Mixing On Headphones
Is it possible to mix a whole song and get very good results only on headphones? Yes, it is!
I’ll gladly tell you everything I know about mixing on headphones but first I have to say;
Headphones will never replace a good set of monitors in a studio environment. Does it mean that your mixes will sound bad? HELL NO! You can definitely pull out a badass mix only on headphones.
Hi everybody, in this article, I’m going to give you my personal philosophy on mixing with headphones. In almost every mix I did, I used headphones at some point to have another point of view on my mix. Of course that most of my mixes were done on a good set of speakers in an acoustically treated room. But the reality is that there are things that you can hear on headphones and can hardly hear on speakers.
Let’s start with the Pros & Cons
- With headphones, you don’t have to worry about room acoustics.
- You save a lot of money on speakers and acoustic treatment.
- You can work in the middle of the night without worry about your neighbors.
- You can travel and mix anywhere, you have the same reference everywhere you go.
- It’s easier to hear the small details on headphones.
- The stereo information is much more noticeable.
- Every spot is the sweet spot and you can move freely.
- Mixing on headphones at high levels for long periods of time can cause permanent damage to your hearing.
- Ear fatigue is more common when using headphones.
- You don’t get the physical “full-body” experience that you get when using loudspeakers.
- The signal comes from the sides of the head instead of the front, which is less natural in most cases.
In general, if you ask me whether I prefer good speakers in a bad sounding room or a good set of mixing headphones? I would probably go for the headphones. But there are some basic rules I would follow.
First, not every set of headphones are good for mixing. You probably won’t have a good mix on your Apple earbuds. You should have balanced sounding headphones with a flat frequency response, preferably a dedicated open back mixing headphones. So in the last part of this article, you will find a list of my preferred mixing headphones.
Open-Back or Closed-Back - What's The Difference?
These are built with isolation in mind. The objective is to isolate the listener from the surroundings and help him focus only on what the headphones are playing. This is good for recording in the studio, where you don’t want the leakage from the headphones to reach the microphone.
This also helps to prevent noises around you from reaching your ears. Another example is if you don’t want people around you to hear what you are listening to. Closed-back headphones are naturally boosted in the low range, so they have more bass. In most cases, they will introduce ear fatigue much sooner and you will have to take more frequent breaks to let your ears “breathe”.
As the name implies, the back of the headphones is open and there’s no physical acoustical barrier between the driver and the back wall of the headphones. This means there’s no isolation and everyone around you can hear what you’re listening to. But this is the only drawback.
Open-back headphones give you a more natural sound, and most of the time they are aimed towards more professional uses. Because it’s open it allows you to listen to music for literally hours before you get tired. They also give the natural feeling that you get when listening to a set of speakers. This is called a “Wider soundstage” where you can almost hear the location of the musical instruments in the room around you.
How Does It Feel On My Skin?
Try not to use headphones with non-breathable materials, use headphones cushions with an exposed foam covered with some sort of cloth. Similar to the classic Beyerdynamic DT 990.
If your preferred mixing headphones does not have such a foam, you can always create it yourself somehow, it’s not a big deal. This will prevent over sweating and itchy feeling on your skin.
Never go above a certain level, it’ll help delay the ear fatigue that will inevitably show up. Once you’ve reached the point of ear fatigue, your mix is only going downhill from here. Remember to lower the levels all the time, because we have a natural tendency to increase the volume without even noticing.
If you need, even write it in front of you, so you’ll never forget it. One good trick is to set the volume to a level that allows you to handle a conversation with a friend while the music is playing. You’ll know you’re at a good level when you won’t feel the need to raise your voice when you talk.
Don’t Use Your Emotions While You’re Mixing
Yeah I know, this is a very bold statement but the minute I stopped using my emotions, I got better and much more accurate mixes. Sometimes we feel like the music is more enjoyable when we turn up the levels. This is a lie!
Try to be as technical and as accurate as you can be, you’ll thank me later. By the way, this is also true for mixing on speakers.
When it comes to audio we can never trust our memory. Always keep a few of your favorite tracks as a reference. Listen to them from time to time. That will give you a reference point, so you’ll never lose your direction while in the heat of mixing.
The best thing you can do is pull up a professionally mixed track with the same musical key as the track you’re working on. Not a lot of people are talking about this, but using reference tracks with the same musical key will bring you much closer to your end goal.
Take A Break
Every 25 minutes of mixing, you should take at least 5 minutes of complete silence. Sometimes it’ll feel like you don’t need it but trust me, you’re going to. This is like Viagra for your ears. It’ll make you last longer!
Use More Pairs of Headphones
Just as working with speakers, you would want to have more pairs of headphones for reference. This will give you another important perspective on your mix, so you could make small adjustments and hear stuff you couldn’t hear on your main headphones.
This time you can use your Apple earbuds. They will give you a real-world perspective on your mix. I would also have one of those cheap Bluetooth speakers next to me to serve as a shitbox monitor.
Calibrate Your Headphones
In the old days, I used to put an EQ on my master channel in the DAW and set it to make my headphones sound flat. I usually give it a little boost in the lows, a little deep in the high mid and a little touch in the highs. This gave me a more balanced output from the headphones relative to my hearing.
Today we don’t have to do it manually. With the Sonarworks Headphone Calibration plugin, we can achieve a much more accurate result. We just choose our headphones from the preset list and we’re all set. Watch the video for a full demonstration.
You should also check out Waves NX which simulates an actual room inside your headphones. The plugin is working with your camera. It follows your face and head movements and makes micro-adjustments in the plugin accordingly, It’s a crazy concept, give it a try.
So, can you pull out a great mix on the right headphones? Hell yeah!
Happy mixing guys!