Rest Your Ears: Why Listening to Nothing Will Help You Create Great Sound Design
Let me tell you about the great beer flood of 1814.
You see, way back during the 17th century, Britain's beer barons were competing fiercely - trying desperately to out-beer one another.
And it turns out that the Meux’s Horse Shoe Brewery really took the keg on who created the biggest vat. They spared no expense in creating the biggest brewing receptacle that they could possibly create.
So big was their vat that they even hosted a 200 person dinner party inside of it to celebrate its creation.
Unfortunately, such a gigantic beer tub made with such new technology led to an explosion that led to over a million pounds of beer being dumped on to the streets of London.
Buildings got knocked over, people got swept up into a wave of beer, and random onlookers rushed into the fray with cups and pots to drink this sour juice as fast as possible help their fellow citizens.
While jumping into the fray to "help" may have seemed wise, it actually prevented any emergency services from getting to the scene to provide actual aid. It would have been smarter for the onlookers to do absolutely nothing.
And sometimes, as sound designers, it's wise for us to do nothing as well. We spend all day listening to sounds, whether through headphones, over speakers, or just out in the world, which can cause our ears to tire out.
This constant listening can prevent us from hearing the nuance in our work, which is why, sometimes, improving our sound design requires listening to absolutely nothing at all.
Here's what we're going to cover today:
Part 1: Ear fatigue & its effects
Part 2: How to take an ear break
Part 3: Saving our ears through volume limits
We've all experienced ear fatigue
Whether at a loud concert, mixing/designing/composing all day, or just sitting on a plane for a while.
Ear fatigue can be hard to notice unless you really concentrate and look for it. When we start feeling as if everything sounds kind of dull after a few hours of work, that's when we know it has set in.
While in our day-to-day, ear fatigue may not be the worst thing in the world, it does lead us to making work that's less nuanced and balanced.
If you've ever made something, only to come back later and find that it sounds like trash, then you can blame ear fatigue for that one.
Which is why ear breaks are so essential to what we do
Yet, too few people take them.
An ear break is exactly what you think it is: You take your headphones off, turn off the speakers, maybe even leave the room, and listen to as little as possible.
Don't turn on a podcast, don't listen to music, and don't watch any videos with the sound on. Go to the quietest space you can and just hang out for a bit.
In my experience, all we need is about 5-10 minutes for every hour to keep our ears accurate and fresh throughout the day.
Personally, I just cuddle with my very good dog during my ear breaks.
Even if we do take breaks, though
They may mean nothing if our monitoring levels are always inconsistent.
The volume that we use to work day-to-day matters. I'm not saying you can't change the volume you monitor at, but having a standard "set point" on your audio interface/system volume makes things much easier to manage.
For example, maybe your system is set to -22dB 80% of the time. Because of this consistent level, you'll be more attuned to when things start sounding "dull" due to fatigue.
A few audio teams even implement a mandatory monitoring range for its sound designers during the mix phase. Doing this makes sure everything stays consistent and no one tires their ears out too quickly.
You can even set volume limits on your phone while you're listening to your various podcasts and such - a great way to prevent your ears from tiring out prematurely.
"But Akash, you veritable cornucopia of cacao" you ask "doesn't this only happen if I'm listening to things too loud?"
Yes, fatigue definitely sets in much quicker the louder our environment is. But, unless what we're listening to is consistently whisper-quiet, then taking ear breaks may still be a wise choice.
What about using monitors and open-backed headphones?
It's true that closed-back headphones and earbuds cause far more fatigue than anything else, but even standard speakers or monitors can cause fatigue, too.
Open-back headphones are a nice middle ground that can let us work for longer periods of time without as much fatigue, but they let some of the outside world "in" and let some of what you're listening to "out." Depending on the room you're in, that might be totally fine, or totally useless.
Ear fatigue is a real thing that can affect and lower the quality of our work.
Taking ear breaks for 5-10 minutes every hour can help keep our ears fresh.
Having a set monitoring volume on our systems most of the time can keep our levels in perspective.
We can even limit the volume on your phone to prevent your ears from tiring out too quickly throughout the day.
I think I would make an excellent beer baron. I'd grow a giant mustache and ride one of those bikes with the big wheel in front to intimidate my competition.
While we (hopefully) won't have to deal with helping our fellow people due to a million pounds of beer spilling into the streets
We sound designers would be wise to know that, sometimes, doing (and listening to) nothing may be the best way to create better work.
Give this a shot!
If you haven't already, start taking some ear breaks! Even just doing these a few times a day can keep your work sounding nice and balanced consistently.
And even if we take care of ourselves (which I do hope you're doing), building a career in audio can be tough to do alone
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