This post focuses on the super-important subject of keeping your hearing in tip-top shape.
The world around us is getting really loud. Music is blaring everywhere, masters are compressed without dynamics, iPods are being used to drown out crappy coffee shop music and bus noise. As a producer or an engineer, our hearing is our livelyhood so it’s extremely important to be able to make good decisions about how we use our ears from day-to-day. There are a few strategies we can use to reduce hearing loss and keep ourselves enjoying the sound that we love.
Plug Your Ears
I always carry two kinds of earplugs with me: Hi-Fi Hearos and Oh-My-God-That’s-Loud plugs found in hunting and sporting stores like those for use with guns. The Hearos are awesome for concerts and other situations where it’s important that things sound good – but just a little quieter. The high decibel plugs are great for dealing with jackhammers, excessively loud speakers, and random loud situations that you might not anticipate. Earplugs are our first line of defense against hearing loss.
Canalphones and In-Ear Monitors
Most kids these days have one solution for listening to music in a noisy environment like the bus or a noisy coffeeshop: turn it up. This isn’t s solution at all. Only mechanical isolation like those provided by in-ear monitors or isolating headphones will truly dampen the noise around you. I use a pair of Etymotic ER-4S headphones for this purpose. I can listen to my music at reasonable volumes without sacrificing any quality. Cheaper solutions exist, such as the Shure SCL2 or M-Audio IE10, IE 30, IE40 series (I haven’t tried any of these but the high-end M-Audios are based on the very well regarded Ultimate Ears technology).
I’m willing to admit that I love cranking the monitors when mixing drums. I need to hear the speakers do some work in order to get a feel for the attack and bass response. But this is the only time in the mixing process when I get things above 90db. The higher the decibels when mixing the sooner your ears will get tired and the greater the chance you’ll walk away with minute damage that could add up over the years. Some speakers, such as NS10s, don’t really get much louder than that without creating distortion. Distortion is the major culprit of hearing loss relating to monitoring. High quality monitors, such as KRK’s main speaker line, combined with amps that are designed for loud monitoring have extremely low THD ratings and, therefore, are safer to pump up a bit (but this doesn’t come cheap!). I generally do my instrumental mixing around 80-85 decibels and even quieter when getting vocal levels. Louder monitor levels will also overemphasize the lows and highs due to the Fletcher-Munson curve.
Roll up the Windows
UK engineers tend to have slight hearing loss in their right ears and US engineers tend to have slight hearing loss in their left ears. Why? Because they drive around on the highways with their windows open! Street noise is generally at least 85db and can be up to 100db in certain traffic conditions. For people who spend a lot of time driving this can add up to a lot of sound exposure! While it’s fun to have the windows down, it’s probably best to keep it to a minimum when driving at high speeds if you really want to strive for the best hearing retention.
Hearing retention is really pretty simple: keep it quiet and avoid loud things. Being aware of what is and isn’t potentially dangerous goes most of the way towards having a long, pleasurable relationship with sound.