The human ear is, without doubt, the most important tool any audio professional, any audio enthusiast, will ever own. We all like to chase gear – the latest entertainment system, the most inventive, feature-rich or time-saving audio plugins, the latest, most high-fidelity recording and audio processing equipment, but your ears are at the heart of every decision you make as an audio professional and the key to appreciating any audio creation.
Unlike plugins, which can be replaced, ears cannot and it’s vital that they be protected as much as possible. Small hairs vibrate inside the ear as sound reaches them. Thing is, they are very delicate and, although it sounds like a lot, you only get around 25000 to last you a life-time. If they are subjected to noises that are too loud, they break and your hearing slowly diminishes. The human ear can hear between 20 and 20000 Hz, that’s the optimum range. As these hairs break, you tend to lose the higher frequencies first, decreasing this range. Even if you manage to protect your ears religiously, you will inevitably suffer age-related hearing loss…but before this starts to sound like every other article ever written about the human ear, let’s consider things from a different perspective.
Perhaps you listened to loud music before you ever knew you wanted to become an audio professional. Perhaps, for whatever reason, you can no longer hear up to 20000 Hz and guess what, however good your hearing is now, it will be less good in ten or twenty years. So what does this mean for your audio career? Is all lost? I mean people working in audio, people who have to make all these decisions about the sounds they’re working with, they should be the best hearers right? So, as soon as you have sub-pa hearing, that’s it. You’re on the scrap heep right?
Given that we know that people inevitably suffer some degree of age-related hearing loss, it follows that children have the best hearing. So children are the best hearers. I read somewhere that children under ten can hear some species of bat. So perhaps we should get them working on the world’s sound stages? Perhaps sound design, mixing, field recording are young people’s gameme?
Thing is, children don’t know the different between a comb filter and a formant filter, between the Haas Effect and the Doppler Effect, between ground hum and CRT whine. It takes knowledge and experience to understand these things and how to manage and apply them in audio. It takes knowledge and experience to know that too much bass in a mix will muddy it, which microphone works best in which circumstances. In short, they might be the best hearers, but they aren’t the best listeners.
Another thing is, many of Hollywood’s most famous sound designers are older. What’s more, that, with prominent exceptions such as Paula Fairfield, sound designer for the Game of Thrones series, sound design is still very much a male-dominated field. This is, of course, a shame for the same reason it is a shame that women are under-represented in any industry, but it is doubly interesting since women weren’t created equal where hearing is concerned. That’s right. Women tend to have better hearing than men and are less susceptible to age-related hearing loss. Ben Burtt, for example, most famously known for his sound effects for the first Star Wars films, is most recently credited, according to Wikipedia, with sound design for the Force Awakens, which was released in 2015. He was born in 1948. However lucky he has been in retaining the integrity of his hearing and however well he has protected his ears, it is extremely unlikely that his hearing is every bit as good as it was when he was doing the sound design for ‘a New Hope’ in the 70s. Despite this, he is still producing excellent film sound. So people in an age-group with statistically worse hearing from a gender with statistically less durable hearing can still cut it.
While your hearing is difficult to improve, your knowledge isn’t and it’s arguably better to be someone with average ears but great critical listening skills than someone with golden ears but less understanding of the audio field. Noise related hearing loss that has already happened and age-related hearing loss that is already happening are undoubtedly obstacles, but if audio is your passion, not having the widely quoted and pretty optimistic human hearing range of 20-20000 Hz shouldn’t stop you from trying to pursue your dream.
Sound design is an art like story-telling. People use sound to tell stories. Those with better hearing might be thought of as being like wordsmiths who know more words. They have better tools at their disposal to do their job. However, knowing a lot of words is only part of what you need to tell a good story. Knowing how to fit them together in interesting ways, taming them and making them do what you want them to do, that’s the other part. Story-tellers who can do that are like the sound designers who know what makes a sound effect work in a given situation, who know what makes pleasing sound. Developing good critical listening skills, a knowledge of how sound works, how it can influence people’s emotions and how it can be sculpted is essential to success in any field of the audio industry. If you don’t believe it, consider Beethoven.
Beethoven was deaf and yet manage to produce musical master-pieces that have endured for centuries. Such was his passion, his understanding of music, that he overcame considerable obstacles to rise to the ranks of the very greatest classical composers. While he is definitely the exception rather than the rule, the world isn’t full of deaf musicians and composers, neither are most people’s obstacles as great as his were. Age-related hearing loss still leaves you with much better hearing than Beethoven in most cases, if you do your part and look after your ears.
Let’s say you’re a young woman just graduated from university. Short of being a child, your ears are at their peak. You wear ear protection and listen to everything at sensible volumes. Something as simple as a cold might still throw you off. Colds, ear infections etc can dramatically change the frequency response of our ears. The very ear-plugs that you use to protect your hearing might cause an excessive build-up of wax that could cause mild, temporary hearing loss. Thing is, what constitutes mild hearing loss to most people might feel pretty significant to you as an audio professional. Recently, I had such a build-up of wax in my left ear that I could barely hear a 10 KHz tone through the blockage. It’s fine now, but the point is, even in the best of circumstances, you have to make the best of working with a system whose performance may change in unpredictable ways. Sound designers can’t take the week off everyt time they have the sniffles so we must use every advantage and trick at our disposal.
Other Tools to Help
These days, there are many tools and tricks to help if you have mild hearing loss. It’s possible to see what you’re doing as well as listen to it. Simply looking at the frequency spectrum of a piece of audio may allow an experience audio engineer to identify problems with it and correct them. Even if you can’t use such tools as I, being totally blind, can’t, pitching a piece of audio down will enable you to identify any tones from equipment etc that may be adulterating your sound. On the other end of the scale, pitching audio up may allow you to hear unwanted content that your speakers can’t reproduce, such as subtle wind noise. The simple knowledge that old-fashioned screens produce a 15 KHz whine means that you can eliminate it with filters without having to hear its presence.
Today, there are even tools that will analyse your audio and make some of these decisions for you, or at least suggest changes. Izotope makes plugins that will show you whether there is too much or too little bass in your mix and so on.
Crucially, if you are worried about your hearing, a medical professional should be your first port of call. Don’t just turn everything up to compensate or try to treat the problem yourself. Turning everything up will just accelerate your hearing loss. Safe listening levels are anything below 85 Decibels. For every 5 DB above 85, the safe exposure time halves from 8 hours at 85 DB to 4 hours at 90 DB and so on. There may be things they can do to mitigate any permanent hearing loss you have already suffered.
While friends and colleagues obviously aren’t tools, they can still help you make sure your work is still on point. If you have someone whose ears you trust, have them listen to your work. Audio professionals seldom work in a vacuum so there will be plenty of people to give you feedback. At the end of the day, if your clients and your audience like your work, it’s fit for purpose so keep on producing it. Keep on keeping on!
The audio field is so broad and there are so many things to do in it. Not all of them make the same exacting demands on our hearing. You don’t need to hear a 20000 Hz tone to create powerful, cinematic bass impacts or arrange already recorded sound effects in a project, to record a city ambience or edit a podcast interview that was recorded well. If audio is what you love, find a niche that best suits your talents and go for it. A performer who has access to something with fewer keys than a grand piano can still play great music within that range.
You only get one pair of ears so protect them as well as you can, but when they start to show their age, when they have a few nicks and dents as any tool will after a while, don’t stop making the most of them. In the right hands, a less than perfect tool is far from a useless tool. Make the most of what your ears have to offer. While you can hear 20 KHz tones, or even the 15 KHz tone of an old TV, many people cannot, enjoy the sounds you can hear. Savor the sonic landscape around you and use it the best way you know how! Don’t let factors you can’t change hold you back more than they need to. If there’s something you want to try to achieve… just do it.