When you’re mixing, nothing beats a quality set of studio monitors inside a well-treated acoustic space. But what if your room has poor acoustics? What if you want to work late at night? What if you want to mix on the road? If these situations describe you, you might have no choice but to mix with headphones. Headphones are great for reference and for exposing tiny details in your project, but they bring their own issues, such as an unnaturally wide stereo image, a skewed frequency response, and a lack of crossfeed between your left and right ears. That said, plenty of pro musicians, engineers, and producers routinely mix on headphones, either by choice or necessity. So how do you create a great-sounding mix using headphones? Here are some tips.
Avoid Hard Panning
When you listen to studio monitors, the sound from the left speaker reaches not only your left ear but your right ear as well (and vice versa). Because of this, hard panning a track on loudspeakers doesn’t completely eliminate it from your opposite ear. That’s not the case with headphones — when a track is hard panned on headphones, the sound is completely absent from its opposing channel. So when you’re mixing on headphones, try to minimize the use of hard panning. That way every sound in your mix will exist, at least to some extent, in both channels. This will lead to an overall more natural sound.
Optimize Your Headphones
Headphones create an unnatural sound field — the sound seems to be emanating from inside your head rather than around you. And their frequency response is far from flat. To compensate for these issues, you can employ software products like Waves Nx and Sonarworks Reference 4. Waves Nx resolves crossfeed issues, faithfully mimicking the depth, natural reflections, and stereo imaging of a high-end set of studio monitors placed in a top-shelf acoustical space. Sonarworks Reference 4 overcomes the physical limitations of your headphones, helping you to achieve a flat frequency response so you can make informed mixing decisions.
Use Speakers for a Reference
While mixing on studio monitors, it’s a great idea to use headphones to check your mix after you think you’ve got it nailed down so that you can make a few final tweaks. This is the easiest way to ensure that your project sounds great through both speakers and headphones. The same concept applies when you mix on headphones. Find a set of speakers (even if it’s in your car) and use them for a periodic reference check. Otherwise, you may end up with a mix that sounds great on your headphones but not so great everywhere else.
Invest in Open-back Headphones
Closed-back headphones are great for tracking, since they prevent sound from escaping and leaking into your microphone. That said, they also trap pressure inside the headphone, creating false low frequencies. While this bass bump makes listening for pleasure more fun and engaging, it also skews your perception of your mix’s frequency response. That’s why open-back headphones like the Sennheiser HD 650 and AKG K712 Pro work better for critical applications — their flatter frequency response will help you make better choices while mixing.
Get a High-quality Headphone Amp
When using studio monitors, audio engineers spend top dollar on speakers, monitor controllers, and pro-level D/A converters. And why wouldn’t they? If you can’t hear it, you can’t mix it. The same holds true if you’re mixing on headphones. That’s where headphone amplifiers come in, ensuring that you hear every detail of your mix with the utmost precision and accuracy. The Rupert Neve Designs RNHP packs Mr. Neve’s legendary expertise in circuit design into a reference-grade headphone amplifier. The Little Labs Monotor gives you two audiophile-grade amplifiers in a single housing. The SPL Phonitor 2 pulls out all the stops, combining top-shelf headphone amplification with a loudspeaker emulation that adds crossfeed, spatial processing, and more to your monitoring experience. Mixing on the go? Then you’ll love the Apogee Groove — it combines great headphone amplification, stellar D/A, and USB convenience into a single portable device.
NOTE: Protect Your Hearing
We talk frequently about mixing at safe volume levels (the sweet spot is around 70dB–85dB). This is important no matter how you’re listening to your mix, but with headphones it’s absolutely vital — after all, there are drivers situated less than an inch from your ears! So keep track of your listening levels. And if you feel the urge to increase the volume, take a break instead. Not only will this protect your ears, but it will combat listening fatigue. Mixing while your ears are fatigued is like brushing your teeth while eating Oreos — it’s a waste of time and energy.