Mixing With Headphones

by | Sep 27, 2017 | Beginner |

Mixing With Headphones

Introduction

Let’s go all the way back: In 1979 Sony came out with their famous Walkman and headphone listening got very common among many people with portable cassette players. Then we got our Discmans, Minidisc players and finally MP3 players who are now surpassed by smartphones. In today’s world and you see people running around with headphones every day. In 2015 there were¬†310,000,000 shipments of headphones worldwide.

Mixing on headphones is always discussed among music producers and engineers and it’s a very controversial topic. Many industry professionals don’t recommend to mix with headphones at all. But in my opinion, there isn’t a definite ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ answer. In this article, I want to share my own thoughts on mixing with headphones.

Advantages:

The big advantage with separated ear cans on headphones is that you get a much wider stereo image (180 degrees compared to speakers that only cover 60 degrees). Another advantage is that the sound won’t be colored by your bad room acoustics or a noisy environment. Therefore you won’t get any comb filtering or resonance problems. Small details in your mix will be more audible, such as automation edits, panning of instruments or general tone changes. Of course, headphones can give you the ability to finish a mix when you live in a home where you simply can’t use big volume levels with speakers. The sound will always stay consistent, whether you’re sitting in different rooms, changed sitting position or monitor height

Disadvantages:

With many headphones, it’s really hard to judge the low-end. Sometimes you have headphones that really have none or headphones who will give you the feeling as if someone just activated the “bass boost” function. So be very careful with that. Better check the low-end on some monitors if you have access to them.

Headphones usually have no crosstalk. Crosstalk is when you have sound from a left loudspeaker leaking into your right ear and sound from the right loudspeaker leaking into your left ear. You can hear it as a delay because the sound that travels from the left speaker to your right ear will need a little bit more time than to the left ear. Crosstalk will give you a sense of direction and it’s a good thing. With headphones you have the two sides separated which give you a wrong sense of direction. Even though there is technology and some crossfeed plugins out there to help, always check the stereo imaging on studio monitors before you do the final mix.

If you already own a decent monitoring setup with great speakers and a treated room the 2nd best monitoring system on your setup will be headphones. Sometimes I advise people with no budget and rooms with no acoustic treatment to make headphones their primary monitoring system, especially if they know these headphones well and know how they sound.

Tips:

  • Use headphones when you are at a studio that has a monitor system you’re not familiar with.

Me for example, I’ve been using my AKG240 headphones for 12 years straight and I know exactly how they sound. So it’s way easier for me to judge a mix with them than a new pair of speakers I’m not familiar with. But keep in mind that finding the right balance of a mix is also harder with headphones and takes more time. You might get it right if you know your headphones well and know how reference mixes will translate to them. But although the wide stereo image and the great details can be quite tempting they can be also very misleading. Especially with Reverb and Delay effects you might get into a trap and balance them too low.

  • Don’t turn up the volume too high when using headphones, if you don’t want to get a headache, listening fatigue, or hearing loss.

When I’m working with headphones I make sure I make a break every hour to not get listening fatigue. It’s also a good idea to make a mark around your volume controller when it comes to loudness. We always tend to turn the volume even louder when we encounter listening fatigue that results in hearing damage. Keep track of the SPL levels. Here’s the official info from CDC (Center of DIsease Control and Prevention).

SPLTime
115 dBUnder 30 Seconds
112 dBUnder 1 Minute
109 dBUnder 2 Minutes
106 dBUnder 4 Minutes
103 dB7 1/2 Minutes
100 dB15 Minutes
97 dB30 Minutes
94 dB1 Hour
91 dB2 Hours
88 dB4 Hours
85 dB8 Hours
  • Turn it all the way down

Start with really low volumes and check if you still can hear all your instruments and vocals in a mix. If something disappears you know there is something wrong with your mix

  • Take breaks

Headphones always will introduce ear fatigue, especially with higher volume, so make sure you take breaks and don’t turn them up too loud

Conclusion

Headphones are getting more and more accepted in the professional audio world. Even the best audio engineers like Andrew Scheps sometimes use headphones (Sony MDR-7506) to mix tracks. For beginners, headphones can be a better solution than an untreated room with bad monitors and a wrong placement. For music producers that are just starting out and can’t spend money on monitors, I would suggest they get a good set of headphones first, before doing mistakes with bad monitors, untreated rooms, and wrong monitor placement.

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