5 tips for protecting your hearing as a musician

Illustration: Leonard Peng

As music producers, we intensely use our ears all the time.

Although we rely on our sense of hearing more than most, in an unfortunate twist of fate we often put ourselves in situations that can be deleterious to our ears’ health. For example, we might be more likely to sit in the studio for hours, go to loud shows, or crank up Soulja Boy on our AirPods at full volume while writing blog posts (okay, maybe that last one is just me).

The bad news: hearing damage will only get worse over time and can often be irreversible. The good news: it’s never too late to take action to protect the hearing capabilities you have left. In this article, let’s discuss a few strategies for keeping your eardrums happy and healthy.

1. Carry earplugs

Regardless of whether you’re playing or attending, it’s a great idea to wear earplugs at shows. Loudspeakers can do serious damage to your eardrums, especially if you’re getting up close and personal with the PA system—on the rail at festivals, for example. According to the CDC, loud concerts can reach levels of 105 – 110 dB, a level which can cause hearing damage after just 5 minutes of exposure.

If you’re in loud environments like concerts on a regular basis, it’s worth it to invest in custom-molded earplugs. At this point, I never go to a show without my PRO17 from ACS Customs (not #sponsored—I purchased them years ago). These handy plugs knock down the decibel level going into my eardrums by 17 dB, making it safe to attend loud concerts. Good custom-molded earplugs will also feature a flat frequency response, so the music will sound the same, just quieter. With my earplugs in, I can more safely hang out in my happy place at shows: near the biggest subwoofer I can find.

The disposable foam earplugs from most drugstores provide good protection if dropping $150+ on hearing protection is currently out of your budget. These are much cheaper and more convenient for some people, but might be less comfortable or muffle the sound in an unwanted way (messing with the frequency balance, as mentioned above).

2. 60% for 60 minutes

I wish I had followed this tip better in my childhood. I caused myself significant damage by absolutely cranking my CD player (yes, I’m old) whenever I listened to anything on it. Take it from me—it’s worth it to set reasonable limits on your phone’s volume when listening on headphones!

An easy rule of thumb to remember is 60% for 60 minutes. Try not to exceed 60% volume, and definitely take a break after listening for 60 minutes straight. According to the Mayo Clinic, this “60/60 rule” can help ensure you’re practicing safe listening habits. If you have trouble sticking to it and want to crank it just a little bit more, you could even try setting a maximum volume output in your phone’s settings.

3. Watch out for ear fatigue

Just like any other part of your body, your ears can get tired when you’re using them intensely. And when you keep using them without a break, they’ll get tired a lot faster. When your ears are fatigued, your ability to make objective decisions about your track will suffer. For example, if my ears are tired, I find that I’m much more likely to get stuck in a loop, listening to the same 16 bars over and over.

One of the most effective ways to combat ear fatigue is to give yourself a break when making music; I’d suggest at least around 5 – 10 minutes every hour. Get up and walk around, take your dog outside, do a few yoga poses, or try some of these stretches for music producers. Keeping your body in motion will have a positive effect on your posture, mood, and energy level, in addition to protecting your hearing health.

4. Get used to working on music at a lower level

Look, I get it. It’s so much fun to blast music when you’re producing, especially if you’re excited about the cool idea you just came up with. There’s nothing wrong with playing your track loud a couple of times, maybe at the end of your session to check your work, but avoid the temptation to produce with your speakers cranked all the way up for the entire session. As we’ve already discussed, being physically near loud sound sources for an extended period will eventually cause tragically avoidable damage.

Instead, I’d recommend producing / mixing with your speakers or headphones as quiet as possible. This will not only preserve your hearing, but also improve your mixes. If your track ‘pops out of the speakers’ when you’re playing it quietly, that usually means you’ve nailed it and the track will sound even better when you play it loud. Although monitoring mixes at 85 dB has become the accepted standard for optimal ‘balance’ and ‘power,’ there’s no need to stick to this number in your home studio. In fact, many professional engineers, cognizant of the dangers of long-term exposure, are now calibrating their monitoring systems to even lower sound pressure levels.

5. Try an SPL metering app

So you now understand the importance of working on music at a reasonable level. But all this understanding is undermined if you don’t actually know how loud your level is! I alluded to room calibration earlier; one of the most important parts of calibrating your studio is understanding how noisy your environment actually is by measuring the sound pressure level.

Back in my day, you needed a dedicated measuring device for this, but nowadays you can use your phone’s mic paired with an app. Some say the phone mic may be unreliable for this purpose—I haven’t run my own rigorous tests to determine whether that’s true or not, but at minimum, doing a few basic tests should help you understand whether you’re putting yourself at increased risk on a broad level.

Develop a lifelong habit for protecting your hearing

As producers, if we go deaf, we’re screwed. Protect your ears! Get the earplugs, and remember to bring them when you go to shows! Take breaks from listening! There will always be more time to go back and listen again, unless you blow out your eardrums by listening too loud for too long. Take it from someone with tinnitus—taking care of your ears is going to be the most important habit you’ve ever cultivated.

August 31, 2021

Max Rewak Max Rewak is a record producer, audio engineer, and music writer, based in New York and currently working in Sounds content at Splice.