Mixing on Headphones: How To Guide For Beginners

07/02/2020
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It sounds SO appealing, right?

No expensive studio monitors…

No big control room with fancy acoustic treatment.

Just you, your headphones, and the tracks that will become your next masterpiece.

But mixing on headphones is a bit more complicated than that, isn’t it?

While it DOES offer many advantages, it can create some problems as well.

And so, to help you make the most of your headphones…

We will cover a little bit of both in today’s post…entitled:

Mixing on Headphones: The Ultimate Beginner’s Guide.

First off…

The 5 Big Advantages

Some folks say you should NEVER mix on headphones.  Yet they probably do it themselves sometimes.

Because the truth is…in the right situations, it has its advantages.

The 5 BIG ones are:

1. The Freedom to Work in Silence

In most home studios, noise is a constant battle.

Loud neighbors disturb YOU during the day.  And at night when they’re asleep, you disturb THEM.

With headphones, EVERYONE gets the peace and quiet to do as they please.

2. Privacy

As much as we hate to admit it, many of us are self-conscious about our music.

Especially when…

  • It’s YOU playing or singing, and…
  • You know it doesn’t sound good yet.

Knowing that others are listening can be a crippling distraction that kills your creativity.

But with headphones…no one hears you, but YOU.

3. Freedom of Location

With studio monitors, your work is confined a single location.

And normally that’s fine…except when it’s NOT.

  • Maybe you’re on the road
  • Maybe you need a break from your studio. 
  • Or maybe you don’t have a studio yet

With headphones, you can work wherever, whenever you please…

And you don’t even have to worry about acoustic treatment.

4. More Money in Your Pocket

It’s not that headphones are cheap, because the good ones usually AREN’T.

But compared to the cost of studio monitors and a decent room

Headphones win, hands down, every time.

5. Greater Attention to Detail

In terms of sound quality, studio monitors beat headphones in ALMOST every way.

But there is ONE way headphones are better…

Because they’re up against your ears…headphones allow you to hear MUCH more of the finer details in a mix.

This makes them ideal for spotting noise such as clicks, pops, chair squeaks, etc. It also makes them great for adding those subtle background effects that are only heard subconsciously on speakers.

Of course, this only works with a GOOD pair of headphones.

So up next…

Choosing a Good Pair

Sennheiser HD800 Open Back HeadphonesMany of the common problems with headphone mixing can be avoided, or at least minimized

Simply by choosing a REALLY good pair.

In pro audio circles, that usually means a mid-to-high end pair of open back headphones.

That’s because, when it comes to sound quality, there’s none better.

The only time you’ll need something else is…

Mixing while Tracking

Sony MDR-7506In commercial studios, which have separate live and control rooms…

Engineers can perform rough mixes on studio monitors as musicians record in the next room.

In home studios, where musician and engineer share one room, BOTH guys need headphones.

But in a room with live mics, open back headphones won’t work, because they don’t isolate sound.

For this job, closed back headphones work much better.

Up next…

The 3 Challenges of Headphone Mixing

Despite all its advantages, the #1 problem with headphone mixing is…

A mix done solely on headphones doesn’t always sound good when played on studio monitors.  And the reverse can be true as well.

This happens because of the differences in how music is heard through each system.

The 3 KEY differences are:

  1. Stereo Imaging
  2. Frequency response
  3. Crossfeed

Here’s a summary of each one:

1. Stereo Imaging

There’s nothing quite like a wide stereo image to enhance your mix…right?

The problem is, stereo images sound noticeably wider on headphones compared to monitors.

And it’s no surprise, since studio monitors sit in front of you…and headphones sit over your ears.

Also, there’s the problem of center-panned instruments.  On monitors, they sound like they’re out in front of you.  On headphones, they sound like they’re between your ears.

BOTH of these things present obvious challenges when working on a mix.

And besides guessing, the only way to know how they will actually translate is by checking for yourself.

2. Frequency response

If you’ve ever looked at a frequency response chart for headphones…

You probably noticed it was nowhere NEAR flat, right?

It’s not because they sucked.  Most headphones are designed that way.

Here’s why:

  1. Because headphones sit so close your ears, high frequencies sound louder than they actually are.  To compensate, headphone manufacturers add a high-frequency roll-off.
  2. Because you don’t FEEL the bass thumping in your chest, like you do with monitors…some headphones compensate with a slight bass boost.
  3. Because headphones struggle to reproduce the LOWEST OCTAVE of bass frequencies…some compensate with an additional boost to the higher octaves of bass frequencies.

While all these tweaks MAY help somewhat, it’s clearly not a flawless system.  And that is why, tasks such EQ can be tricky on headphones, especially when judging bass levels.

Besides cross-referencing on monitors…

The NEXT best thing you can do here is to compare your work to other good albums from similar genres.

3. Crossfeed

Normally, when you listen to music on studio monitors…

  • your left ear hears the left monitor
  • your right ear hears the right monitor

Then a split second later, because of the longer travel distance…

Each ear hears sound from the opposite monitor at a slightly lower volume.   This portion of sound is commonly known as crossfeed.

Here’s a diagram to illustrate it:

crossfeed

This is the natural way our ears evolved to hear the world around us.  The only problem is…on headphones, crossfeed does not exist.

  • the left ear hears the left channel…
  • and the right ear hears the right channel…

But that’s it.

And when your brain recognizes missing information…it naturally dislikes what it hears.

To fix this problem, here are 3 things you can do:

  1. Avoid hard panning – When a track is hard panned, the sound is completely absent in one channel, so there is ZERO crossfeed.  By avoiding this practice, every sound in your mix will exist to some extent in BOTH channels.
  2. Use open back headphones – Because they lack in isolation, a small amount of natural crossfeed will carry over from each channel to the opposite ear.
  3. Use a crossfeed plugin – To simulate crossfeed in headphones, there are plenty of tools that will artificially insert a small amount of each signal into the opposite channel.

These strategies are by no means perfect, but by using them all together…

You can easily keep the problem to a manageable level.

The Final Verdict?

Now that we’ve reached the end, I think we can all safely agree…

  • Headphones work well for some things
  • And studio monitors work well for OTHER things

So rather than debate endlessly about which is better…

Why not just use BOTH?

Use your monitors when you CAN…and when you CAN’T…your headphones are there as a backup.

That’s what many engineers do, and ultimately, that’s what I recommend you do as well.