written by
Austin Summers

Ear Health, Optimal Listening Levels and Solutions

3 min read

“Use Your Ears”

As audio engineers, it’s so easy for us to forget that the reason we can do our jobs is because of our ears and their ability to function at an optimal level.

Often, sound engineers and producers end up in a position where they wish they could go back in time and change how they listened to their speakers while working because they now suffer from permanent tinnitus and ear damage.

Today, I’m going to share some valuable information that may save the most valuable asset you own and prevent a lifetime of regret.

Ear Structure

The Anatomy of the Ear

The ear is a complex device that has many intricate parts required to function. Some of the smallest muscles in the body exist inside our ears.

Even listening sessions we might consider to be normal might be damaging our ears and causing irreversible damage. People most commonly listen to music when mixing, mastering, or producing from 85db to 100db(use a measurement device or an app on your phone). Ever had that experience where you get so into a session that when you finally take a break, look at the time and notice that 4 hours have passed?

It happens to all of us. The only problem is, you may be causing permanent damage without even realizing it.

What Does the Science Show?

Conventional data showed that an 8-hour daily exposure to 85db integrated volume levels was the maximum amount of listening to you could do before inducing hearing loss.

In recent years, new studies have shown that it’s a lot more complex than that and that we might still be damaging our ears by following those guidelines.

With hearing damage, come’s tinnitus(permanent ringing inside your head that becomes unbearable to live with, impossible to sleep with, and overall, irritating beyond belief), as well as the inability to make the correct choices while mixing and mastering your music.

New studies show that a listening level at 60db to 70db(Conversation Volume), with frequent breaks every 40 - 60 minutes, is the best way to protect the tiny hairs inside your ear from being destroyed with a permanent threshold shift.

A Permanent Threshold Shift (PTS) occurs when there is incomplete recovery after a temporary threshold shift (TTS). The swollen hair cells rupture beyond repair as a result of prolonged noise exposure. Noise can be steady, fluctuating, intermittent, or impulsive, but all can be equally damaging.

A Temporary Threshold Shift (TTS) is caused when you are exposed to loud volumes in a brief or sustained manner, causing temporary hearing loss/progression towards a permanent shift. This can happen over time.

Frequencies play a considerable part in the health of our ears. Listening to excessive 4khz is one of the most damaging frequencies that can cause a temporary threshold shift.

Think of this analogy. If you step on grass once, it bounces back. If you stomp on it, it starts to flatten. If you continuously stomp on it, it dies and will not bounce back.

This is how threshold shifts work and how your ears work.

Training your ears to protect your future

If you can start training your ear to mix, master, and produce music at conversation volume, you’ll be ensuring the longevity of your career. You can prevent terrible tinnitus and likely get a much better mixing and mastering result after some practice, as things generally sound better than they should at higher volumes.

In acoustically untreated rooms, you might also find yourself cranking up the volume a little too much to try to hear details in your mix. You MUST treat your room correctly to help create an environment that allows you to listen softly and still hear the details. I’ll include information on that in an article soon.

Mixing with Headphones

Headphones are deceptive in their presentation. Because headphones are directly on your ears, it’s even easier to have the volume too loud accidentally. You MUST ensure that you’re consciously making an effort to keep the volume of headphones as soft as possible, and if you can help it, use studio monitors instead.

While it’s harder to measure the dB of a headphone, making sure you can’t hear the music clearly while holding the headphones in front of you and adjusting the volume is a great place to start. Just as you’d take breaks from listening to monitors, you should engage in equal intervals with headphones.

Protect your ears and treat them like the most valuable asset you have, because, well, they are.

ear health mixing mastering music production