Save Your Ears! How to Avoid Listening Fatigue
What is listening fatigue?
To understand this, and how to avoid it, we should first look at some of the physiology behind our hearing. The inner and outer ear contain hair cells that vibrate and amplify sounds. Excessive vibrations from sound waves can cause structural damage to these hair cells and can result in ringing in the ears, fatigue, and even permanent hearing loss. During exposure to any sound, there is a temporary increase in the threshold of hearing and a decrease in our sensitivity to sound. The outer cells become less responsive, putting more work on the inner cells. Without a break in the incoming noise and a chance for these cells to rest, fatigue begins to set in. In real terms, fatigue sets in after listening for long periods. This is exacerbated by increased loudness.
Now, how can we avoid fatigue?
First, mix at a more moderate level. Simple SPL metering apps can be downloaded to your smartphone and placed near your listening position to make a rough assessment of your listening level. This is far from scientific but can get you in the ballpark for level setting your system.
We hear frequencies more evenly at around 85 dB, but even this may be too loud for longer periods. Unfortunately, there is no magic setting for all mixing environments since larger rooms may require more volume than small rooms. The best advice is to experiment and find a level that works best for you, but stick to around 75 to 85 dB for a majority of your mix session.
Another great way to minimize fatigue is to take some breaks. Your ears need to rest and recuperate from the barrage of sound waves you’ve been throwing at them. As much as you want to power through to the end, getting up and walking around every hour or so will help keep your ears fresh and will keep you productive. Take longer breaks after 4 or 5 hours.
Finally, pushing your ears to their limits will come with the consequence of some bad mix decisions. Taking breaks and keeping fresh will help avoid having to re-do the whole mix or, worse yet, losing the client.
Remember, mixing is an art, do what works. Just remember to take care of yourself along the way.