As modern music producers, we should really care about our ear health, which is our most important entity. While producing, increasing the monitor output levels, or headphone levels might be delightful and satisfying, but the truth of the matter is, our ear health comes first. Ever since music is easier to access with smartphones and streaming services, our habit of listening to music has changed. We are all listening to music louder than before and according to Bob Katz, Grammy awarded mastering engineer, loudness is an addiction. Spotify defines loudness as; Quiet (-23 dB LUFS), Normal (-14 dB LUFS), Loud (-11 dB LUFS). Research made by World Health Organization claims that the risk group of having hearing loss is about one billion young people worldwide. By definition, hearing loss is not able to hear above 25 dB SPL. The brochure of World Health Organization titled "Make Listening Safe" points out:
“Analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) data from the United States suggests that between 1994 and 2006, the prevalence of hearing loss among teenagers 12 to 19 years old rose significantly from 3.5% to 5.3%. This rise may be expected to continue as the number of people listening to music through headphones increased by 75% from 1990 to 2005 in the United States. A 2008 European Commission report states that personal audio devices are being used by an increasing proportion of the population. The increasing sales of smartphones, with 470 million devices sold globally in 2011 alone, is another indicator of potential risk. This increased accessibility and use of personal audio devices for listening to music is coupled with their use at high volume and for long durations. Such risk-associated behaviors can permanently damage hearing capacity.”
The first research on the topic of how the ear hears different frequencies at different levels was conducted by Fletcher and Munson in 1933. Fletcher-Munson curves are equal-loudness contours, which describe the perceived loudness of a sound in relation to its frequency for human listeners. Many producers and mixing & mastering engineers advise working at conversation level, which is about 60-65 dB SPL. That certain point is actually up to you, if both output of the track and chatting with someone else is in the room is audible, it is fine. Nowadays, it is easier to meter loudness, by installing a sound pressure level meter application on smartphones. If you are interested in electronic music such as house, techno and minimal, which were mostly aimed for playing these tracks in indoor clubs, and loudly for hours, you should pay more attention to ear health. In the studio the character of these genres pushes us to turn the volume up and bang the room, it is disadvantageous. Be sure that most of the people in the industry advise to not go beyond 90 dB SPL. In the mix session, momentary increase of overall volume level is fine, to check the dynamics, or stereo image. However, mixing techniques depend from person to person. Resting ears a couple of minutes every hour is very beneficial and refreshing. I listed three important advantages of mixing at low volume levels below.
1. Delayed Ear Fatigue
Our ears are mechanical organs, it converts the sound waves moving in the air to electrical signals, and transmits into our brain. There is a threshold for our ears to lose its function. Below 80 dB SPL could be considered safe listening levels. Safe listening levels depend on the intensity (loudness), duration (length of time) and frequency (how often) of the exposure. These three factors are related to each other and summing them up will be equal to the overall sound energy level entering our ears. Going above safe listening levels would decrease the hearing ability temporarily, because of auditory fatigue. For example if we continuously listen to 85 dB SPL, our ear sensory cells will stand for 8 hours. If we continuously listen to 90 dB SPL, our ear sensory cells will stand for 2,5 hours. With less sound wave energy entering through our ears, they will be less fatigued and stay fresh for longer periods, which definitely improves the quality of our mixing session.
2. Focusing More on Channel Imbalances
Mixing loudly could be deceiving for our ears. According to Weber-Fechner Laws, our perception of music changes on different sound levels. We become less sensitive to change in sound at higher volume levels, and more sensitive to change in sound at lower volume levels. So, at lower output levels, we could hear the dynamic processing easily. If our track sounds good and all the elements are clearly audible at low volumes, it will definitely sound better at higher volume levels.
3. Less Room Character (For Studio Reference Monitors)
If your room is not acoustically treated, mixing at low volume levels, especially with nearfield studio monitors, would be very effective. It is easier to take control of the mix, because low output levels would be minimizing the reflections from walls, corners and surfaces.
As a result of overall music listening volumes are getting higher and higher, we should be more careful about our ear health and reconsider our listening habits. There are many advantages of mixing at low levels. Not only that it minimizes the risk of hearing loss, but also increases the efficiency of hours spent in our studio sessions. In the long term, our ears will be thankful for us as!
Writer: Mehmet Kurtoğlu
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