Millions of people suffer from tinnitus. A new study shows around 10% of the U.S. population suffers from it in some form, but many have never even heard of it until they get it! Unfortunately, I was one of those people. It can happen quickly and it lasts a lifetime...
As a sound engineer, your hearing is your most important asset. It's critical that you protect it for as long as possible. In this section, I will discuss the causes and prevention of tinnitus, and general safety practices that will help you keep your ears healthy.
What Is Tinnitus?
Tinnitus is the constant hearing of a sound when there is no sound present. Some describe it as a ringing sound, a hiss, or a high pitched tone. The sound is continual, and it varies from one tinnitus suffer to another.
How Is Tinnitus Caused?
Tinnitus is caused by either a single extremely loud sound or by loud sounds over a period of time. I know a military vet who got severe tinnitus from the sound of jets taking off in close proximity. Another guy I know got it from a single bomb explosion that was right next to him. Listening to loud music at a concert or club, if you're in a band, if you play music loud on your iPod, or monitoring music very loud as a sound engineer, over a period of time any of these scenarios could cause tinnitus. If you cut grass for a living and don't wear earplugs, I would imagine that could eventually cause it too.
It can also be caused by prescription drugs in the benzodiazepine family or even by over the counter drugs like ibuprofen. I heard of a man who got severe tinnitus from MSG in Chinese food. The cook made a mistake and loaded it up heavy with MSG.
How Did I Get My Tinnitus And How Did It Sound?
I got tinnitus in 1999, working on one of my very first mastering projects the day I opened my studio, JR mastering. At that time, I needed to listen to the songs much longer than I do now because of my lack of experience, and I listened to them WAY too loud.
I was reviewing my final masters at a high volume level (105-110 dbs) for about 30 minutes non-stop. When I was finished I didn't really notice anything. But, when night time came I could hear a high-pitched tone. It sounded like a 40db test tone @ 5k. I could hear the tone in both ears, but my right ear was twice as bad as my left. The first few days it was hard for me to sleep because I kept thinking about this sound. The sound was also very annoying when sitting outside in a quiet area.
Is There A Cure For Tinnitus?
No. There are many pills and snake oil products online, but I have never heard of a valid cure. But, experts say it gets better over time as long as you don't make it worse.
The first few months I suffered from tinnitus, I would say it was very annoying at night but not too bad during the day. It did not effect my sound engineering. After six months, it improved about 25%. After a year, roughly 50%. Now, many years later, I would say I have maybe 20% of the original tinnitus I got in 1999 (an 80% improvement). It's pretty much gone because it was a mild case of tinnitus to begin with.
Can You Mix And Master Music With Tinnitus?
Mine was not severe, so it did not hinder me at all. The noise I heard was a 40db loud test tone @ 5k (at a narrow range). I started doing my initial mixing and mastering at around 85dbs, so the tinnitus tone was pretty much masked (drowned out). Its kind of like when someone records mic hiss. You can hear it when the music stops, but when the guitars are playing you can't hear it at all because the hiss is being masked.
Singer Phil Collins retired because of his tinnitus. Bono also has very severe tinnitus that greatly affects his everyday life. If your tinnitus is very severe like those two, I'm sure your sound engineering skills would be greatly affected.
How To Prevent Tinnitus In Everyday Life
Always use hearing protection (earplugs) when at a concert or a club playing loud music, when cutting grass, when using a blower or electric power tools, and for sure when shooting a gun. Any situation where a continuous 100db sound is present.
Also, don't listen to music over 100dbs for long periods of time. OSHA recommends no more than 1 hour @ 105dbs. I would NEVER go more than 20 minutes straight at 105dbs, if that. Also, be careful with ibuprofen and prescription drugs.
How Loud Is Too Loud When Mixing And Mastering?
Well, 105-110dbs for 30 minutes straight was too loud for me. I had tinnitus at the end of the 30-minute session! Everyone is different, so I don't want to give you specific sound ranges and upper limits. All I can tell you is what gave me tinnitus, and what's worked for me to improve my tinnitus 80% since 1999.
How To Protect Your Hearing As A Sound Engineer
THE GUINEA PIG EXPERIMENT
I read a study online where a scientist exposed guinea pigs to extremely loud music. The results were that the guinea pigs who listened to extremely loud music continuously, say for 30 minutes, had severe structural damage to their internal ears.
The guinea pigs who listened to the same extremely loud 30 minutes of music, but it was not continuous (roughly 2 minutes of music and then a 2 minute break), the damage to their internal ears was FAR LESS severe compared to the first group.
Now remember, both groups listened to music the same total time (30 minutes). But, continuous listening was far more damaging than intermittent listening.
The Rules I Follow During Music Mixing And Mastering
I initially mix and master at a lower level. I keep levels around 80-90dbs. I listen 10-15 minutes at these levels, then take a 5-minute break. I will do this for between 2-4 hours, then I take a full two-hour break.
When it comes time for the finalization (loud listening @ 105-110dbs) I NEVER go more than 2-3 minutes continuous and I pretty much split time. If I listen to loud music for 5 minutes, I take a 5 minute break before starting up again.
Above is what I've doing since 1999 and it works for me. Maybe you can go 100dbs for 8 hours a day and never have a problem, but I'm not risking it. 105-110dbs for 30 minutes continuous ruined my ears pretty good, and I had to make sure they didn't get any worse.
Tinnitus isn't fun. I might be going overboard a bit with my silence rests, but it's working for me. Better safe than sorry with tinnitus because it lasts A LIFETIME!