ear fatigue

Ear fatigue: Know the signs, avoid mistakes

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Recognize the signs and control your activities before, during, and after a studio session to minimize ear fatigue and get your best results from your recording.

Ear fatigue is one of those ambiguous conditions that can occur while recording – most 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 sounds just right. Then, the next day, you pull up the mix and think, “What the heck were we doing?”

You probably won’t notice a physical sensation when ear 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 your ears are fatigued.

The best way to avoid this situation is to control what you do before, during, and after a session; understand what the signs of ear fatigue are; and take action to avoid overworking your ears.

Before and after a recording/mixing session

Protect your ears the day before, the morning of, and in the time between sessions in the studio. 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, veteran 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 them. 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 after the session as well, especially if you have a date booked in the studio the next day for more tracking or mixing. And it comes with the territory, whether you’re in your home studio or a pro studio, that you’ll likely be working late into the night and then starting all over the next day. It’s not always possible, but the more rest and recuperation you can reasonably build into the recording and mixing 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 properly discern frequencies. There’s no hard-and-fast rule, and you’ll 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 simple rule is to take a 15-minute break 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.

At the very least, when you get the temptation to turn up the volume, that’s when you should take a break. If you think your ears are fatigued, they probably are.

2. Use a reference. “You can’t go wrong if you use a reference track,” advises Weiss, “something you know sounds great and that you’re aspiring to. If you’re mixing, and you’re constantly switching between what you’re working on and this source material, it gives you something to reference at that moment, in that environment, in whatever condition you, personally, are in. It helps you avoid making 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 different frequencies during the course of a session. Even listening to the mix from outside the room or from a completely different vantage point can help you hear things you missed when sitting 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 continuously too loud, you will experience fatigue earlier on. 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, 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, 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 can be that in addition to 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.”

Jon Marc Weiss is the Director of IT Operations for Disc Makers and also an accomplished recording engineer, studio designer, and musician with 30 years’ of industry experience. He owns and operates a private studio called Kiva Productions right outside of Philadelphia in Jenkintown, PA, where he records and produces his own music along with local and national acts. Check out Kiva Productions on Facebook.

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About Andre Calilhanna

Andre Calilhanna is a drummer, vocalist, writer, editor, and all around music fan. He's also a golf "enthusiast," pianist-in-progress, and a below-average guitarist (thanks for asking). Contact him at vitamindre@gmail.com.

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