Before there were computer-based recording systems, we spent most of our working time in front of a mixing console, sometimes turning away to use racks of outboard gear and a tape machine or two. When DAWs first started to appear in studios, they would often end up on a separate trolley or perched on the mixing console, but as computers have taken over more of the roles traditionally done by dedicated hardware, they have taken centre stage in our studios and we have become glued to our chairs in front of a computer screen.
The concentration of so many different functions within the computer means that although we are sat down and not moving around much, we stress our bodies in so many different ways without realising it by extending our wrists, slouching, sitting without foot support and straining to look at poorly placed monitors.
All of this can lead to what health professionals call 'cumulative trauma disorders' or 'repetitive stress injuries' (RSI), which if not dealt with can cause serious, unreversible medical conditions. Symptoms of these may include pain, muscle fatigue, loss of sensation, tingling and reduced performance.
So what can we do about this? In this article I am going to take a look at a range of options that we can use, bearing in mind that no one solution is the right answer for every person and every problem and not to use this article as a replacement for taking medical advice.
Posture And Right Angles
It should be emphasised that the best approach to 'cumulative trauma disorders' or 'repetitive stress injuries' is to avoid them in the first place, and that means making sure that your working environment is set up ergonomically. Ergonomics is a field of study that attempts to reduce strain, fatigue, and injuries by improving product design and workspace arrangement. The goal is a comfortable, relaxed posture.
How you sit and the height of the work surface, are both crucial. Everything should be at right angles: for example, the height of your chair should be adjusted so that your knees bend at a perfect right angle. If the chair is too high you won't be able to place your feet fully on the floor, while if your chair is too low, you will have to move your feet forwards or backwards so that upper and lower legs no longer form that perfect 90-degree angle.
Your upper legs and your body should likewise form a right angle and you should be sat up straight: no slouching or leaning forward. The height of the work surface should be such that your elbows also bend at 90 degrees, and — most importantly — a significant part of your lower arm should be supported and resting on the work surface. Having your keyboard or mouse close to the edge means you are going to have to hold your arms up, as they are not properly supported and that will bring on RSI much quicker. In fact, if you have to hold any part of your body in tension, you will be much more prone to pain and damage. Remember pain is your body's warning system that something isn't right. Being relaxed and correctly supported is the key here.
Make sure you have a decent chair, not just a cheap office chair. I can be in front of my computer for eight to 10 hours a day, and I chose to invest in a custom-made chair that is designed just for me. I have also made sure that my work surface is just the right height for me too. Studios with multiple operators often have motorised desks that enable each operator to set the work-surface height to achieve that right-angled position referred to above.
In addition, the position of the screen is critical too. The generally accepted distance for the screen is where your fingertips are when you put your arm straight out in front of you. There is some debate as to the height of the screen, though: some advise that the top of the screen should be level with your eyes, while others suggest that the centre of the screen should be level with your eyes.
If you need to use glasses to assist your eyesight, you could consider a set of glasses that are optimised for screen use. My 'office' glasses made a huge difference to me, and I no longer find myself leaning forward to read the screen. Also, make sure they fit correctly so you can avoid needing to tilt your head.
Other Things You Can Do
- Don't bash the keyboard and mouse, use light strokes, and try to keep your muscles relaxed.
- Sit "tall," vertically aligning your ears, shoulders and hips. When you sit, think about making yourself an inch taller.
- If you can, swap hands when using a mouse to give your hand and arm a rest.
- Completely rest your wrists during breaks, including taking your hand off the mouse. when I am auditioning and listening, I try and take my hand off the mouse and keyboard completely and relax my arms and hands.
- Adjust your work patterns: Reduce prolonged computer time whenever possible.
- Break work into smaller segments and switch between tasks that use different motions.
Moving around has many benefits: it relaxes tissues, lubricates joints and prevents stiffness, improves circulation, reduces fatigue, and builds stamina. Studies have shown that heavy computer users who move around every 10 minutes successfully avoid computer-related pain. Here are some more suggestions to help you keep moving and not be glued to the chair all day...
- Take a short (10-20 second) break at least every 10 minutes. Take your hands off the keyboard and move about.
- Stand up when talking on the phone. As I work on my own, this is a great way to take a break and move around.
- Set a timer on your phone for 30 minutes and standup from your desk and take a 2-5 minute break to stretch and walk around.
- Have standing or walking meetings. If you work with other people, this is another way to break the cycle of sitting down.
Exercise At Your Computer
Thanks to the University Of Michigan Student Life Health Services for these exercises. However, before you do any exercise, if you are unsure they will be suitable for you please take medical advice.
- Neck And Shoulders
- Neck Rotation: Slowly rotate your head as far as comfortable to the right, then left.
- Shoulder Rotation: Circle your shoulders, then reverse directions.
- Head Side to Side: Bend your neck so left ear approaches left shoulder, then repeat for right. Add a little resistance by pressing your hand against the side of your head.
- Chin Tuck: Slide your chin inward, without bending your neck up or down. This is easiest to practice initially against a wall. Tuck your chin in, attempting to touch the wall with the back of your neck whilst also maintaining head contact. Don't jam your chin down to your chest.
- Shoulder Blade Retraction: Pull your shoulders down and back.
- Shrug: Slowly raise your shoulders toward ears and hold for a few seconds. Gradually bring shoulders down and relax.
- Shoulder Squeeze: Raise your arms in front of the body, with elbows bent and thumbs up. Pull elbows back, squeezing shoulder blades together. Hold for a few seconds then release.
- Stretch Up: Sit up straight and imagine a cable attached to the top of your head. Gradually stretch to be as tall as possible, hold for a few seconds, then relax.
- Arm Relaxation: Drop your arms and hands to your sides. Gently shake them for a few seconds.
- Arm Rotation: Raise your arms in front of your body. Rotate your arms so your palms face up, then rotate so the backs of your hands face each other.
- Hands And Wrists
- Wrist Flex: With your elbows on the desk, gently use your left hand to bend your right hand back towards your forearm. Hold for a few seconds, then relax. Repeat on the other side.
- Finger Fan: Spread your fingers as far apart as possible, hold, then clench fists, then release.
- Toe Curl: Flex toes up, then curl toes under. Release.
- Foot Rotation: Circle foot slowly from the ankle, then reverse.
- Eye Rolls: Roll your eyes clockwise then counterclockwise briefly.
- Palm Eyes: Without touching your eyes, cup your hands lightly over eyes for 30 seconds to rest them from the light.
- Look Away: Exercise your eyes by periodically looking away from your computer to focus on distant objects.
- Keep fit: Physical fitness can help you avoid and treat problems related to computer use. Build your stamina with exercises for strength, flexibility, and cardiovascular health.
- Take a brisk walk at lunch or dust off that old bike for the morning commute
When To Seek Medical Care
Remember that if you have to hold any part of your body in tension, you will be much more prone to pain and causing damage to your body. The key here is that pain is your body's warning system that something isn't right. So see a clinician if you experience:
- Constant pain
- Other problems that interfere with daily tasks
Mouse And Keyboards
If you follow the advice in this article and get your ergonomics and exercise sorted many people find that they can work with the conventional mouse-and-keyboard interface without problems, especially if there is space to rest your arms between operations. However we are all different and so some prefer different keyboards and pointing devices, usually a mouse.
Some people prefer 'ergonomic' keyboards where the keys are not in a straight line, but these are pitched at typists rather than workstation users. Some prefer keys with a short travel like those on the Apple keyboard, while others like keyboards with keys that have a much bigger travel. The cost of an additional USB keyboard is relatively small, and it's well worth the investment to get one that suits your preference.
There is far more variety when it comes to the choice of pointing devices, reflecting the fact that the conventional mouse is often a prime cause of RSI. Try different mice and trackballs out and vary them over time, so you don't end up using the same mouse for years. I have a drawer full of mice and trackballs that didn't work for me.
When I started to get trouble, I tried some different options. The wireless version of Apple's Mighty Mouse didn't suit me: although it doesn't have a wire I found it larger and heavier to use than the wired version. I also tried the Apple Magic Mouse but found the edges uncomfortable to hold, and because the whole surface is also a touchpad, I couldn't rest my hand on it. But just because I didn't get on with it doesn't mean it's wrong: try a wide range of devices out for yourself and go with what works for you. I went back with a normal wired Apple Mighty mouse, and loved that the scroll wheel works horizontally and vertically, making it very easy to scroll up and down the timeline and up and down the tracks with the same scroll wheel, but after a while I found that I was starting to get pain with that too. I now use a Logitech M510, in fact, I am on my second one as I wore out the first one!
Other pointing devices are also well worth investigating. I know a good number of Pro Tools users who rely on the Kensington Expert Mouse Trackball, which also has programmable buttons that can be used to implement up to four shortcuts. I also know a number of folks who use a graphics tablet instead of a mouse. They find using a pen and tablet a very comfortable interface. Apparently, once you've conditioned yourself to remember that the top left-hand corner of the tablet is the top left of the screen, you can really start to harness muscle memory, just as musicians don't need to look where they are putting their fingers on the fretboard. Personally, I found I ended up holding the pen too tightly, like I did at school and I got cramps, but again, the key point is to find what works best for you.
Another option is a touchpad. These have been standard on laptop computers for a long time, but now you can get stand-alone, multi-touch, wireless touchpads for adding to a desktop computer. Apple's Magic Trackpad matches their keyboard range, so you can have it as a seamless extension to the left or right of your keyboard if required.
Mac users can also benefit from an excellent piece of freeware called BetterTouchTool, which enables you to assign multi-touch responses and gestures to shortcuts and key commands within an application. Tamas Dragon and Ceri Thomas have both done a lot of work on developing shortcuts and gestures that work with Pro Tools. For example, Ceri Thomas has programmed a gesture that replicates the Ctrl+Tab shortcut for selecting the next Clip. Ceri writes...
The thing to understand about this particular tool is that it maps gestures to keyboard commands, so if it can’t be done with a keyboard command then it can’t be mapped (Mike - This is where applications like Keyboard Maestro can come in, see my articles on the Hotkey Matrix). When used in conjunction with OS based keyboard commands (I like Control+Option+Command+O for I/O… for example). You can really customise your workflow and rarely have to move from the modifier keys and the trackpad.
My basic command set is very basic: Change tools, Fade in/out, Increase/Decrease Waveform Size, Select Next/Previous region etc but give a quick and simple start point for adding your own.
This workflow is definitely not for everyone, it takes some time to establish what will and what won’t work and you’ll find things that don’t work consistently. One such command was the Single Tap Middle Bottom that I’d set to be the select tool (F7) wasn’t triggering on my laptop trackpad consistently so I duplicated it with Single Tap Middle Top which smoothes my interaction.
Tamas uses the pinch in and out gestures to zoom in and out, mirroring the 'R' and 'T' shortcuts in the Pro Tools Keyboard Focus and set up a four-fingered tap to open the Workspace window and you can see more help and advice and a video on Tamas's blog post.
Comfort & Joy
If you haven't already spotted it, the thread that links all the advice in this article is to arrange everything so you are as comfortable and relaxed as possible. Having to hold parts of your body in awkward ways guarantees you will quickly end up with aches and pains, which will lead onto 'cumulative trauma disorders' or 'repetitive stress injuries' and these can be very difficult to cure. Prevention is the best medicine, especially when your livelihood is at stake!