What is ‘Ear Fatigue?’
Though not a clinically recognized state, ear fatigue generally occurs after listening to or working with audio, especially at high volumes.
Some people experience soreness of the ears, but not everyone.
The fact of the matter is – mixing with fatigued ears is going to introduce a number of problems.
- You may have to re-do your whole mix
- If you’re in a final stage, and you render the final track down without a well-sounding mix – you may suffer the consequences later (playing the track out, sending to labels)
- Temporary OR permanent damage, depending on volume
The second point is one I’ll address quickly, even though it’s not closely related to this article.
You shouldn’t be sending off finished tracks for mastering (or anything else), before waiting a day or two and having another listen. Ear fatigue does come into this in the sense that your ears are used to hearing the same thing over and over again.
Key Point: Rest your ears before doing a final mix, no matter what.
#1 – Crank it Down… Not Up!
First things first, you’re probably mixing too loud. If you’re mixing at a level where you can’t talk comfortably to another human being sitting next to you – then it’s too loud. Lower it.
However; this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t check the mix at a loud volume, in fact that’s an important thing to do. But for most of your mixing session, it should be at a reasonable level for two reasons:
- Your ears won’t fatigue as fast
- The mix will be judged better (louder psychologically sounds better)
Loudness and Frequency Guidelines
The OSHA Daily Permissible Noise Level Exposure suggests that a sound level of 90dB (Train Whistle, Truck Traffic) is okay to listen to for up to 8 hours per day. Interestingly enough – a 5dB increase to 95dB is only permissible for 4 hours per day.
Now most of you won’t be mixing above 95dB, so should be fine. A cello generally gives out a reading between 85-111dB, if you have one handy then feel free to compare your speaker volume to it to make sure you’re not mixing too loud (not serious)
Joking aside, understanding the decibel range certainly helps. And if you really have no idea, then consider picking up a decibel meter.
Key Point #1: Mix at a lower volume
#2 – Take Your Breaks
We all know what it’s like to get intensely involved in a production session, you know, when you become one with the track. It’s like waking up after a long sleep to see sunlight pouring through the window.
During these times it’s very easy to get ear fatigue: A – because you’re not resting your ears; and B – you’re probably constantly turning the volume up, whether you realize it or not.
How can we counter this?
By Using a Timer.
I personally like to mix in 45 minute sessions with a 5-10 minute break in between. This allows me to rest my ears and give them a break from the same, repetitive sound.
You could call this recalibrating your ears.
Taking breaks also keeps you productive; you’re less likely to get fed up or bored with your mixdown.
Note: If you do choose to take breaks, and you should – make an effort to take a longer break every 2 or 3 sessions. Have some lunch or go buy a coffee, whatever.
Key Point #2 – Remember to take breaks
#3 – Restrict Your Overall Time
Taking breaks is all well and good, but there comes a point where your ears do become fatigued from listening to audio all day.
If you’re working on arrangement, or building a chord progression – going over 8 hours a day is fine as these things don’t require an extremely precise ear. On the other hand, mixing and mastering should probably be kept around 8 hours a day.
This will be controversial I’m predicting, but I honestly believe it’s much better to sleep on it and reset your ears for the next day.
Key Point #3 – Don’t ‘mix’ for more than 8 hours per day
#4 – Hydrate Yourself
But Sam, water is so boring! Why can’t I just drink my beer? It helps me be creative.
Sure, go ahead and have your beers, bourbons, vodka; whatever. When working with art, everyone’s different and has different requirements. BUT, don’t ignore the importance of hydration.
Why let your body fatigue before your ears fatigue?
Alongside hydrating yourself, make sure you eat regularly also.
Key Point #4 – Eat and drink regularly
#5 – Embrace it
This isn’t really a ‘tip.’
No matter what you do, you’re probably going to experience ear fatigue at some point. It’s just natural. I’ve mentioned ways that you can reduce ear fatigue, or prolong it – but it’s going to happen.
If you experience ear fatigue halfway through a mixdown, the worst thing to do is carry on mixing. And if your motivation levels are through the roof, why not do some sound design, or arrangement work?
Key Point #5 – Don’t try to win a losing battle
Wrapping it all up
Music production is art, and yes, this does include mixing. Some will argue that it’s a science and it should be technical. While this is true to some extent – it’s still art.
The old saying goes, there are no rules.
Whatever works for you, works, but please keep in mind that ear fatigue can inhibit your sound if not taken care of properly.
Have you taken a break yet? Go and grab a glass of water while you’re at it! Oh, and don’t forget to turn your speakers down a little.
Have any questions or comments? Leave them in the box below!