Dealing With (and Avoiding) Hearing Damage as an Audio Professional

man listening to music

man listening to music

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There’s no question that audio professionals and musicians alike are at risk for hearing damage. Loud shows, loud mix rooms, loud everything, even sitting in the middle of an orchestra can be too loud for long term hearing health.

But to be effective as a professional in this industry for a long time, maintaining great hearing is job one. Still, damage happens, and dealing with it powerfully is another key to staying in the business for a long time.

Here, we’ll start with prevention — because that really is your best hope — and then we’ll talk just a little about dealing with it if you happen to have some damage (as many musicians do).

Prevention First

Let’s get this out of the way. If you’re young or lucky enough to have no hearing damage, read this section a few times. Don’t skip to the end section thinking you can somehow fix or manage hearing damage so well that you shouldn’t try to prevent it. You can deal with it, sure, but damage is damage, and there is no cure for things like tinnitus. So first and foremost: let’s prevent it.

How do you do this? By not being macho about loudness. Simple as that. For more info, here are the tips you will find in a hundred articles if you google this topic – they’re all correct.

1. Earplugs

Bring earplugs everywhere. Never go to a concert or a club without them, and always use them. If you’re worried about muddling the experience, there are plenty of awesome plugs that attenuate sound evenly (unlike your standard foam earbuds). This means on stage as well. For God’s sake stop standing three feet from a drumkit without ear protection. Don’t ever ever ever do that, okay? Never.

Loud sports events are also too loud. Jackhammers are too loud. Traffic can be too loud. Carry your earplugs everywhere.

Simple hack: If you’re caught somewhere without earplugs, you can make your own with one or two squares of toilet paper and a little water. Soak the square with a little water and stuff it in your ear. Don’t go deep — use them to make a seal outside of the eardrum. This method won’t attenuate evenly, but it can be incredibly effective. Just understand, it won’t work at all without the water. Yes, it feels nasty, but it’s better than hearing loss.

2. Mix Quieter

If you haven’t read about advice to mix records quietly (so that you can have a conversation over the mix), you haven’t read anything. This is the way to get the best mix anyway, so stop cranking your studio monitors. Your mom will thank you.

By the way, when you calibrate your monitors, you’re probably going to set them up to read at 75 or 80 dB on an SPL meter at mix position, when your output source is at unity. Awesome, but that’s too loud for mixing. Once you’re calibrated, don’t go and mix with your board at unity.

3. Practice Quieter

Did you read the part about mixing quietly? Well guess what, try that with your practice time as well, Loudy Von Eardestruction. Yes, even if you’re metal. If you’re a singer, try to get out of the headphones, get off of the mic, and lower whatever instrument you play to the level of “everyone can hear me sing over this, even if I don’t scream like a banshee.”

4. Perform Quieter

Okay yes, if you’re a face-melting metal band, you kind of need to crush the skulls of the damned souls in your audience with loud monster killerness. In this case, you should still use ear protection, in-ears, quiet down the volume on stage, anything to protect yourself. After all, you need to live in order to crush more souls.

If you’re not a metal band, you’re probably too loud. Dampen the Frankenstein monster bouncing up on the drum throne so that your guitar god can turn down the amp at least to 8 or 9 (5 would be better), so your bassist can bring the reasonably-sized rig and not the wall of death, and your singer can stop wailing around out of tune like an idiot.

In other words, you’re going to sound better if you clean up your stage sound and quiet down. Your ears and your mother will thank you. (She does come to your shows, right?)

5. Record Quieter

Do we really have to go over this after all of the above? Turn the cans down!

6. Use In-Ear Monitors

If you can possibly make it happen, replace loud stage monitors with in-ear systems. The right earbud will simultaneously give you protection from drums and amps and allow you to hear yourself and your bandmates clearly, eliminating the need to crank everything to eleventy-five just to know what song you’re playing.

Just beware that it’s also possible to crank your in-ears too loud. So be reasonable.

7. Take Breaks

Your ears do have some tolerance for loud noise, and they also get fatigued listening to reasonable noise. It pays to take breaks during recording sessions and rehearsals. And it pays to take breaks when just listening to music for fun. Ears and brains get even more fatigued when doing critical listening, so get up and move around and stop working for a bit every hour or so.

8. Don’t Crank Pleasure Tunes

Speaking of listening to music for fun, it behooves you not to jam out at max volume all the time. Instead, try following the Mayo Clinic’s “60/60 Rule” (crank only to 60% and take a break after 60 minutes).

9. Quiet Time

In addition to taking breaks during audio work, hearing health is well-served by getting a goodly amount of true quiet time during your day and over the course of a week. Turn off all media — TV, music, etc. Get away from talking people and barking dogs. Don’t talk on the phone. Get yourself some nice, totally quiet time; as quiet as possible.

Noise-cancelling headphones are helpful too. You can learn to meditate if it’s less boring. Or read. You’ll probably come across this advice again somewhere if you do that.

10. Exercise

Yep. This was going to show up sooner or later, Beery McPizzanachos. You need it anyway, but as it turns out, exercise (cardio specifically) is helpful in maintaining hearing health. Who knew?

11. Diet and Lifestyle

Rock-n-roll is notorious for destroying bodies. Drinking a lot, smoking, and excessive caffeine are all ultimately bad for your vocal health, and also your hearing. So, too, is a bad diet. So, if you want to keep hearing well, eat right, drink less, and smoke none.

And get yourself a check up from time to time. We tend to better maintain health markers than we measure, so it’s not a bad idea to get a regular hearing check up from a real live ear, nose, and throat doctor to head off any issues early.

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man producing music

Dealing With Hearing Damage

If you already learned all of the above the hard way, you might have skipped to this part. While unfortunately there is no known way to actually cure tinnitus in most cases, that and other hearing damage related symptoms can be dealt with.

First and foremost, go back and read the above. If you have some amount of hearing damage, it’s even more important to prevent more.

Tinnitus and Hearing Damage Symptoms

Tinnitus is itself a symptom of hearing damage, and sometimes of other conditions. In fact, we’ve all probably experienced it temporarily at some point. Ringing in your ears is the most common form; also buzzing or other random noise in one or both of your ears.

Other early warning signs of hearing damage include having trouble understanding speech in busy places, songs sounding not quite right, or hypersensitivity to certain frequencies. Any one of these symptoms is a good indicator you need to implement better habits and maybe see a hearing specialist or an ear, nose, and throat specialist.

Your doctor may be able to help with some treatments such as sound therapy, which won’t make it go away, but can help deal with the symptoms. There are a number of ways to deal with tinnitus itself if it’s getting bothersome — including relaxation therapy, biofeedback, hypnosis, and cognitive therapy to name just a few. Your specialist is the best way to figure out your plan of action.

We can’t emphasize enough that if you suspect damage, you should seek medical advice. Your doctor may even have a prescription suggestion for you. Audio pros aren’t doctors.

Playing and Recording With Hearing Damage

First and foremost, don’t freak out. The majority of musicians and producers over the age of zero have some bit of hearing damage. The key is to get serious about preventing more. Do not try to compensate by going louder and louder; you’ll only make it worse.

Instead, implement strict best practices to preserve your hearing, and start learning what things sound like now. So, regular ear calibration sessions in your studio can be helpful; just keep it quiet enough.

If you’ve got particularly acute damage and have trouble with certain frequencies, you may have to enlist help when mixing or other critical listening. Get a partner to give a listen in-studio or by sending tracks (you should probably do this anyway). If the damage is bad, don’t be afraid to ask your doctor about hearing aids. Just be sure to mention what you’ll be using them for. And again, calibrate in your studio, especially if you’re a mixer.

Hearing damage sucks, no question. And being a musician or audio pro means dealing with a lot of potentially damaging sound. But you can produce and perform music indefinitely if you pay attention and do what you know you need to do.

So, turn it down, sonny, go for a walk, and eat your vegetables!

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