74-Is your engineer deaf?

This somewhat inflammatory title grew out of my thoughts about the “Loudness Wars” issue.

A lot of professionals get their work because of their reputation (either deserved or because of self promotion) rather than their expertise or quality work. Of course this is true in any field, not just music. (This is why 25-year-old celebrities in the entertainment field can pontificate about politics and atmospheric physics and get interviews and press for everything they say, while unphotogenic scientists and experienced commentators can barely be heard.)

The art and science of recording, mixing and mastering is an advanced skill that takes years to master, and requires knowledge of electronics, acoustics, and music. On top of that, the best ones do have that extra intangible gift of “golden ears”.

But the reality is also that age, exposure to loud sounds and other factors cause hearing to deteriorate. Where this really came home to me was when I asked my doctor for a real audiologic evaluation, not just a screening. I was put in a soundproof room with headphones, and all sorts of tones of different frequencies were played in a 3D sound field. My hearing is nowhere near the “20 – 20000 Hz” number people talk about as “normal human hearing”, and I guarantee you that few of you over the age of 30 will be able to hear much over 15000 Hz.

So if you really want to see your mastering engineer get uncomfortable, especially if he appears to be older than 40 or so, ask to see his audiology results. Skill and experience are, of course, the most important things, but how much can they count if the guy can’t hear anything above 8000 Hz?

2022-01-27 update I wanted to add some actual data here; the discussion thread below has the pretty inflammatory title “Should older recording engineers retire? Your opinion”. It starts with a graph showing the results of actual clinical studies of the hearing acuity of different age groups.


The originator of the discussion writes this:

Presbycusis happens to everyone and can’t be avoided. It’s a progressive hearing loss that first affects the high frequencies. This loss is not at all noticable in understanding speech. I have tested people with a 50dB hearing loss at 6-8kHz and they don’t have a single problem understanding speech, even in difficult listening situations.

It’s interesting to read. There is a lot of flaming of the Original Poster, but he does have a point that this should be discussed. Of course, most people would agree that good recording, mixing, mastering, and production is much more complicated than the audiology results of any particular engineer or producer, but this is something that needs to be taken into account.

For my own (geriatric) purposes, to a first approximation, I use good quality headphones for critical listening as well as speakers, and look at spectra and waveforms to try to see problems I may not be able to hear.

Page ID#=74 /last updated 2022-01-27