Producing Headphones for mixing exclusively presents a unique set of challenges for the modern music maker. Some of these challenges can be overcome with time and practice in order to deliver music that sounds good regardless of the listening environment.
The distinction between mixing on headphones and mixing on speakers is a frequent topic of discussion among bedroom producers.
In this post, we break down the unique benefits and drawbacks that headphones and speakers provide. We’ll also look at some data and come up with some strategies to make it work in either case.
Using headphones For Mixing
Almost every article I’ve ever read about mixing on headphones warns against it, but we’ve all done it. Mixing on headphones is a time-honored tradition, whether you use them to work on tracks while traveling or as your primary method of sound reproduction (famously used by Skrillex to produce Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites).
The Benefits of Headphones For Mixing
Working on headphones can actually provide a more accurate mixing environment than using speakers in an untreated room. Let’s go over some of the advantages of mixing on headphones.
Better bass response: If you don’t have a subwoofer, headphones will almost certainly provide better bass response than a standard pair of home studio monitors. Most small studio speakers are simply too small to reproduce sub-bass frequencies in open space, whereas headphones have an advantage in bass reproduction capability due to their close proximity to your ears.
Less variation due to room reflections: This is perhaps the most significant acoustical benefit of using headphones. The sounds from your speakers can and do bounce off of every wall and object when working on a pair of studio monitors. This affects how you hear the sound and, as a result, your mixing decisions.
This is why professional studios invest so heavily in acoustic treatment – minimizing reflections is an art form in and of itself. When you wear headphones, you don’t have to worry about this because the sound travels directly from the headphones to your ears, with no interference from your surroundings.
Potentially better value: A great pair of headphones can be purchased for a fraction of the price of high-quality studio speakers. I recently paid $170 for a really good pair of Beyerdynamic studio headphones – roughly the same price as one KRK Rokit 5 studio monitor.
More mobile: It’s obviously impossible to take your speakers outside of your home. If you want to work on your music outside of the studio, you should familiarize yourself with the sound of your headphones.
Less of a disturbance for your neighbors: If you have neighbors or roommates who may be irritated by loud music, headphones are an obvious choice (the ability of your headphones to block them out may also be an added bonus).
The disadvantages of headphones for Mixing
While there are advantages, there may be drawbacks to relying too heavily on headphones.
A greater risk of ear fatigue and hearing loss: When wearing headphones, you may be more likely to turn up the volume (after all, music sounds better when it’s loud), which can lead to ear fatigue or even long-term damage. Keep in mind that sound decays with distance in an inverse-square relationship.
This means that the more acoustic energy your ears absorb, the closer they are to a sound source. Because your ears are right next to the drivers when wearing headphones, the risk of injury is very high when listening at extremely loud levels. It’s easier said than done, but take breaks from your headphones and listen at reasonable volumes.
A distinct soundstage: It should also be noted that headphones will be required.
A distinct soundstage: It should be noted that headphones will produce a distinct soundstage for your music. The stereo field is very different when using headphones versus speakers because the sound is coming from the sides of your head rather than in front of you.
Soundstages and spatial audio are important considerations that should be addressed, but for the purposes of this post, let’s just say that the stereo field on headphones will be different than on your speaker setup. It will even differ for different headphone models, so be aware of how the headphones you’re working on affect your soundstage.
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Speakers are being mixed.
Mixing on speakers is frequently regarded as ‘the standard.’ Let us investigate the reasons why mixing on speakers is not only popular, but also important.
The Benefits of Speakers
Potentially closer to your destination: When mixing music, consider how your intended audience will listen. If you’re making music for club play, your track will be reproduced on speakers, so mixing on them first may help you get a better understanding of the effect your mix will have on live audiences.
Less physically constraining: While speakers can still cause ear fatigue, being physically connected to the workstation via headphones can be taxing.
Aside from the annoying cable, sweaty earcups can be uncomfortable, especially in hot weather. Anecdotally, I find that when I wear headphones, I get up from my chair far less frequently to take a break or get a much-needed stretch in.
More enjoyable to use: Let’s face it, it’s often more enjoyable to make music on speakers. It’s a wonderful feeling to crank up your speakers and move all that air around; it’s why many of us are drawn to making music in the first place.
The disadvantages of speakers
The impact of an untreated room: While not inherently a disadvantage, the big double-edged sword of using studio monitors is that your room will have a much larger impact on your mixes (as opposed to headphones, where your room has no effect).
If you have access to a pre-treated room or are able to do some DIY acoustic treatment, you can minimize the effect of room reflections and fully utilize the capabilities of your speakers. It’s not difficult; even hanging a blanket on the wall can make your home studio setup sound more professional (although it might not look more professional).
Investigating some data
Finally, let’s look at some numerical data. At my home studio setup, I used Sonarworks’ Reference Measure software to get an accurate reading of the frequency response curve of my speakers. I’m using a Focusrite Clarett 2Pre audio interface and a pair of KRK Rokits. There is some decoration, but it is minimal: curtains, soft surfaces, nothing out of the ordinary.
Consider the average frequency response curve of a good pair of studio headphones. The response curve of my Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro 250 ohm headphones is shown below. Please keep in mind that this graph is an average of similar models, not a reading of my individual cans.
The speaker setup appears to be a little flatter in some areas, but has more pronounced spikes, particularly around 120 Hz. Meanwhile, the headphones have a noticeable boost in the high end, but they’re also much better at reproducing sub-bass frequencies – which is understandable given that I don’t use a subwoofer in my home studio.
Making do with what you’ve got
The bottom line is that any setup, including professional studios, will have trade-offs. When selecting headphones and speakers for your home studio, consider your budget, space constraints, neighbors, and a variety of other factors. For these reasons, headphones are likely to be the easier option for many bedroom producer setups.
However, if you understand the advantages and disadvantages of your equipment, you can produce excellent mixes either way. Ideally, you should learn the intricacies of the equipment you’re using before testing your mix on various listening setups. This will assist you in avoiding the drawbacks of each monitoring option. Understanding the limitations of your space and equipment, no matter what you’re working with, will help you take your work to the next level.
What are the advantages of mixing on headphones?
The main advantage of mixing on headphones is portability—if you limit your setup to a powerful laptop and a pair of headphones, you can work anywhere—though some may argue that you also need a high-quality DAC for the computer, a headphone amp, and so on.
However, with the right knowledge and equipment, you could work with just a computer and headphones.
You will also not bother those around you, such as your neighbors (if you work from home) or your family (likewise).
Since 2010, I’ve been working from a home studio. Neighbors, I find, are mostly understanding and easily ignored when they’re annoying. Family, not so much. Headphones aid in the children’s sleep. These factors are what make mixing with headphones so much easier.
What are the disadvantages of headphones?
Simply put, headphones isolate you from the environment. This may appear to be a benefit if you work in a poor acoustic environment, but a good acoustic space is an important part of the equation. Without it, you won’t be able to see how the room interacts with your music, which is essential for learning how to mix.
You’ll also run into a crossfeed issue, because our perception of the stereo field in headphones differs greatly from that of monitors.
You can hear the left monitor in your right ear and vice versa in a room (we call this phenomenon crossfeed, or crosstalk). You only hear the left channel in your left ear and the right channel in your right ear when you wear headphones. The center of your head becomes the center of your attention. This makes judging panning and reverberation decisions, among other things, much more difficult.
Is it permissible to produce and mix music while wearing headphones?
It is perfectly acceptable to create music while wearing headphones. If you’re producing on headphones, it shows a dedication to the work—a passion!
Consider this: you are excluding yourself from the world in order to create your art. You want to do this so badly that you block out everything else. If headphones are what allow you to create space to create music, you should definitely use them!
I mixed and mastered the first season of American Hostage for Amazon while holding a newborn in my lap. It was a massive project with a lot of music and directional sound design. It topped the charts for several weeks, received rave reviews, and my partner didn’t kill me for blasting noise at all hours.
Is this something I say to brag? No. Okay, just a little. But it’s mostly to show that headphones are a viable option if you know what you’re doing with them.
Nonetheless, I recognize their limitations: when I remove the headphones and sit in front of speakers, the material coheres in a way that cans cannot.
So, over the years, I’ve developed a disciplined approach to mixing on headphones that I’ve continued to develop. Here are some pointers for mixing with studio headphones.
FAQs About Using Headphones for Mixing
Should I use headphones for mixing?
When it comes to mixing, good studio monitors and a well-treated room are still the way to go. However, if you’re working in an untreated environment, headphones could be the ideal solution. The same is true for mixing late at night or on the go.
Is it better to mix with speakers or headphones?
Working on headphones can actually provide a more accurate mixing environment than using speakers in an untreated room
Should you use open-back headphones when mixing?
Open-backs can help you keep your reference and make accurate mixing decisions even deep into a session. The air passing through the headphones will also allow your ears to breathe slightly, making them more comfortable for long sessions than closed-backs
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