Mixing with Headphones can be a viable option to achieving great mixes. Although it’s always recommended to use high quality monitor speakers, sometimes they aren’t a viable option. It may be late at night, you may be tweaking a mix in the car, or on a train, or late at night in your quiet neighborhood. In some aspects they are better than conventional monitors and in others they don’t compare. Let's take a look at what we can do to get the most from mixing on headphones. Starting with what they do best.
Perfect for editing
One part of the production cycle that I always recommend headphones for is editing. Think as your headphones as your little audio microscopes. Because headphones effectively take out the room, you will find that small clicks, pops etc. that you didn’t hear on your monitors, are now right there sitting up front in your track. Not only noise reduction can benefit from headphones, but also anything from tuning and comping, to correcting the timing of the overall track. Getting all these boxes ticked and sounding good on headphones, will then translate onto your monitors/listening platform.
If you room/monitoring environment is less than ideal, headphones can also work well when using EQ, a good set of headphones is a must though. Some headphones (Such as some DJ style headphones emphasize the low end, so don’t particularly work well) aren’t suitable, so try to find some with a flatter frequency response. You will find that your tracks overall balance improves significantly.
One thing that should always be avoided when mixing on headphones is inserting effects such as Delay, Reverb and Modulation. This is a good idea because of the way components of your mix sound “Closer” when you have headphones on, so you may be tempted to increase the affects of this processing. When you then try to listen to your finished track on another system you will find it’s swimming with effects, and completely unbearable. Always undercook with affects just to be on the safe side.
Panning with headphones is something of a preference for me. Because the headphones take the room out of the equation you will find your panning sounds a lot “tighter” and works a lot better. One reason for this is you know left and right are equidistant from your ears. You will also find that any present “holes” will show up, if you go overboard with the pan pots.
Know your gear
The key to a successful Headphone mix is essentially the key to a mix using Monitor Speakers, Referencing. Your reference CD should be just as active when using headphones, as when you are using monitors in your mixing room. This allows you to hear how your track compares to professional mixes. Your overall balance, stereo image and frequency balance of your track will improve. This also means that if you have to complete an entire mix on headphones (for whatever reason) your mixes shouldn’t suffer for it. One reason this is important is that when monitoring through speakers you can feel things. Not emotionally, I mean the low-end kicks and it turns, and you feel it with headphones, your eardrums feel it but your body does not. I remember when I was a lot younger and I regularly mixed on headphones without referencing, and the good majority of my mixes turned out with exaggerated low-end.
There are a few little devices out there that aim to “assist” you when mixing with Headphones, 2 that come to mind are the Focusrite VRM, which emulates a number of monitoring environments, and 112dB Redline Monitor Plug-In which helps to create a faux stereo environment, based on that of a pair of monitors. I personally don’t use any of these as I just choose some solid reference material, but a few producer friends of mine swear by them. Try and borrow one or download the 112dB demo before you put your money down.
I’m going to finish this feature with the wisest piece of information I have ever shared. Monitoring on headphones will cause ear fatigue much more quickly than a pair of monitors with the same frequency response. The Drivers are also a hell of a lot closer to your ears. So guess what I am going to say now? Turn down your headphone amplifier. Always remember to lower the playback volume a little more when you’ve never heard a track before, it only takes two seconds of glancing away before you get a loud bit in your ear. There we go preach over.
I hope you will take away from this article that headphones are just about as viable for mixing a track, than any monitoring systems. You just have to work harder and take more precautions to get the same results. I am not going to go into what headphones are best because it is about personal preference, but keep your eyes peeled for a Headphone Buyers Guide coming soon.
This article was originally published on Home Studio Review. Reprinted by permission.