As a sound engineer, your hearing is your most important asset. It's critical that you protect it for as long as you can. In this article, I will discuss the causes and prevention of tinnitus (an ailment that affects your hearing) for sound engineers and general safety practices that will help you keep your ears and hearing healthy for as long possible.
What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the constant hearing of a sound when there is no sound present. Some describe it has a ringing sound, a hiss or a high pitched tone. The sound is continual, and actual sound that the tinnitus sufferer hears varies from person to person.
How Is Tinnitus Caused?
Tinnitus is caused by either a single extremely loud sound or by a loud sound over a period of time. I know someone in the military who got severe tinnitus from the sound of jets taking off in close proximity. Another guy a knew got it from a single explosion that was right next to him. Listening to music at a concert or on your ipod can cause it. DJing at a club can cause it. If you cut grass for a living, I would image that could cause it too over a long period of time.
What Did Tinnitus Sound Like To Me?
I got tinnitus in 1999, working on one of my very first mastering projects the day I opened my Big Label Sound. At that time I needed to listen to the songs I was mastering much longer than I do now because of my lack of experience. I was doing my final masters at a high level (105-110 dbs) for about 30 minutes non-stop. When I was done I didn't really notice anything until night time when I was hearing a high-pitched tone. It sounded like a 40db test tone at 5k. I could hear the tone in both ears, but my right ear was twice as bad as my left.
The first few days it was hard for me to sleep because I kept thinking about this sound. Sitting outside in the quiet also made this tone pretty obvious and annoying.
Is There A Cure For Tinnitus?
No. There are many pills and snake oil products online, but I have never heard of a valid cure. But, experts say it gets better over time as long as you don't make it worse.
The first two weeks I suffered from tinnitus, I would say it was very annoying at night but not too bad during the day. It did not effect my sound engineering. I had no problem mixing or mastering songs. After a month it improved about 25%. After a year 50%. Now, many years later, I would say I only have maybe 20% of the original tinnitus I had in 1999. I would almost say it's gone.
Can You Mix And Master Music With Tinnitus?
Mine was not severe, so it did not hinder me at all. The noise I heard was a 40db loud test tone at 5k (at a narrow range). I do my initial mixing and mastering at around 90dbs, so the tone is pretty much drowned out. It's kind of like when someone records mic hiss. You can hear it when the music stops, but when the guitars are playing you don't notice it.
If your tinnitus is very severe, I'm sure your sound engineering skills would be greatly affected. Singer Phil Collins retired because of his tinnitus. Bono has very severe tinnitus that greatly affects his everyday life.
How To Prevent Tinnitus In Everyday Life
Always use hearing protection (earplugs) when at a concert or a club playing loud music, when cutting grass, when using a blower or electric power tools, and for sure when shooting a gun.
How Loud Is Too Loud When Mixing And Mastering Songs?
Well, 105-110dbs for 30 minutes straight was too loud for me. I had tinnitus at the end of the 30-minute session. Everyone is different, so I don't want to give you specific sound ranges and upper limits. All I can tell you what worked for me and improved my tinnitus 90% since 1999.
How To Protect Your Hearing And Prevent Tinnitus As A Sound Engineer
The Guinea Pig Experiment
I read a study online where a scientist exposed guinea pigs to extremely loud music. The basic result of the study was that the guinea pigs who listened to the music continuously, say 30 minutes, the structural damage to the internal ear was severe. The guinea pigs who listened to the same 30 minutes of music, BUT it was not continuous (2 minutes of music and then roughly a 2-minute break, their damage was FAR less severe than the first group. Now remember, both groups listened to music at the exact same volume for the same amount of time, 30 minutes. Continuous vs intermittent listening made a HUGE difference.
The Rules I Follow During Music Mixing And Mastering Sessions That Prevent Tinnitus
My initial low sound level mixing and mastering, I keep levels around 85-90dbs. I listen 10-15 minutes at these levels, then take a 5-minute break. I will do this for about 2-4 hours, then I take a full two-hour break.
When it comes time for the finalization loud listening (105-110dbs) mixing or mastering I NEVER go more than 3-4 minutes continuous and I pretty much split time. If I listen loud for 3 minutes, I take a 3-minute break before starting up again.
Above is what I've doing and what works for me since 1999. Maybe you can go 100dbs for 8 hours a day and have never had a problem. As for myself, 110dbs for 30 minutes ruined my ears pretty good and I was going to make sure they didn't get any worse. Tinnitus isn't fun. I might even be going overboard a bit with my rests, but it's working for me. Better safe than sorry with tinnitus.
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