Setting boundaries to protect our health is hard, but it will help us live longer and do better work.
“Look after your ears.” It’s a message that has become so ubiquitous in the world of professional audio that even those with the most profound tinnitus have, by now, heard it loud and clear. And while I wholeheartedly agree, I think we may need to give a little consideration to looking after the rest of ourselves too.
In the early days of the first lockdown, as the Great Global Bake‑off got underway, a friend and I joked that nobody in music was going to notice any difference: we all spent months locked indoors, confined to dark rooms and living on deliveries anyway. Half of us only went outside to smoke, and we were paid so inconsistently that the Self‑Employment Income Support Scheme was going to be our most predictable client to date.
Later, in a more sombre reflection, I understood that our job was often not a healthy one, and that it was setting many of us up for a situation where we would neither be able to continue as we had been, nor afford to retire.
It wasn’t as if my colleagues were stashing away piles of cash, as some had done in the ’90s. Like those working in the financial world, we were subject to stress, lack of sleep, a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet, yet we weren’t getting the compensatory Christmas bonus. In our 20s, most of us can get away with anything, but give it a couple of decades, and we can find that we’ve run the ship slowly but surely onto the rocks, forced to take time off due to poor physical health, while being psychologically crushed by the question of how we will survive financially in the process.
In writing this series, I asked a number of audio professionals how their career has affected their health and wellbeing, and what advice they could offer in mitigating those ill‑effects. Having personally stepped away from the music industry, I’m free to speak out, but that’s a luxury my former colleagues do not always have, and in some instances I have kept comments anonymous. I’m extremely appreciative to everyone for their crucial contributions to what I feel should be an ongoing conversation.
I understood that our job was often not a healthy one, and that it was setting many of us up for a situation where we would neither be able to continue as we had been, nor afford to retire.
If the events of the past three years have taught us anything, it’s that our baseline level of health matters. Prior to the early days of 2020, in the developed world at least, we had arrived at the belief that the incidence of serious, life‑threatening disease came down to a game of genetic roulette: a combination of bad luck and a poor choice of parents. It fell to modern medicine to save us, and in the unexpected event that it couldn’t, we were out of options.
To some degree Covid has changed that paradigm. It’s a virus which affects us all differently, and while this isn’t the place to explore the pathology of severe Covid, as 2020 unfolded it quickly began to emerge that poor metabolic health was associated with bad outcomes.
So, what is poor metabolic health? It is effectively the road that leads us towards Type 2 diabetes. While there’s no single, standardised test, doctors like to look at things like blood sugar, blood pressure and the makeup of our blood lipids, as well as our level of visceral fat — that which is deposited in and around our abdominal organs. In combination, these markers say a lot about our overall disease risk: Type 2 diabetes is associated with a greater risk of heart disease, kidney disease, many cancers, mental health issues like anxiety and depression as well as neurodegenerative diseases like dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Shockingly, only 12 percent of American adults have optimal markers of metabolic health, with indications that these numbers are worsening, and the CDC’s 2022 National Diabetes Statistics Report estimates that 130 million are living with pre‑diabetes or diabetes. Mirrored here in the UK, this situation has undoubtedly affected our capacity to deal with Covid, both individually and societally.
While we’ve been understandably preoccupied with that immediate threat, this unfolding metabolic health crisis has the potential to make the current pandemic look like a rounding error in terms of the sheer level of misery and suffering it may cause, and the resources it may require in the coming decades. If anything is going to drive the financial collapse of the NHS, it is this.
Why are we so unhealthy? Poor metabolic health largely comes down to a mismatch between our modern diet and lifestyle, and those to which we have adapted over the past couple of million years. Human physiology is set up for acute rather than chronic stress, feast and famine, frequent and varied movement and a strong sense of social connection.
Over the last 10,000 years, and particularly the last 50 or so, our lives have changed unrecognisably, but our physiology hardly at all. We employ the same stress response that was so good at keeping us alive in an encounter with an angry bear, when confronted with an angry email. The chronic drip‑feed of sensationalised news — terrible global events about which we can do nothing, our high‑glycaemic, nutrient‑poor diet, toxins in our air, food and water, disrupted sleep patterns and a sedentary lifestyle — all provoke this same, now inappropriate physiological response. Our heart rate, blood pressure and blood sugar rise, and physical resources are diverted away from recovery and digestion, and towards skeletal muscle. Our immune system function is altered in order to prevent inflammation from hindering our chances of immediate survival, the long‑term consequences a matter of supreme indifference in a violent encounter with a potentially lethal adversary. This is fight, or flight.
But for us, of course, there is no bear. There are just these chronic insults to our homeostasis, and while it’s not as if our heart rate hits 200bpm every time we get an email notification, it’s the drip‑feed of stress that sets us on a bad path. Over time we develop systemic inflammation, compromised immune system function, insulin resistance, hypertension, hyperglycaemia, visceral fat accumulation and a loss of lean mass: all things that doctors don’t like, and which put us firmly in that ‘poor metabolic health’ camp.
So let’s get to the point. How are these issues manifesting themselves in the audio industry, and what can we do to address them?
While there’s a great degree of overlap between the lifestyle factors that affect us in studio work, for clarity, this series will consider them in four broad categories: sleep, stress, nutrition and movement.
The primary reason for our poor sleep is that we don’t spend enough time in bed.
“Every physiological system in the body, and every single operation of the mind is wonderfully enhanced by sleep when you get it, and demonstrably impaired when you don’t get enough”: Dr Matthew Walker, Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at the University Of California, Berkeley.
Lack of sleep causes issues with blood sugar regulation, appetite, impulse control, recovery, concentration, response times, hormone production and function, immune function and blood pressure. It’s hard to overstate quite how much it matters, and its effects on every cell in the body. Sleep deprivation can affect our blood sugar regulation so profoundly that within just one week, we see levels that could be classified as pre‑diabetic.
We need around 7.5 to 9 hours of sleep per night, while bearing in mind that it’s normal to be awake for around 10 percent of the time from the point at which we first fall asleep. In practice, we would ideally spend 9‑10 hours actually in bed with the lights off.
In studio jobs, however, lack of sleep is a prerequisite: expected, demanded, a badge of honour. As an engineer, I would often arrive at 9am to set up. The client would arrive at around 11am, and we’d work through until the early hours of the following morning. I’d back up, switch off and lock up, before driving home, often arriving around 2‑3am. It’d take a little time to calm down and get to sleep, before waking again by 7:30am to get showered and dressed, leaving in time for a 9am start. I wasn’t even getting 50 percent of the sleep I needed, and that would go on for weeks at a time.
Grant Stang of Silver Shark Studios has similar experience: “I’m up and out of the house by 8am. Sessions might finish at 10pm. A lot of my sessions are at the weekend, so my personal life suffers. I am pretty much permanently knackered. You get home at 10:30pm and you don’t want to cook, so you just eat rubbish. I try to get into bed by midnight, but if you’ve had a really busy session you’re still buzzing, and your head is full of all the things you still need to do to take care of the business. If someone opens a studio, they should be aware that it’s not all music.”
Everyone I approached for comments raised long hours and lack of sleep as an issue. One producer said “I think 8 to 10 hours is a reasonable working day. I know I can’t handle working 15 or 16 hours a day any more, but sometimes you get pushed into doing it. I come out of it thinking ‘I just don’t want to do this any more.’ You shouldn’t be expected to do that. There’s a bravado thing that I really dislike, but it’s tricky to talk about it. It’s an old model of the industry. It can make me so miserable. Is it sustainable?” Not if we want to maintain optimal health.
Tim Bazell highlights not only the dangers of long hours, but the well‑documented harms of changing hours: “My health has certainly been affected by the insane hours and the lack of sleep and down time. Some sessions start at 10am and others at 6pm, so there’s a constant shifting of hours. I’m not a great sleeper, so that lack of routine is not good for me.”
Can’t you just catch up on the weekends? It doesn’t work like that. It is a myth that an hour of sleep debt can be ‘paid off’ with an hour of extra sleep. When we sleep poorly, we’re causing physical damage. While increasing our sleep will certainly be a crucial part of the process of healing and repair, age will probably be a better indicator of our ability to fully recover.
It’s not just our bodies that sustain damage. It’s rare that our performance isn’t going to suffer to some degree. It may be that the quality of our work is so high at baseline, that we can still meet the client’s expectations while running at half speed. What’s more likely is that little mistakes are going to creep in, that we might become irritable or snappy at times, or that our inevitable signs of fatigue are misinterpreted as apathy or boredom. In any event, we’ve lost the opportunity to show the client our very best, in a world where reputation is everything.
The primary reason for our poor sleep is that we don’t spend enough time in bed. We all have other obligations and the simple reality is that we need between four and eight hours every day to travel to and from work, shower, cook, shop, put the washing on, exercise, pick the kids up or do whatever else it is that makes up life’s tapestry. If we’re in the studio for 16 hours, we’re certainly not going to be getting eight hours of sleep. We might just about get four. Even a 12‑hour working day is cutting it very fine, and 10 hours seems a reasonable maximum.
A second reason is that we’re going to bed too late, regardless of our actual sleep duration. We’re out of sync with the diurnal rhythms of light and dark. We might not need to get out of bed until 10am, but if we go to bed at 2am, it’s only a few short hours until we’re disturbed by the sun and the noises of the rest of the world around us. Our cortisol is starting to rise, and that second half of our sleep time, the time when REM sleep is prioritised, isn’t what it should be. This mismatch between our circadian rhythms and daylight actually affects our stress response and so our insulin sensitivity and blood glucose the following day.
When our daughter was born, I was given one of the most valuable pieces of advice I’ve ever received: “When you put the baby down in the evening, get into bed, turn the light off and go to sleep. That way, when it all goes wrong in the middle of the night, you’ll already have had some sleep.” It proved to be so useful that now, 10 years later, we are still regularly in bed with the light off at 9pm. We’ve noticed that the more sleep we get before midnight, the better. This is likely because of that alignment with our natural circadian rhythms. I do appreciate that this is going to be difficult for many people, but even if we can be asleep by 11pm, that’s considerably better than 1am, and it still allows for that important window between eating dinner and sleeping.
...the more sleep we get before midnight, the better.
And so we arrive at the crux of the matter. Can studio professionals work a 10‑hour day or less, finishing in time for dinner by, say 8pm? The answer is going to rather depend on our position, on our career stage, and to a large extent on what particular part of the industry we work in. It might be that when we’re starting out we have to do these things, but there should ultimately be a transition towards a more sustainable work/life balance, as many of those I spoke to have done. “Some clients still seem surprised when I say that my working day is 10am‑6pm,” says Sean Genockey. “I still get everything done, and I’ve seen a huge improvement in the quality of my work.“
Jim Homes (Boe Weaver): “For the last 15 years we’ve never worked past 8pm. We start at 10am, and work a 10‑hour day. If we had a shorter working day we were so much more focused. We got more done. We realised that nothing good was ever happening between 10pm and 4am.”
Neil Rogers: “I’m going to be strict about sensible hours. I don’t want to work more than 8 hours, and doing more than 10 is just silly.”
There’s an opportunity cost to be juggled here. On the one hand, there’s the ability to say yes to everything and everyone, while on the other, there’s our ability to continue long‑term. We can invest in potentially furthering our career in the short term, or in ensuring that it is able to continue into the future.
There is always going to be pressure to work longer and later. Clients assume that they can deliver the goods over a smaller number of very long days, despite experience and logic dictating that they can not. But Neil Rogers then points out that even if a band accept that more days would be better, that might not be a practical option: “It’s hard to get bands together because of their jobs.” Grant Strang elaborates: “That’s a big thing. They are working. Sometimes they’re supposed to be working from home on the day they’re in the studio.”
At some point we have to set some boundaries. It may only be a few days of late nights for each client, but for us it quickly becomes unsustainable.
It’s natural to then ask ourselves how we will get everything done. The simple answer is that we need to work smarter, rather than longer. In any given day, we can only do a limited amount of highly focused, creative work. I often found that the longer the day, the less efficient we became. This efficiency is something that we often notice when children come into our lives. As our opportunity to get things done shrinks, so we become faster, more agile in our working practices. Jim Homes alludes to this in his previous comment about working hours, and he continues: “During Covid, to isolate each of our families, we split the day between us, and each worked four hours. I can’t tell you how productive we were. We were so energised. When you know that every 10 minutes counts, you make the most of that 10 minutes.”
Our focus is subject to physiological cycles of around 90 minutes, and it’s also dependent on our circadian rhythm. Most of us tend to get a block or two in the morning, and another early in the afternoon. Those of us that work on our own usually know instinctively when those blocks tend to fall in our day. We can maximise our productivity, and so shorten our day by using those focused spells to tackle the most important task(s) on our agenda. It’s helpful to strictly avoid emails or other messages, notifications or calls until after that task is done. If we allow minutiae to work their way in, we risk the opportunity slipping past. Once we’ve drained our capacity for focused work, we can crack open those emails and address less important matters.
Obviously, if we’re mixing, we may need to check messages in order to see what the client’s notes are. But if we’re planning to tackle a new mix that day, as well as doing tweaks on the previous mix, we’re much better off doing the creative work on the new mix with a clear head. The tweaks are usually going to be functional changes. We can do those later, when we’re tired. In any event, if we’re going to open a client email, we should open that one email, and not get sidetracked with all the other stuff that clogs up our inboxes.
- Shorten the working day to 10 hours or less.
- Work smarter, not longer.
- Go to bed as early as possible.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Control caffeine.
- Keep your bedroom cool and as dark as possible.
- Avoiding eating within three to four hours of bedtime.
- Never look at your phone if you wake during the night.
In writing this series, I took the decision to avoid the subjects of drugs, alcohol and smoking, because nobody really needs me to point out their harms. But I will just make the point that alcohol is problematic for sleep in a way that isn’t so obvious. If we drink before bed — and of course that is usually when we drink — we don’t get restorative sleep. Even a small amount of alcohol will prevent us from getting the depth of sleep that we need, and we will be much more likely to wake up, mind racing, at 2am. Don’t buy in to the idea that alcohol helps you get to sleep. It helps you get to a subconscious state of processing alcohol. This also applies to cannabis (and CBD has mixed effects).
On that note, it’s worth understanding the benefits and pitfalls of the most commonly consumed drug in the world: caffeine. With its profoundly positive effects on alertness and focus, it’s hardly surprising that caffeine has become a staple in almost every human culture, and none more so than that of the recording studio. Despite having nothing whatsoever to do with audio, career paths in the traditional studio model nearly always began with mastering the art of brewing caffeinated beverages. And yes, a staggering number of sessions have been fuelled by nicotine and other, more nefarious stimulants, but while their use has rather waned in recent years, the same can not be said of caffeine. While we love it, and often benefit greatly from it, we need to be a little careful with how we use it.
Caffeine hangs around in our system for quite a long time. It has a quarter life (the amount of time taken to detoxify 75 percent of it) of around 12 hours. If we remain subject to its influence, we will experience poor‑quality sleep: even if we’re not actually awake, we won’t be getting the amount of deep sleep and REM sleep that we should be. If we possibly can, we want to stop consuming caffeine around 12 hours before bedtime. Personally I struggle to do that, especially since I like to get to bed as early as possible, but if we can’t make that 12‑hour cutoff, we should get as close as possible. Deliberate use of caffeine to work through the night is a mistake, and while on the odd occasion it’s a mistake worth making, if we do this habitually, we’re going to discover that the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.
If we’re to avoid caffeine in the afternoon, what about that post‑lunch energy crash? There are two common reasons for ‘the crash’. The first, as we will discuss when we move on to nutrition, is reactive hypoglycaemia: we eat a meal that’s high in refined carbohydrates, and the excessive insulin required ends up pushing our blood glucose a little low, making us feel tired and depleted. The second reason brings us back to caffeine: when we wake in the morning, we still have some residual adenosine — the compound that builds up during the day to make us feel sleepy — in our system. Caffeine blocks our adenosine receptors, which is how it increases alertness. The problem is that if we ingest caffeine immediately on waking, we prevent the clearance of that residual adenosine. When our coffee begins to wear off in the afternoon, we’re hit with a greater ‘sleep pressure’ from the natural daily build‑up of adenosine, plus that which we hadn’t allowed to fully clear from the previous night. If we can wait 90 minutes or so until we first consume caffeine in the morning, we can reduce that related crash in the afternoon. All we need to do is to have our coffee when we begin work, rather than when we wake up.
Speaking of timing our intake, the timing of our food is also important. We’ll talk about this more in the nutrition section, but it’s important to understand that for optimal sleep, we want to leave three or four hours between eating dinner and going to bed.
Jack Ruston is a former recording engineer and mixer. During his 25‑year career his clients included Judas Priest, James Morrison, Foxes, Birdy and Walking On Cars. He was a 2017 nominee for the MPG’s Breakthrough Engineer Of The Year award. In 2020 he took the decision to move on from music for a variety of reasons, not least of all to pursue another great passion: food and nutrition. In 2022 he qualified as a Nutritional Therapy Practitioner. His hobbies include telling people how it used to be, and trying to remember the names of various plug‑ins.