Tell any old-school engineer or producer that you’re thinking about mixing on headphones, and they’ll probably balk at the idea! In the past, the idea of using cans to mix for the masses was a huge no-no.
However, a lot of things have changed since then! These days, using headphones is perfectly acceptable. Sure, utilizing true near-field monitors in a pristine studio setting is ideal. But let’s face it: Most don’t have access to studios and pricey gear.
Using headphones to work your magic is a practical alternative. Plus, it comes with some unique benefits.
The Arguments Against Mixing and Mastering on Headphones
There are many naysayers out there who vehemently disapprove of utilizing cans for your mixing and mastering. But the truth is: Headphone mixing is far more common than most realize it. Chances are, some of your favorite songs were mixed by an engineer who took advantage of headphones at some point in the process.
All that said, engineers who prefer the old-school way of doing things do make some solid points. The only caveat is that some of those points no longer apply. Let’s take a look at two of the most common arguments against it.
Headphones Create an “Unrealistic” Sound
This is something we hear a lot. The argument here is that the cans don’t recreate a good stereo image, which results in an experience that sounds fake.
To some extent, this is true. You see, headphones lack inherent stereo crossfeed. The left and right channels are completely separate and closed-off. As a result, the two channels can’t mix in the air before hitting your ear. Some argue that working with this existing handicap skews your perception of the mix, resulting in a finished product that doesn’t sound great.
While that may occur, it doesn’t have to! Understanding the cross-feed issue can help you work around it. You can easily adjust your panning to improve the stereo field and create a more authentic recreation of a performance. Plus, some plugins can do the job for you. More on that later.
Headphones Cause Fatigue
Ear fatigue is a genuine issue that engineers have to deal with. After hours of prolonged listening, your ability to distinguish details can get hazy. This issue gets worse when listening through headphones. It doesn’t take long to wear your ears out or cause long-term damage.
But once again, addressing this issue is all about awareness. Keep the volume low enough to have a conversation over the music and take frequent breaks. If you’re vigilant about avoiding ear fatigue, your risks are no bigger than using studio monitors.
What are the Benefits of Mixing with Headphones?
The two main issues with headphone mixing are easily avoidable with a little bit of know-how. While some purists will still argue against it, mixing on headphones has a lot of great perks.
Need to work on a budget? If so, headphones are your best friend!
You can spend smart when searching for studio monitors. But, they still cost a significant chunk of change. Plus, you have to worry about additional gear and proper reflection management to make the monitors sound their best. All of that adds up.
With headphones, you have everything you need in one item. It’s cheaper and can save you tons of money when you’re first getting started.
You Can Mix Anywhere
Another huge perk is that you can mix virtually anywhere. Technology has advanced so much that engineers no longer need an expensive studio to work. You can do everything “inside the box.” With a pair of mixing studio headphones, you can work from pretty much anywhere!
It’s a great option for traveling engineers or those who like to work at odd hours. Headphones keep your sound contained and portable, which is a huge plus.
They Take the Room Out of the Equation
Nothing kills a good mix more than a crappy room. Studio acoustics play a huge role in the mixing process, more so than most think.
Unwanted reverb, room reflection, and a litany of other sound issues can alter your ability to hear the music as it truly is. Those subtle details color the sound, which can easily throw off your work.
Unless you have a home studio with perfectly flat sound, you’re going to have some issues to contend with. Headphones take the room issues out of the mix completely. Your headphones will act as a closed environment, which makes your mixing more reliable and consistent.
Headphones Highlight Finer Details
Headphones help you take an auditory magnifying glass to your work!
Studio monitors are great for listening to the work as a larger collective. But, smaller details can easily get lost. That’s not the case with headphones.
The drivers are right next to your ear! You’ll notice even small details like clips and weird artifacts. You can also check to make sure that your compressors and subtle effects work like you want them to.
They Give You a Consumer Experience
Finally, using headphones puts you in the shoes of your listener. This is something that many engineers fail to consider. If you had to guess, how many people do you think to use headphones over speakers?
A lot of people use headphones exclusively. When you only use studio monitors, you’re missing out on a lot. The goal of mixing is to appeal to the masses and make your music sound good to everyone. By using headphones, you can do just that.
Mixing with Headphones vs. Monitors
There are a lot of arguments for and against mixing on headphones. The truth is: You have a lot to gain from using both headphones studio monitors. They’re two sides of the same coin!
The trick is to use them strategically.
You can utilize headphones to do most of your mixing. As long as you have the right techniques and know-how to avoid common pitfalls, you should have no problem getting a stellar mix. It’s still a good idea to utilize studio monitors from time to time to gain some perspective.
Many engineers like to use monitors to ensure that their work translates well across all devices. Like we mentioned earlier, your listeners will use a wide variety of tools to enjoy your music. Checking the mix on monitors lets you hear how everything will sound for your entire audience.
Use it to check the stereo image and bass. The monitor’s natural crossfeed will give you some perspective about your panning and overall sound spread. Plus, it can give you a better idea of how the bass tones work in a more open listening environment.
Using the two strategically can make all the difference in your work.
What are the Best Types of Headphones for Mixing?
So, you’re ready to try your hand at mixing with headphones! The first thing you need to do is make sure that you’re getting the best headphones for the job possible.
Consumer-level cans or earbuds aren’t going to cut it here!
Consumer-grade headphones typically have distinct audio colorations. Manufacturers want the audio to sound as good as possible, so they implement design features that compensate for the device’s natural shortcomings. It impacts the overall timbre of everything that plays through them. For example, most have a natural boost in the bass frequencies because you can’t feel the thump of a subwoofer in your body like you would with speakers. Some also have some attenuation or roll-off around the mid-range because the drivers are so close to your ear.
You don’t want any of that coloration when mixing. It’ll only throw off your work.
The best headphones for mixing will have a flat sound that recreates the audio as it was recorded. It should also have a wide frequency response covering the entire spectrum of human hearing, which is about 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
As for design, go for circumaural headphones. They encompass your entire ear, creating a controllable environment.
It’s also important to choose open-back cans. Open-back headphones have little ventilation slots or holes. They allow air to come in and mix with the audio, which creates a more realistic sound.
You should never use open-backs in the recording booth, as the sound will easily bleed into the mic. But for mixing and mastering, open-back headphones offer more accurate sound. Plus, they are less fatiguing. Stick to those parameters, and you won’t have any problems finding the best mixing studio headphones for the job.
Pro Tips for Mixing On Headphones
Of course, getting awesome results and a killer mix isn’t a guarantee. Like everything else with this artform, mastering your ability to mix on headphones takes time and tons of practice. Getting things just right is about understanding how the headphones affect the music and what you need to do to compensate.
Here are a few tips to help you get results just as good on headphones as you would on studio monitors.
Use Reference Tracks
Reference tracks are a must-have. Honestly, it would be best if you had mixing tracks regardless of how you choose to work!
A reference track is exactly what the name would imply. It’s a finished song that has a similar sound to what you’re trying to do. Think of it as an audio guide to help you achieve the results you’re after.
When you’re using headphones, reference tracks are crucial. You need that point of reference to guide your own work. These tracks are already professionally mixed to sound good on as many devices as possible.
Study them and pay close attention to every element. Reference tracks should be songs you know by heart. Listen to them periodically as you mix to keep your workflow on track.
Use Headphones Specifically Made for Mixing
As we said earlier, choose headphones that are purpose-built for audio professionals. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you can use the latest consumer-level cans.
You need flat and accurate sound to make your mix sound its best. The only way to get that is to use mixing studio headphones.
Take Breaks Regularly
Frequent breaks are key to avoiding eye fatigue. Use a timer and keep an eye on the clock! As a general rule of thumb, you should be taking a 10-minute break every hour or so. If you want to work a little longer, follow the 90/20 rule and break for 20 minutes after an hour and a half.
Don’t be that engineer who thinks they can pull a four-hour session with no breaks. You’re not doing yourself any favors. Give your ears a break to ensure that your mix doesn’t sound awful!
Remember how we said that headphones lack the natural stereo crossfeed that comes with studio monitors? While you can learn to overcome that issue on your own, plugins can make the job much easier.
Plugin for mixing on headphones will simulate the crossfeed, making the stereo image sound more organic and raw. They have advanced EQ and calibrate the headphone output for impeccable results.
Listen to Your Mix in as Many Ways as Possible
Last but not least, experiment on different devices! Take your mix to some studio monitors to get some brand-new perspective on your work. You can also print CDs to play your songs on a car radio, home speaker set, and more!
Listening to your work on different devices is the best way to hear what your listeners will hear. It can help you find that happy middle-ground and prevent your mix from favoring one medium over another.
Don’t let engineers who are stuck in their ways prevent you from working how you want. In the world of audio mixing, there are no rules! Ultimately, sound quality and style are all subjective. If you can get fantastic results with headphones, go for it!
These days, mixing with headphones is a viable route that makes this art more accessible than ever. As long as you get the best studio headphones you can and adopt some of the tips we went over, your mixes should come out sounding great!
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