Combating Listening Fatigue

Listening fatigue is a concept familiar to almost anyone with longterm mixing experience. Even if you are not familiar with the term, chances are you have experienced it in your music making journey. It is often subtle (you have trouble determining what is wrong with your mix) and insidious (you think your mix is going great only until coming back to it with fresh ears, realizing the balance is way out of whack). But, no matter the case the result is always the same: lost time and energy, and shitty sounding mixes.

Listening fatigue is technically considered a physiological “problem” with the inner ear or the brain while being exposed to constant, repetitive frequencies (especially those with loud amplitude, percussive envelopes, or saturated mids). Due to the nature of music mixing, there is no escaping the fact that you will have to keep listening to looping portions of your recorded material over and over again, although determining the precise moment you reach diminishing returns, despite the more time spent, is difficult to gauge.

The very nature of listening fatigue is partially borne out of an evolutionary adaptation meant to protect and preserve the ear from damage while being exposed to a constant, abrasive sound source. Much like the hardware compressors used to tame amplitude during mixing, our inner ears work in much the same way; physically clamping down or releasing pressure on the ear drum to control it’s sensitivity to sound pressure waves. However, the brain isn’t being informed – at the conscious level anyways – that the ear is compensating for this physical modulation of the incoming sound source and in turn it seems to do its own inverse compression, equal and opposite to compression done by the inner ear. This is done to equalize the information so that it doesn’t appear so jarring.

There is a similar phenomenon that occurs with the sense of sight when you go from looking at an object in the shade to looking up at the bright sky. In reality, the amount of light entering the eye is exponentially greater when looking up at the sky, however, when making the transition from darker to brighter, your pupil clamps down allowing less light in, while your brain processes the image you experience in a way so as to make the transition not seem so jarring. Compare this to how your digital video camera handles the transition (the shutter is much like the pupil, but any real time processing used to equalize the transition is probably not sufficient to make it unnoticeable).

The result of all of this signal modulation occurring between your ears and brain, in realtime, is you can never really trust that what you are hearing is as accurate as it would be to fresh ears, particularly when dealing with equalization (who hasn’t experienced the ear-bleeding results of constantly increasing high frequencies due to a temporary reduction in sensitivity). Since this is an adaptation built into our very genes, there is not much you can do to combat it. Your brain is more interested in preserving your senses and your chances of survival, not getting your mix just right with a marathon session.

And therein lies the answer: cut your sessions short. Take frequent breaks. I, for one, know that this is easier said than done. I am a serial session-grinder. I always have trouble getting going, but once I get going i’m too in-the-zone to break away for fear of losing my inspiration or energy. But with all of my years of experience, I know that there is no other way. Simply put, my mixes suffer unless I allow myself to take hours, days, or even weeks off from a particular mix I’m working on (depending on how much time I’ve spent on it). Besides preserving your ears, your sanity, and in the long run your mixes, there are a whole host of physical problems you can avoid by avoiding the stress incurred by session-grinding. I have personally dealt with physical fallout ranging from nerve & tension related illness like back and neck pain, nerve twitching, flashing lights in my visual field, labrynthitis (a terrible inner ear disorder that can cause merry-go-round spinning that goes on for weeks or months) and prostatitis, to extreme fatigue and susceptibility to cold viruses. All precipitating from the stress induced by overdoing it at the mixing desk. Undoubtedly, your own susceptibility will vary depending on everything else going on in your life. I can’t say I’ve shaken the curse of listening fatigue, even after all of these years that should have taught me how to combat it fully. What I have gotten better at is identifying it before it happens and pre-empting it as much as possible with some of the following adjustments:

  • Stepping out for a while, far away from the mixing desk
  • Getting a good 25-40 minutes of exercise
  • Moving on to a completely unrelated task needing to be done
  • Watching a movie
  • Sleep

In the end, you will end up saving time, energy and aggravation.