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Off The Record

Music & Recording Industry News
By Dan Daley

Life in the studio can be very rewarding — but it might also be seriously damaging your health...

Researchers in the still-nascent medical field of sedentary behaviour are discovering that long periods of sitting may increase more than just the waistline: uninterrupted sitting may be an overlooked but very real risk factor for cancer and other conditions associated with increased inflammation and insulin levels, regardless of how much regular exercise you get and how good your body-mass index may be. And guess who sits a lot? (I'll wait...) Taken in this context, suddenly the seemingly benign, even aspirational vocations in music and pro audio — from the orchestral first-violin chair to the sweet-spot seat of the main recording or mixing engineer — take on less salutary connotations. The seat you killed yourself to sit in might just be killing you instead.

Same Sit, Different Day

Let's first take a look at why these assertions are important. Regardless of how much exercise you might already be getting, the research indicates that simply going to a gym a few times a week, or even exercising every day, does not cancel out the negative health effects of prolonged sitting and an otherwise sedentary lifestyle. All that sitting — in the studio, in the car to the studio, in the lounge on break and back home watching football on the television — establishes a metabolic syndrome that apparently cannot be simply reversed with just more exercise and other activity. You've actually got to sit less.

Here's an example of what research, published in the American Journal Of Epidemiology, found: people with 10 years or more at a sedentary job had nearly twice the risk of some types of colon cancer and a nearly 45 percent higher risk of rectal cancer compared to those with active jobs. And the increased risk occurred in even the most recreationally active individuals. Sedentary lifestyle and work is also being found to be associated with increased low-level inflammation, which has, in turn, been associated with breast cancer, heart disease, diabetes and pre-diabetes, and Alzheimer's Disease. No wonder sitting is being referred to as the new smoking.

As soon as you sit, several things start to happen: electrical activity to the leg muscles shuts off, calorie burning drops to one per minute, and enzymes that break down fat drop 90 percent. After two hours of sitting, good cholesterol drops 20 percent; after 24 hours of being sedentary, insulin effectiveness drops off significantly, and the risk of diabetes rises. People with sitting jobs have twice the rate of cardiovascular disease as people who work standing up. What's happening is that, when you sit for long periods of time, your body goes into storage mode. When that happens, it stops working as effectively as it should.

People who work in recording studios are at particular risk — they tend to sit for long periods of time at a stretch and have to constantly be on the spot lest something creative occur — and digital technology has only exacerbated this. There are no tape machines any more that need upright attention, and few other physical destinations in the control room that aren't within arm's reach, from a plug-in to a digital patch. Thank God you still have to walk the microphones out into the room.

Get Up, Stand Up

There are ways to deal with this. Experts in the field make the most basic recommendation that people with sedentary lifestyles interrupt prolonged sitting with hourly breaks of brisk activity, for at least one to two minutes. Standing at your desk while working is also an option: do an online search for 'stand up desks' and you'll see hundreds of results. And while stand-up studios are rare, they're not unheard of.

Francis Manzella designed Tony Dawsey's former mastering room at Masterdisk in New York in the mid-1990s. At the time, he had a high-bridge Neumann console and Griffin G1 monitors, and Dawsey told me that the console's design would have blocked the low frequencies if he were sitting down, so Manzella created a workaround. "We had to arrange a special wedge between the upper cabinet and the lower woofer so that the sound would aim at his ears while he was standing,” Manzella explains. Others include R Kelly's personal studio in Chicago, designed by John Storyk and outfitted by Dave Malekpour of Professional Audio Design. There, the monitors are aimed to accommodate the fact that he likes to work standing at the producer's desk behind the engineer's position.

Studio designer Steve Durr recalls that the late country star Porter Wagoner had a hydraulically enabled console in his Nashville studio that ranged between standing, chair-height and down to sitting on pillows on the floor, with Auratone speakers attached to the meter bridge so that the monitoring followed you up or down.

Personal studios and the odd mastering room are perhaps the only places where a stand-up monitor/mix configuration could be broadly practical, however. We're not going to suddenly up-end the culture of how people record audio; a commercial studio that adopted such a configuration would be committing economic suicide. Most people are going to want to sit and listen while they work. What has to be done is to encourage breaks in those sits. Some suggestions include putting ancillary workstations, such as laptops, on higher counters. Another is to replace the conventional wheeled studio chair with an ergonomic exercise ball, which causes your body to constantly adjust for balance, in the process using and working muscles and reversing some of the effects of static sitting, usually without you even realising it. Other techniques include not taking calls at the console or at a desk and instead getting up and walking around. Most importantly, though, simply interrupting long periods of sitting is the best and easiest thing that can be done. Awareness is the first step in changing behaviour patterns.

Though not the usual fare for this column, my advice doesn't come from any latent maternal instinct, even if it does sound like your mother haranguing you. It's simply based on the fact that it's harder to make money when you're sick. Stay well.  

Published September 2013