when you should take a break,” and “If YOU think your ears are fatigued then they probably are..”

2) Use a reference. “You can’t go wrong if you use a reference” advises Weiss. “If you’re mixing, and you put on a reference CD and you’re constantly switching between what you’re mixing and this source material, it gives you something to reference at that moment, in that environment, in whatever condition you, personally, are in, and it helps you avoid mistakes. At a professional level, I don’t know anyone who doesn’t use a reference to help keep their decisions sharp.”

3) Use different monitors. Switching between smaller monitors and larger ones will give your ears a chance to concentrate on and hear different frequencies during the course of a session. In fact, even when you’re taking a break, listening to the mix from outside the room or from a completely different vantage point can help you hear things you missed when you’re sitting in the same position at the board. Make a point to let someone else sit in the big chair once in a while and move to another place in the room.

4) Don’t get stuck on 11. Listening to your mix at a moderate level is a good habit to get into. When the mix is too loud all the time, you will likely experience the fatigue earlier on, and if it’s too low, you’ll be straining to hear the different frequencies you need to concentrate on to make good decisions.

That said, turning the mix really low at some points can help you isolate particular elements of the track, including reverb and other effects. If the vocal track, or bass, or snare drum are noticeably sticking out of your mix at low volumes, it can be an indicator that they are not sitting in the mix correctly.

5) Know when to fold ‘em. If you have the ability to call a session, i.e. you’re not contractually obligated to work 14 hours at a clip, recognizing when you and the rest of the creative/production crew is spent and needs to walk away can end up saving time and money in the studio. Sometimes the best decision is to leave a mix in progress and pick it up the next day.

“I’ve definitely been there, where my ears are fatigued, they’re even ringing a little bit, but not only that, my brain is fatigued and I’m not in a place to make good decisions,” admits Weiss. “So it’s as much that as the ear fatigue. That’s when your creativity starts to fail. You’re not thinking ‘I want to make this sound as good as possible,’ or thinking about achieving a sound, you’re thinking, ‘I’m exhausted and I just want to finish this and get out of here.’ That’s never going to result in your best work. You’re probably better off walking away if you can.”

Image of man in chair via ShutterStock.com.

Jon Marc Weiss is the Senior IT Systems Engineer for Disc Makers and also an accomplished recording engineer, studio designer, and musician with over 20 years’ experience. He owns and operates Kiva Productions right outside of Philadelphia in Hollywood, PA to develop local and national acts. Check out Kiva Productions on Facebook.

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