What is ear fatigue?
You may have heard an audio engineer or mixer mention that they’re dealing with ear fatigue. Also known as listener fatigue, ear fatigue is the sensation of temporary hearing loss after exposure to loud sounds. When an engineer mentions that they’re experiencing ear fatigue, that doesn’t mean that their hearing is permanently damaged. Ear fatigue is an interesting subject, because it has both mental and physiological causes. We will be discussing the mental and physical causes of ear fatigue, what they mean for audio engineers, and how we can be smart about preventing ear fatigue!
- 1 What is ear fatigue?
- 2 Why should audio engineers avoid ear fatigue?
- 3 How audio engineers can avoid ear fatigue
- 4 It’s important to protect your ears
Mental causes of ear fatigue
Sensory overload can cause the brain to trigger a decrease in hearing sensitivity similar to listener fatigue. Exposure to an overload of visuals and sounds can introduce that defensive response.
Your brain will also experience ear fatigue when hearing something repeatedly that you find annoying. For example, if you’re in a room that has a humming noise, your brain will tune out the noise to allow you to focus on other things. If you were to leave that room and then come back, you may surprised at how loud the humming had been the whole time.
Physical causes of ear fatigue
Ear fatigue can be caused by physical exposure to sound. The sterocilia (inner ear hairs that vibrate when exposed to sound waves) will physically bend when exposed to sound waves for too long. This is typically temporary, but they can become permanently damaged from overexposure.
While abrupt, loud sounds are obviously important to avoid to prevent ear fatigue, sustained exposure to medium level sounds is also potentially damaging to your stereocilia.
Why should audio engineers avoid ear fatigue?
While it may sound obvious, audio engineers need to be aware of ear fatigue! There are two main reasons that audio engineers need to be conscious of listener fatigue.
Long term hearing health
You probably would like to have a long, prosperous career in audio! If your hearing has been damaged by long-term exposure to loud music, you won’t be able to operate on a high level. Recording and mixing music depends on your hearing, and once it’s been damaged, it’s not easy to recover. Typically, when you start to lose hearing, the high frequencies are the first to go. It’s important to be able to hear high frequencies for mixing vocals and instruments with lots of high-end detail.
Short term quality of audio work
Even if you’re dealing with the temporary hearing fatigue, your ability to mix and record with an ear for detail will be highly diminished. After several hours of listening, you’ll start to have trouble making great audio decisions. After about 8 solid hours of audio work, I will notice that my high end hearing sensitivity has declined, and it’s hard to really distinguish how loud sounds are. If you’re dealing with ear fatigue, it’s hard to create a quality mix that sounds the same way the next day! There have been times where I’ve pushed through ear fatigue, only to find that my mix doesn’t actually sound all that great once my hearing is back to normal.
How audio engineers can avoid ear fatigue
1: Maintain reasonable listening volumes
When you’re mixing, mastering, and editing, make sure that you keep your studio monitors or headphones set to a reasonable volume. You should aim for a level under 85 decibels.
If you’re setting up drums or guitar amps for recording, make sure that the musicians aren’t playing while you’re in the room. Ask your musicians to respectfully wait to start playing until you’re back in the control room or have your headphones on! If you’re working on editing tasks, like time correcting a bass performance or tuning vocals, you can turn the volume down significantly.
It’s ok to crank up your monitors every now and again to get a feel for how your mix sounds when it’s cranked, but you don’t need to blast it for the whole session.
If you’re planning on playing loud instruments, or you’re going to a concert, you should definitely consider wearing ear plugs. Check out our “best ear plugs for concerts” guide for some recommendations on our favorite ear plugs.
2: Take frequent breaks
Temporary ear fatigue can come from long exposure to sound of even low levels. When working on music, it’s important to take breaks. Not only do you let your stereocilia take a break, but they actually recover from temporary ear fatigue when you give them silence.
If you’re a studio engineer, make sure to take breaks when recording, mixing, editing, or mastering. If you’ve got clients in the studio, let them know that you’ll be taking short breaks throughout the day to ensure your ears stay in top shape. It’s easy to get in the groove of the music, and not even realize how fatigued your ears are getting. Make sure to take breaks to keep your ears in shape!
3: Know when to call it a day
Once you’ve “hit the wall” of ear fatigue, there’s a certain threshold that you won’t recover from with a short break. After a long day of recording, it’s important to assess where your hearing is at, and know when to call it a day. You wouldn’t make a singer keep recording vocals if their voice was hurting and not sounding great, but artists will push engineers to the absolute limit of ear health often.
If you’re getting to the point where your ears are too fatigued, don’t hesitate to tell your clients that you’ll be calling it a day. Over time, you can really do damage to your hearing if you don’t let your stereocilia recover, so make sure to give yourself days off without working on loud music in between long sessions if you can! I’m sure I’m not the only engineer that loves driving home from long sessions in total silence. Make sure you give your ears time to recover after a long day of recording!
It’s important to protect your ears
As a music professional, avoiding ear fatigue is a key to creating quality work, enduring long sessions, and ensuring you have a long career of creating high quality music! Remember to listen at a reasonable volume, take frequent breaks, and know when to call it a day, so you can prevent ear fatigue and protect your hearing health!
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