Monitor Levels and Your Hearing

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Monitoring Tips for Long Hours in the Studio

Fast Forward caught up with two top studio engineers, Joe Zook (whose credits include work with Modest Mouse, Katy Perry, Dashboard Confessional and OneRepublic) and Rich Travali, who has recorded or mixed projects with Nelly, Jennifer Hudson, Gwen Stefani and Robin Thicke. We asked them to share their opinions on how loud is too loud in the control room and what effects high volume monitoring can have on your ability to accurately hear your mix.

Engineer Joe Zook, whose credits include Modest Mouse, Katy Perry, and Dashboard Confessional.
Engineer Joe Zook, whose credits include Modest Mouse, Katy Perry, and Dashboard Confessional.
Engineer Rich Travali has recorded or mixed projects with Nelly, Jennifer Hudson, and Gwen Stefani.
Engineer Rich Travali has recorded or mixed projects with Nelly, Jennifer Hudson, and Gwen Stefani.

What do you do when you find yourself in a situation where the client wants to listen to the mix at a very high level?
Joe: A long time ago I was assisting a very famous producer that would listen at probably 110db all day long in a very small control room. I put ear plugs in and he saw me doing it and asked me “What are those for?” I said to protect my ears and he said “It’s not going to do any damage. It sounds amazing. The frequencies are all even.” I kept my earplugs in despite his frequent head shaking. These days, I throw earplugs in all the time if someone wants to play at uncomfortable levels for too long. I don’t want to tell someone to turn it down because people have their own preferences and I respect that, just as I’d hope they respect that I put plugs in or leave the room before my ears start to bleed.

Rich:  Some of the younger “hot shot” producers that I’ve worked with would never entertain mixing at moderate levels. For many of them, they feel like they need to hear it like they’re “in the club.” Thankfully, I don’t find myself in that situation very often now for two reasons, one is that I mix predominantly at my own facility unattended by clients, and also that over the years, many of my clients have become more sophisticated and understand the downside of loud monitoring.

What happens to a person’s ears during prolonged listening to high levels in the studio?
Joe: In my experience three things happen. First, everything seems to sound amazing at high levels. Then, all of a sudden the mix seems to sound dark. So you brighten it up and turn it down and continue working. Then, everything suddenly starts to sound really bright and painful, even at low levels. The next day you listen to it and realize that all of the levels are off. The bass and kick are too quiet, it’s too dark, and the highs and lows aren’t right. You end up with a mix that’s mostly dull and somewhat lifeless because you were listening too loud.

Rich: When I’m working unattended, I like to fill the room with sound, but not “over monitor,” so the room folds up, and your ears soon follow. Obviously, the louder you listen, the more the room’s acoustic imperfections will affect your judgment. One thing I’ve learned to do is that if I ‘m not sure about a level or EQ on something in a mix, I turn the monitor level down, not up, to make the decision. Also, I like to take breaks, frequently, if necessary. I find that the monitor volume can easily creep up on you if you’re having trouble getting the mix to do what you want it to do. Taking a little ear break and clearing your head can help to keep that in check.

Do you have a personal rule of thumb for both volume (how loud in dBs) and length of time you normally will work in a single session?
Joe: In my experience, most of a 6-8 hour day with music playing should be at around 85dB SPL to get the best results. If you mix too loud, or too long, I believe the mix suffers. The good news is that good mixing results just happen to coincide with taking good care of your hearing.

Rich: Even in ideal conditions, I’m good for 8 hours, maybe 10 max, before I’m done for the day. Beyond that, fatigue really takes its toll and you can be shocked at how wrong you can be when you’re tired. I’d rather go home, get some sleep, and come back fresh the next morning. You’ll be amazed at how the questions you had at 2 AM are so easily answered at 11 AM the next morning.

Do you use ear plugs in situations where the volume level might be damaging to your hearing?
Joe: Yes, I have fitted ear plugs that are “flat” and take everything down 20db. I love those and wear them a lot just because they are more comfortable and I don’t enjoy loud environments outside the studio. Actually, I never look at it as protecting my hearing so much as just being comfortable. I hate the feeling of ear fatigue and pain.

Rich: When I can’t avoid a situation when the monitor level is crazy, I wear ear plugs. They are life savers, whether I wear my [custom-fit] flat attenuating plugs which I got at the NY Eye and Ear Infirmary, or the foam ones from the drug store which are cheap and effective. The obvious downside is that it’s harder to communicate instantly with the client (even though they are already shouting in your ear over the music). I really prefer to just turn it down and listen naturally.

Hear samples mixes and see a list of Joe and Rich’s credits:
Joe Zook – www.jdmanagement.com/joezook/

Rich Tavali – www.jdmanagement.com/richtravali/

22 thoughts on “Monitor Levels and Your Hearing

  1. I do accept as true with all the concepts you’ve introduced on your post. They are very convincing and will certainly work. Still, the posts are very short for novices. May just you please extend them a little from subsequent time? Thanks for the post.

  2. In my studio, when clients want to listen all out, I put on a pair of closed back headphones that provide up to 29 dB of isolation. The clients think that I’m listening through the phones, while I’m really just saving my ears by using a pair of non-functioning headphones as a hearing protection device.

    I do try to protect both my hearing and that of my clients’ at all times, but when I have dialed in a great mix and an inexperienced client is attempting to make unreasonable changes to a mix, I sometimes increase the playback level to increase the client’s confidence level.

  3. I’ve often wondered about this, am I listening too low to accuratly mix, I have a volume sensitivity as well, I don’t go to many concerts and that feeling of the ringing and cotton after a loud live show has always worried me that I might have damaged my hearing. Thanks for answering some of my questions and the ear plugs…DUhhh.. I never thought about that, even though my father, now retired drove truck for 30+ years and the constant sound of the deisel truck damaged his hearing. he now has hearing aids. and my nephew was born with hearing loss that effects his speech and he too, uses a mixture of hearing aids and sign. Great articles Guys Keep it up!

  4. Great article. Now if we could only get the music turned down outside of the studio. I cary my earplugs everywhere and need to use them at bars, restaurants, festivals, weddings, etc… Asking DJ’s to turn down the volume is like asking them to do lose their manhood (or womanhood). I often ask people to turn it down and almost always meet resistance. But the general population suffer loud music. We need to make a collective effort to change attitudes about amplification abuse. I love a loud rock song, but not so much that I can’t hear the music anymore.

  5. THANK YOU- I’ve been trying to tell my clients the exact same thing for years, Your ears need rest and care just like any other part of your body. You work better rested and under less stress. I have my ears checked twice a year. I also have a ear cleaning and maintainence schedule. Your family doctor can refer you to a audiologist to have custum made ear plugs made. Mine were about $60.00 for a set of three. Money well spent! Thanks again for the great article. -Kenn Lynn

  6. yup, i totally agree with these guys. back in the day, i used to pump my monitors so loud, the whole apt complex could hear what i was mixing! i learned quick after that, my ears would hurt, headache, plus, i would be boosting this & that, then b4 i knew it, the mix was completely whacked~! i read somewhere that you should mix at regular talking levels, that is what i do now, and it works wonders. then you don’t have 2 second guess, “do i have the bass loud enough?”, or “is there too much high end on the EQ?”. Great article, i’ve been learning so much from disc makers articles, keep on!

  7. This is a great reminder to be mindful of the volume. I didn’t realize that so many engineers keep ear plugs handy. I guess it’s the same reason that hand models always wear gloves 😉

  8. Protect my hearing? I try, but you don’t know how many evil looks I get from “talent” if they see me inserting my ear plugs before they assault the audience with flight-line levels. Or how many of those poor folks demand their money back once the bombastic volume makes the concert unpleasant.
    I thought this was all about pleasing the paying customers, but to keep working I must please these juvenile, ignorant, demons of, “My band’s louder than yours.”

    1. As far as the DAW, it’s up to your personal taste and what ever you’re comfortable using.
      As for mixing with headphones, that is not a good idea. I’d use headphones to test out a mix, listen to hear what a mix sounds like through them, but never as a primary monitor.
      Most headphones can not properly reproduce a flat frequency response, eg the bottom end, invest in a pair of quality monitors instead 🙂

  9. I agree 100% with you. When mixing an album of music, I always know when I have the best levels – when I can hear all the parts at a low volume. Ear plugs are a part of my life; I always carry a set with me.

  10. Thank you for enlightening those who don’t know the damage they are doing to their hearing by listening to music at high SPL’s. As a former rock musician, I can affirm the basis of your article. Tinnitis is a constant ringing in the ears. It doesn’t go away, and affects your hearing for the rest of your life. Hopefully ear-piece monitors will be used by more musicians so they can hear the mix without shreadding their timpanic membrane!

    1. I have developed tinnitus (unfortunately I never heard of it until I had it) and I can tell you that you don’t want it. Protect your hearing, as tinnitus is for life, and the thought of never experiencing true silence (without ringing) is really rather terrible.

  11. CMajor is a big believer in protecting your hearing. I like the idea of fitted ear plugs. I wear them when I am at a concert and I enjoy the concert even more. If you ever need an advocate to pass out literature on hearing conservation and so forth, please call on me.

    1. As a teacher, I would love to pass out literature on hearing conservation. Please let me know what you might have available.
      Thank you,
      Pat Wilthew

    1. As a practicing Audiologist who has seen patients with noise induced hearing loss, I endorse the message in this article. Turn it down to appreciate the essence of your musical creations.

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