Right off the top, I believe that you can mix your song headphones and get a good mix but there are some things that you need to take into consideration.
Studio headphones or studio monitors, which one do you need for mixing and mastering?
If budget isn’t really much concern then get both! When you are just starting to build your home studio or you have issues with neighbours then headphones are the way to go.
Mixing on headphones is a good way to get started and break into music production, but you will inevitably need speakers at some point.
This article goes over what can be done on headphones and how they compare against monitors. The article also has advice about when it might be time to switch from one set of equipment to another!
First, we are going to start with the pros of mixing with headphones.
Table of Contents
- 1 Fix issues with bad studio acoustics
- 2 Privacy and Isolation
- 3 Cheaper than Speakers
- 4 Hear more detail
- 5 Ear Fatigue
- 6 Frequency Response
- 7 Stereo Imaging
- 8 Cross Feed
- 9 Use Headphones That Are Made For Mixing
- 10 Use Reference Tracks
- 11 Mix at Low Volume
- 12 Use Frequency Compensation Plugins
- 13 Use a Frequency Analyzer
- 14 Check Your Mix On Speakers
- 15 Final Thoughts
Fix issues with bad studio acoustics
Recording in your home studio comes with some real drawbacks, especially when you are just starting out. You may not have a budget to include treating your room properly for the acoustics. This is where headphones can come in handy. They can help you fix issues with bad studio acoustics and make your recordings sound better than they would otherwise be able to without them!
How do they fix these issues? Well, simply by eliminating them. With headphones, you are able to hear the sound as it is being recorded, and not what’s happening in your room. This will allow for a more accurate representation of how things would actually turn out if they were mixed on speakers or monitors!
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No need to go spend a bunch of money you don’t have on acoustics treatment. Just invest in a pair of high-quality studio headphones and you’re good to go! The great part is that you need them anyway, even if you plan to one day treat your room and get speakers.
Privacy and Isolation
Another pro to using studio headphones to mix is that you are isolated from the sounds around you. Not only that, but the rest of the house or apartment building can’t hear you looping two bars for 45 minutes. Headphones save you from the embarrassment of hearing your neighbours complain about the noise.
Sometimes knowing that others are listening can be a distraction. It can be better to be isolated so that you can focus on the task at hand.
Cheaper than Speakers
Sometimes there is no bigger pro than saving some money. Studio headphones are a lot cheaper than speakers.
It’s not that headphones are cheap, they are not. But they can be a lot cheaper than speakers.
The cost of studio monitors is often the deciding factor for many people when it comes to buying them or not, and then factor in the cost of acoustic treatment, stands, cables and other accessories.
Spend more time getting to know your studio headphones and how they sound. This will give you the ability to produce great-sounding music while your saving for your ultimate home studio.
Hear more detail
One of the best benefits of mixing your song on headphones is that you can hear the smallest details. That is why headphones are often used in the studio to get a better idea of what’s going on.
Using headphones is like having the ability to zoom into your song because they are right next to your ears. This enables you to hear the clicks, pops, distortion and other unwanted things in your mix. You can also hear the bass and other low frequencies that you might not hear on speakers.
Even when you do get into some studio monitors, you will want good headphones around so you can check closely what’s going on in your mix. This attention to detail is what could set you apart from other producers.
So, what are some drawbacks to mixing your song with headphones?
One of the most common drawbacks of mixing with headphones is ear fatigue. This is because you are listening to the sound right up to your ears. You might not notice it at first, but after a while, your ears will start getting tired and you won’t be able to make proper mixing decisions.
It’s important for producers who mix with headphones regularly to take breaks, even if it is just 10 minutes, so their ears can rest up and sort of reset before they go back into mixing mode.
To avoid ear fatigue you should mix at lower volume levels. If you’re mixing at a lower volume level, then it will take longer for your ears to get tired and this will save you from making bad mix choices.
Another drawback to mixing on headphones is that they might not have an accurate frequency response. This is why it’s important to have a good pair of headphones that accurately represent the frequencies in your mix.
The frequency response is how much bass, midrange and treble you hear when listening through them. It can be quite misleading if they aren’t accurate enough for what we need! A lot of studio headphones are coloured in certain frequencies and not totally flat.
If there are any problems with our ears hearing certain parts or ranges then this could lead us to make bad decisions about where instruments should sit within their respective channels which will inevitably affect other aspects like volume balance between tracks as well.
But it is 2021, and there is technology out there to help you. Sonarworks has a product called SoundID Reference that basically does the job of flattening the response of your headphones so that you are hearing accurately.
This is where the soundscape of your mix will be created. It’s a very important part to get right, as it can make or break how we perceive what we are hearing in terms of depth and width within that space.
SO what is the downfall when mixing with headphones? Aren’t they stereo? Well, yes of course they are, but the stereo field is much different than what you would get in a studio environment.
On speakers, the stereo field is perceived as being in front of the listener while on headphones the stereo image is like a line going through the head. The stereo image in the headphones is also much wider than speakers. These two things combined can make it difficult to get a good stereo image that translates well to speakers of any kind.
The absence of crossfeed or cross talk is another problem related to mixing with headphones. Crossfeed happens when we listen to speakers. It is how we naturally hear. The sound coming from the left speaker hits our left ear mostly but some of the sound also hits our right ear and vice versa.
The problem is that with headphones because they are right against our ears, we only hear the sound on the left through the left ear and the right through the right ear. This is a problem when panning instruments because in headphones everything feels really wide and separated, even if you are in mono.
The solution is to use a plugin with headphones that will simulate the crossfeed effect of speakers and make it sound more natural when we mix on them or listen back in our studio monitors later.
So now that we have outlined the pros and cons of mixing with headphones, let’s talk about what you can do to effectively mix your song with headphones.
Use Headphones That Are Made For Mixing
There are a few different types of headphones that you can use for mixing. The first type is the closed-back, which will give your ears some isolation from outside noise. This means they’re great if there’s someone sleeping nearby who doesn’t want their sleep interrupted.
If you only have a budget for one pair of headphones then get closed-back ones because you will need them for tracking vocals and instruments as well.
The second option is the open-back, which is great for mixing because they allow air and sound to pass through giving more of an illusion of space.
Open-back headphones are a little more expensive but they are worth it. Most have a very flat response, which is great for mixing. They can also help alleviate the crossfeed issue because they do allow for a small amount of sound transferring to either ear.
Read these articles if you are confused about choosing the right headphone.
- Headphones Buying Guide: Types Of Studio Headphones [Pro & Cons]
- 9 Hacks To Choose Studio Headphones [Pros Never Tell You]
Use Reference Tracks
Whether you are mixing on headphones or in a studio on monitors, it is always a good idea to use reference tracks. This is especially beneficial when using headphones to mix because it can help you pinpoint some issues that you may not be hearing on your own.
Use a few reference tracks that are professionally mixed and mastered. The reference tracks should be similar to the music you are mixing. You can also use a few different genres of songs as well, but it is important that they have been professionally mixed and mastered.
Listen for the different elements and how they sound together. Listen to the low end especially, as this will be the area that suffers most in headphones. When you hear what professional mixes sound like in your headphones you will learn what to listen for in your own mixes. Essentially learning your headphones.
Mix at Low Volume
Like I said earlier, ear fatigue comes really quickly when using headphones. You can slow the onset of ear fatigue by mixing at lower volumes. Lower your volume level to the point where you can still hear all the elements clearly.
Mixing at lower volumes will allow you to mix for longer periods but remember also to take breaks. Take a 5 to 10-minute break every hour so that you can reset your ears.
The point of all this is to protect your number one mixing asset, your ears.
Use Frequency Compensation Plugins
Frequency compensation plugins are a great way to make sure your mixes translate well on different speakers. They can be used for both mastering and mixing, but they’re especially helpful in flattening out the frequencies in your headphones that are coloured.
Most studio headphones are made to be very close to a purely flat response, but they all have some kind of colouring, usually in the low-end. This can problematic when you’re mixing because your low-end is going to sound different on a variety of speakers.
For example, if you have headphones that excite the low-end you will mix with a lot of bass. But when you play it back on your car stereo, the low-end is going to be much less pronounced because that speaker doesn’t have as strong an exciter in its response curve like headphones do for this frequency range.
If instead we use plugins such as SoundID Reference (or any other plugin with similar functionality) and flatten the frequency response of our headphones, we will be able to make the right decision about how much low-end we need. While listening through speakers then those frequencies will be balanced once played over different systems – giving us more consistent mixes across all playback devices!
It’s an easy way to make sure everything sounds good no matter what speaker system someone plays back their music through.
Use a Frequency Analyzer
The frequency analyzer will show you the relative levels of different audio bands, which can be helpful in identifying whether or not a particular range needs more attention than others and if so what type (more bass? less treble?).
The Tonal Balance Control plugin has an auto-detect function to help with this process – it automatically detects where there are peaks on either side for any given band then adjusts accordingly! This ensures everything sounds good no matter how someone listens back to their music through speakers/headphones etc…
These plugins don’t replace your ears so just use them as a visual to help you along in the process of mixing.
Check Your Mix On Speakers
Lastly, you do need to check your mix eventually on speakers. They don’t need to be professional studio monitors. Check your mix on computer speakers or in your car.
You are trying to get an idea of how the mix you have created translates across different devices.
Listen to the balance and all the spatial aspects. Especially panning and reverb. Also, make a note of how your low-end sounds.
Mixing on headphones is a great way to get started and can produce amazing results. Eventually, you are going to want to spend some money on good studio monitors and acoustic treatment. In the meantime, you are building up your skills as a mix engineer and music producer.
The most important thing is to get your mix sounding good on as many devices and speakers that you can.
So just keep trying until what feels right happens. Mixes are all about personal preference so do whatever works best – whether it’s headphones OR professional monitoring systems.
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