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.
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/