Okay, now that we’ve got your attention with that cover — we’re not just being dramatic. The fact is that a career in the trenches of the audio industry can be hazardous to your health and may cause an early death. And if it doesn’t actually kill you, it might damage your hearing, raise your blood pressure, lead to serious weight gain or loss, funnel you toward all sorts of legal and illegal addictions, and destroy your marriage/relationships — all in the service of aiding and abetting the creation of art and entertainment.
Every one of us knows an audio workaholic (or 10) worthy of concern — and even pity — because of their selfless and, perhaps, foolish dedication to their craft. They love their job, and that means giving it everything they’ve got at whatever the cost in time, health and social consequences. You’ve heard ’em all: “This mix can be just about perfect in only a couple more hours” (on top of the 10 that have already been devoted to it). “Look, we’ve been up this long, we might as well stay up all night and finish.” “My ears seem to be getting a little tired — let’s turn it up so I can hear the detail better.” “Nah, I’m not hungry; we’ll get some take-out later.” “We can crash here for a couple of hours and get a fresh start in a while.” “I don’t read manuals; I can probably figure out this kick drum-replacement program on my own.” “Honey, it looks like we’re goin’ a little long here — can you take Sarah to her soccer game?”
Hey, wait a minute — they’re not talkin’ about some other guy! That could be me!
Yes, we’re all guilty of neglecting our health for work’s sake from time to time. Let’s face it: It goes with the territory and, of course, it’s hardly unique to the audio world. But our little corner of the universe presents an incredibly broad range of hazards that require a special brand of vigilance (and intelligence) to avoid or overcome. That’s what this issue is all about: understanding the myriad complex health issues so many of us face in this profession we all love and offering some practical solutions that can make your life better right away. You say you don’t want to see the diagrams of the human ear with all those creepy little hair sensors? You want us to back off because you already know that coffee and cigarettes are less healthful than green tea and yoga? Who are we to argue with your five Platinum albums earned from marathon sessions fueled by Colombian flake in the late ’70s?
A MODERN PHENOMENON
It wasn’t always like this, of course. Before the mid-’60s, working in a studio was actually a fairly sane proposition. Sessions were mostly done in three-hour blocks, with time in between and breaks and all that sensible stuff. Rare indeed was the session that went overtime (it was heavily discouraged) and unusual, too, was the studio that had late-night sessions. Singers and musicians were expected to show up on time, ready to play. Engineers were the only ones who could touch the console; producers were music men (in fact, most had serious music backgrounds). Recording was essentially a live craft — documenting the studio session and balancing (mixing) it on the spot — with minimal if any overdubs, so there wasn’t the sort of endless post-tracking work that became the norm a little later. Studio monitoring was in its infancy, with even the best speakers of the day kept at reasonable levels.
But then, various industry-wide shifts began to happen and the music business has never looked back. Not surprisingly, The Beatles were at the center of it all. After their 1965 masterpiece Rubber Soul — the last of their “conventional” albums — The Beatles started to change the way they worked in the studio to reflect the growing complexity of the songs they were writing. (Pot and LSD certainly influenced this period of unusual experimentation, but that’s a whole other story.) The group became less reliant on full-group tracking sessions, and instead started to assemble songs in different ways, perhaps starting with a vocal and acoustic guitar or piano, and then layering in instruments as arrangement ideas became clear through sometimes long periods of experimentation.
If they went past regular recording hours or all the members of the group weren’t around, no problem: There were always engineers or assistants who were willing to stay late to help out the lads. The first album to come out of this new, looser and more expansive work regimen was the 1966 opus Revolver — still one of the most adventurous works of the whole rock era. It blew minds pretty much everywhere, and when that was followed in relatively quick succession by the “Penny Lane”/“Strawberry Fields” single, and then the landmark Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, bands everywhere began to re-assess how they made albums, and the age of both the studio session lock-out and recording-for-as-long-as-it-takes were upon us. In the U.S., Brian Wilson was initiating the West Coast to the new recording aesthetic, and it wasn’t long before L.A. and New York City studios suddenly found themselves hosting midnight Mellotron overdub sessions while engineers spent untold hours messing with phase and running tape backward.
Eight-track came in with a vengeance in 1968; 16-track in 1969. The rock revolution saw the birth of new multitrack studios in all the major recording centers to accommodate the explosion of new bands in the late ’60s. Recording was no longer primarily the province of label-owned facilities; they were now independently owned entities that hired their own engineers, either to work on staff or non-affiliated on a project-by-project basis.
LIVE SOUND GETS LOUDER
Meanwhile, on the live sound front, in the pre-Beatles world, P.A. systems were exactly that: modest public address systems designed for voice. Instrument amplifiers were small, low-watt affairs, but because no one was playing large venues, not much volume was needed. There were no road crews, per se. But with the rise of The Beatles, their decision to play larger arenas (and, later, stadiums) and the concomitant proliferation of electric rock bands everywhere, more and more powerful amps were made (remember the Univox “Super Beatle”?), onstage volume increased and dedicated rock P.A. systems brought new clarity to the ever-escalating loudness. More and bigger amps, small portable mixing setups and the acceptance of such leviathans as Hammond B3s and touring pianos made setting up and tearing down a band’s equipment increasingly time-consuming and required specialized knowledge, and so the modern-day equipment crew was born. The job description was vague, but included long overnight drives, stays in cheap hotels and motels, a steady diet of bad road food, humping heavy gear out of trucks on to the stage, setting up gear, troubleshooting during the show, keeping groupies out of or inviting them backstage, stripping the stage at gig’s end (when the band’s backstage party was just beginning), repacking the truck and still more driving. Was this any way to earn a living? You bet!
The bigger, louder amps made their way into the studios, too, and a new generation of monitor speakers was developed to accommodate the higher volumes now being pumped out by bands. Somewhere, late at night in an anonymous studio, an engineer complained about ear fatigue for the first time. But the bass player whipped out a bindle of an exotic newcomer on the scene — cocaine — and the engineer agreed he could probably work a few more hours. The ’70s had arrived.
To be fair, not everyone was seduced by cocaine, but its ubiquity in major recording studios and its widespread use by musicians, engineers, producers, roadies, techs — hell, almost everyone who tried it wanted more — had an enormous impact on both the recording and live sound worlds. Cocaine kept recording sessions going longer and longer, later and later — the only way to keep up was to do more, or in the case of those who refused, drink more coffee, maybe smoke more cigarettes. Pot and alcohol were usually around to dull some of the edge off the coke, maybe help people get to sleep (though that’s where a lot of prescription drug abuse started: Xanax, anyone?). But all of those substances, coupled with endless hours of deafening loud music in the smallish confines of a studio, contributed to an awful lot of people not hearing clearly and doing hours and hours of not very good work, which often had to be re-done later. It was an age of bloated recording budgets and what seemed like unlimited time to make albums, but the cost in damaged health and hearing, fractured psyches and personal relationships was incalculable and long-lasting.
The stress alone of trying to make one Platinum album after another — or in the case of smaller bands, records that would sell enough to allow them to stay on a label more than a year or two — was almost unbearable; in fact, it still is. There are so many musicians, engineers and producers who didn’t survive the ’70s and early ’80s (when the madness started to subside somewhat); they died, burned out or found a new line of work. There are still too many of us in this field dying in our 40s, 50s and early 60s, even as we’ve tried to live healthier lives — when we can actually get around to it.
Generally speaking, drugs are not the problem they once were in the studio (or on the road, for that matter), but this modern age has its own new pitfalls, as well as carryovers from the past. Partially because of budget constraints, fewer artists are locking out studios for months at a time, but more musicians are working in their home studios or engineer- or producer-owned facilities, where there are often even fewer constraints on working long hours, and the actual recording environments sometimes are not as ergonomically designed as they should be.
The ubiquity of hard disk recording and editing systems has meant countless hours sitting at a computer terminal for many musicians and engineers, and that has its own deleterious consequences — everything from RSI (repetitive stress injuries) to blurred vision. And the “indestructability” of digital recording means the ear is being exposed to even more repeated playbacks (which don’t have to be limited because of the old fear of wearing out tapes and tape heads on playbacks). There is increased consciousness about hearing issues — mostly because we all know some musician or engineer who’s nearly deaf — but hearing damage remains an insidious foe that sometimes doesn’t make its presence known until it’s too late.
Combating workaholic tendencies will always be a battle for some, and of course it’s difficult to control the whims and desires of others. Creative types often become obsessive about completing tasks when the passion and inspiration are there — regardless of how many hours have already been devoted to something. We’ve all heard tales of engineers being rousted from their beds in the middle of the night by musicians who simply had to get into the studio immediately. That still happens. Who has the courage or fortitude to say no? Does the artist really care if you want to go home at six o’clock to be with your wife or husband and infant daughter? Probably not, though certain well-established engineers and producers do occasionally manage to impose their more reasonable work schedules even on demanding artists. You can and should fight for your right to a decent family life, within reason.
But let’s be blunt: Bad hours are a part of the gig, in the studio or on the road. There are going to be late nights and long weekends because you’re a perfectionist, even if the artist isn’t. If you’re working in film post, you’re not abandoning that temp dub or that final mix until everyone from the director to your mix partners are happy with every last detail. If you’re in the videogame industry, you’re not leaving that computer terminal in your cubicle until the audio you’re putting under that action sequence runs seamlessly and your new effects reflect those last-minute changes in the visuals. And, yes, it’s a drag that you have to re-edit that radio commercial because someone at corporate had a new brainstorm, but you do it and you give it your all.
The trick is to stay self-aware and know when you’re too burned out physically, too stressed out mentally and too out of touch with your family to carry on at a potentially dangerous work pace.
Make no mistake: It’s your life, your career. We’re not here to tell anybody how to live. (Plenty of glass houses here at Mix, folks.) But with any luck, the stories in this special issue will help you understand some of the strains that are building up inside you, threatening both livelihood and life, and offer some positive steps that you can take to achieve a more balanced professional life. We want you to have a long career. And so do your friends and family.
Blair Jackson is Mix’s senior editor.