Your hearing is everything. Without it, you can’t hear the beauty of music, let alone mix it.
Throughout my life, I’ve been prone to inner ear infections. Luckily, they’re sporadic. But earlier this year I had an issue with my ears equalising pressure during a flight and it led to some extreme pain, balance issues and temporary hearing loss. Not only that, but it really made me think about what life would be like if I ever had any long-term hearing issues.
What would I do if I lost my hearing?
Luckily, I’m now under the care of an excellent ENT (Ear, Nose & Throat) Specialist and Audiologist and have no issues whatsoever with my ears or my hearing. In fact, I am blessed to have above-average hearing… probably from years of ear training. But I know that you might be suffering from permanent hearing loss or tinnitus. I don’t want to pretend like I have the solution to all of your hearing problems but I do want to offer some suggestions as to what has helped me in the past and open up a discussion on what might help others.
I remember around the end of 2012, I was doing crazy hours as a staff engineer and the studio I was working in was really under pressure in terms of client demands and deadlines. It was a great time for my career because I was learning so much and working with so many great people but I wasn’t taking enough breaks, drinking enough water, eating the right foods or taking enough rest.
Considering most recording studios don’t have windows open a lot of the time, I was also working in quite a stuffy space without any fresh air and lots of clients coming and going. You can guess what happened next – I got a particularly bad head cold. Yet, I continued working.
Then, I woke up one morning with a pretty nasty headache on one side of my head and I couldn’t hear much out of my right ear. After a trip to the doctor, it took a full month to clear everything up. I was called “the mono mixer” in work and I spent my Christmas feeling exhausted with partial hearing loss. Fun times!
There are some pretty obvious lessons to be learned from my approach to a particularly busy period.
In case you missed them, here’s what I learned:
- Take frequent breaks from mixing. For every 90 minutes of mixing, take a 15-30 minute break. You could even go outside and get some air! If you’ve got clients all day, try to take at least 5 minutes between sessions and get some fresh air on your lunch break. If you’re working through your lunch every day, something’s wrong.
- Mixing in mono is especially important if only one side is affected. The experience I mentioned is when I began to discover how powerful mono mixing really is.
- Drink lots of water! Yes, there’s water in coffee, but that’s not enough.
- Eat healthy. It’s quick, easy, and in some ways comforting to eat crap when you’re busy but it’s much more beneficial to eat healthy, nutritious foods. Your body will thank you for it and will work better for you.
- Get plenty of rest outside of your working hours. Don’t try to burn the candle at both ends if you’re going through a busy period and make sure you’re getting downtime outside of the studio – even if you’re working from home!
Now, on to the more permanent kind of hearing loss…
Unfortunately, you might have either some form of permanent hearing loss or tinnitus. I also know that’s not going to stop you making music and I have a lot of respect for you continuing to do what you love despite any setbacks. If you’ve got hearing loss or even if your hearing is perfectly fine, the following tips will help prevent you from experiencing hearing damage:
- Protect your ears around loud noises. If you go to concerts, festivals, clubs, or work in an environment with lots of noise, protect your ears. Luckily, most engineers at high budget concerts and festivals tend to mix at moderate SPL (Sound Pressure Level) these days, but you can never be too safe. Bringing ear plugs can’t hurt and you can monitor SPL with a free app on your smart phone to see if you need them. Anything over 85 dB SPL (lower in the opinion of some) means it’s time to protect your ears. If you work in construction, near jet engines or shoot guns as a hobby, then you’ll definitely want to protect your ears as much as possible.
- Mix at low volume. Don’t blast your music all day every day. So many engineers have spoken about the benefits of mixing at low levels that they are too lengthy to include here. Not only will you save your ears, but your mixes will actually sound so much better loud when you’ve mixed at a lower monitoring level.
- Be careful with headphones and earbuds. Blasting your favourite artists to drown out the sound of your fellow commuter’s argument with his girlfriend or someone snoring on your shoulder on the bus makes sense in the short term, but think about what you’re doing… you’re drowning out an already loud noise with an even louder noise directly into your ears. That’s a recipe for hearing loss.
- Don’t deafen yourself or your artists. If you’ve got a headphone mix set up to monitor a backing track for your artists or you’re monitoring a mix yourself, make sure you start out by sending a low level signal to the cans. I was almost deafened this way by a friend of mine in college and had some ringing in my ears for the rest of the session.
So those are some measures you can take to prevent hearing damage or further hearing damage.
But what should you do if you already have hearing loss or tinnitus?
It’s quite common that we’ll lose some higher frequencies naturally as we age and that usually affects both of our ears equally. Generally, people with hearing damage are affected in the higher frequencies, but some are affected in the midrange or low end.
Tinnitus is even tricker because it’s a ringing, buzzing, hissing, whistling or chirping sound in your ears – similar to how you feel after you leave a really loud concert if you haven’t protected your ears… except you have it all the time.
While I’m grateful that I’m not affected by either permanent hearing loss or tinnitus, I do have some tips on how best to manage these conditions from friends who are affected and from my experience of temporary hearing loss:
- Mix in mono. When I was “the mono mixer” and only had one ear to rely on, I mixed in mono. I made all my balance, EQ, compression and saturation decisions in mono. Even reverb was added in mono. Panning and delay were tricky and I had to use stereo for those, but I managed to get about 80% of my mixes done without any issues.
- Focus on the midrange. If you can get the balance of your mix right between 250Hz and 6kHz then you’re doing incredibly well. By focusing on this frequency range, you’ll achieve balance between the low-order harmonics of most of the instruments in your mix, clear out any mud and work through any issues with “tinny” or “honky” mixes.
- Use visual aids. I’ve seen some of the lengths that hearing impaired engineers go to when it comes to using visual aids and it helps. While music, mixing and engineering is all about using our ears, visual aids can really help. Think about using spectrum analysers, phase correlation meters, oscilloscopes and level meters to fill in the gaps. If it’s high end that’s the issue, then use a spectrum analyser to compare the high end of your mix vs. a reference mix you know has a great high end. You’d know that from either your pre-hearing loss days or from a reliable source; which brings me on to my next two points.
- Use references. As you know, I feel that reference mixes are the quickest way to fast track your mixing progress and get your mixes sounding like the pros. That still applies if you have hearing loss.
- Ask a friend you trust. Being able to ask other engineer or musician friends to listen to your mixes is one of the greatest assets you have. If you trust their opinion on how your mixes should sound, then you’ll have no problem implementing their suggestions. If you simply can’t hear certain frequencies in the high end, then their opinion becomes invaluable.
As I said earlier, this isn’t intended to be a comprehensive technical guide to hearing loss and what you should do to combat and/or live with it as an engineer or musician. It’s more about providing some suggestions and opening a discussion so we can help each other achieve our goals.
So… as always, I want to hear from you.
Have you ever had any hearing difficulties? If so, what have you done to combat them?
Leaving a comment below might really help someone learn from your experiences!
professional sounding mix every time…