Published on March 8th, 2014 | by Dylan Lott


Mixing Tip: Give Your Ears A Break

A Guide To Avoiding Ear Fatigue While Mixing 

Have you ever been up late working on a mix until the early hours of the morning, and then you listen to it the next day and things are so messed up that you need to redo a lot of it? You’ve probably been a victim of ear fatigue.

Assuming the magic acoustic fairies didn’t come into your mixing room at night and change around the acoustics of your room, the only other variable that would change over night would be your ears. 

If you can recognize this, then you’ve made the first step towards correcting it.


What Is Ear Fatigue?

Ear fatigue is caused by general fatigue and a phenomenon called “Temporary Threshold Shift”. This basically means that your minimum hearing volume is shifted up to help protect your hearing, and it has adverse effects on how you actually hear a mix. This is the scientific part of why you should take breaks every so often, but there’s a mental reasoning behind it, too.

Normally, ear fatigue is more quickly brought on by over-compressed highs or anything that creates a near-steady tone. A really heavy, constant bass line could do it, too.

Signal distortion is also fatiguing to the ear, which we’ll discuss later.


Spotting Ear Fatigue

Ringing in the ears, if you find yourself turning up the music above what you had it at before, and tweaking something without being able to get it to sound right. Some people even report actual soreness in their ears, but this isn’t as common. However, if you do feel this starting, you should take a break as soon as possible. You’re not at your best at this point anyway, and mixing while you  have ear fatigue usually results in you having to do it twice, so don’t fool yourself; you’re not going to be saving time.


Getting Rid of Distortion from Your Mix

Here’s a small trick for use in your mastering chain, before using any multiband compression:

1. I take a 2 band stereo EQ, then I take the first band and turn up the gain with a high Q factor and search around 2K-2.5KHz for that exact frequency that’s most disturbing, when you find it you’ll know, it’ll make your ears bleed, then of course you turn the gain down to about -2 or -3dB depending on the loudness in that particular frequency.

2. Then you take the second band and turn up the gain with a low Q factor and search around 100-200Hz for that frequency that makes everything fall into a mush of low end sound and do the same thing. You’ll see that in the end, your mix will be a whole lot less tireing and it will distort less when you use your limiter”


How To Postpone It

Here’s the bad news: There’s basically no way to prevent ear fatigue. The only way to fully prevent it is not to listen to anything in the first place. That being said, there are a few things you can stop doing to keep it from happening too quickly.

First off, don’t blast your mixes. Play them at a volume where you can still talk to someone else in the room without straining your voice.

Upgrading your signal and monitoring chain can help, too, because as we stated earlier, distortion lends to ear fatigue. Obviously not everyone can afford thousands of dollars of outboard sound processing gear, and that’s not what we’re recommending, but if you can, it can be worth it. Not just is quality of sound, but in better “listenability”.


Getting Back To Normal

Ear fatigue isn’t permanent. Here are some ways to give your ears a break once you feel it coming on.

  • Take a coffee or smoke break.
  • Bounce your mix and listen to it on a different set of speakers before you resume mixing. This can be incredibly insightful!
  • Usually a good nights sleep helps best, but even a small break can do wonders. If it’s a late night in the studio, consider stopping and resuming in the morning.
  • Get a third opinion on the mix while you’re waiting. Sometimes a new, fresh set of ears will pick up on things you didn’t.


Treat Your Ears Well

As you’ll get older, hearing loss will become more apparent to you. I can already notice definite hearing loss in my right ear (which scares the shit out of me) and even worse, I know exactly what caused it. Wear ear plugs at shows, don’t blare your mixes during production, don’t shoot guns with the barrel next to your ear drum, etc… You get what I’m saying. You get one pair of ears, just take care of them.

Besides hearing loss, there are other health problems that are fairly common. Tinnitus being the main one, usually. According to WebMD, “prolonged exposure to loud sounds is the most common cause of tinnitus.” That ringing in your ears after you went to a concert and didn’t use ear plugs? That’s tinnitus. And it means you’ve permanently lost hearing to some extent. Granted, it’s more than likely a very small sliver of your hearing that you’ve lost, but you’ve lost it nonetheless. Keep losing hearing like this for another couple of years, and you’ll start to actually notice it, I promise.


Have any comments or other pointers? Leave them in the comments section!

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