Mixing music in an acoustically treated space with a large mixing board, outboard effects, custom engineer’s desk, and state-of-the-art speakers placed with laser precision for the most accurate response and clarity in sound is an amazing experience. But, let’s be realistic, how many people really have such a space available to them?
Truly, not many. And as recent successful artists have proven, perhaps it’s no longer even necessary to have such a space to produce Billboard-quality music.
As more and more outstanding digital applications have become available, and in smaller and smaller packages, often at prices even a struggling musician can afford, perhaps the focus for music production should shift from dreaming of an outlandishly lavish mixing suite to a powerful, compact, and efficient portable mixing system.
One of the most obvious modern representations of this new vision of audio production can be found in the portability of your laptop and headphones. Not only can you record and mix great-sounding music using not much more than this, most listeners are probably only ever going to hear your tracks on the same devices.
But just because a system is affordable and comes with high-quality features, doesn’t mean we’re automatically trained to use it to full effect. This is where the efficient, compact, portable mixing system begins to fall short. So let’s talk about how to make sure you’re getting a decent sonic impression when you set out to mix tracks using headphones.
First, is it even acceptable to mix using headphones?
It’s not uncommon for some people to listen to music exclusively on headphones these days, which also implies that mixing on headphones is perfectly acceptable, since it would be a matched listening method.
It’s a bit more complicated than that, but with a few steps in mind you can ensure that your headphone mixes are nearly as good as those done in any pro studio environment.
What makes a good quality pair of headphones?
The primary concerns in purchasing headphones to be used for mixing are: accurate sound reproduction, sound isolation, comfort, and durability.
- Accurate sound reproduction is the measure of how closely the sound from the headphones matches what you would hear in a quality non-headphone monitoring system.
- Sound isolation is the measure of how well the headphones do at blocking out external sounds so that you can be sure you’re hearing only the sounds coming from your mix and not any outside noise or interfering sounds.
- Comfort and durability are also huge factors in selecting headphones for mixing. Remember that you may be wearing them for extended periods of time and ear/head fatigue or hardware failure can seriously hamper your mixing efforts.
Invest in headphones meant for mixing
There are literally hundreds of excellent choices out there for quality headphones. It would be impossible to mention all of them, or even the top 20, but I’ll provide some suggestions for a few to begin your search. If you’re using some form of compact, portable mixing platform then chances are price is of concern to you, so I will limit my recommendations to headphones under $300.
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro
I would unhesitatingly recommend the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro as a great first option. These excellent compact headphones produce full sound, block out sound quite well, and are amazingly comfortable. At a price point of only about $100, you really can’t go wrong, which is why I’ve used them as spares in my studio for years.
AKG K271 MKII
At a slightly higher price point my recommendation is the AKG K271 MKII. With outstanding sound reproduction and noise isolation, self-fitting design, plus great durability, and the extra feature of auto-mute when you remove them from your head, you’ll be very happy spending countless hours mixing with these headphones at a price of only $200.
Blue Mix-Fi Studio Headphones
Finally, at the high end price point of $300, my recommendation is the Blue Mix-Fi Studio Headphones with built-in audiophile amp. Outstanding design and comfort with a multi-jointed design, as well as unparalleled sound reproduction that offers three different analog amp models so you can dial in exactly the right matched sound for your style of music.
Use speaker comparisons to build familiarity
Alright, moving onward, just because you’re mixing on headphones doesn’t mean that it’s not important to try to simulate how things might sound coming out of regular household and car speakers.
Once you’ve selected a decent pair of headphones, you still have some work to do to get comfortable with what to expect from how they sound compared to other listening devices. You might liken this to test-driving a new car. Regardless of how great the car is, you still need to get a feel for how it handles on different roads and in different weather conditions before you can truly say you have a complete picture of how it handles in any situation.
Similarly, with your new headphones you’ll need to listen to a variety of different music and audio recordings, and ideally those same recordings on a few different speakers and headphones you have around you, to fully grasp the differences. Then, listen to the same recordings on your new mixing headphones to note the sonic differences.
Make note of the finer details
Do the headphones have a particular flavoring they apply to the sound? Do they seem to always produce more bass or widen the apparent stereo image compared to other playback systems?
Get to know what these particulars are for your headphones so that you’ll know how to account for them in your mixing work. This means, for example, if your headphones produce a bass heavy sound, then you’ll need to make sure your mixes sound bass heavy in them in order to be certain the results will sound “normal” everywhere else.
Start with references
With your high-quality headphones in hand (or on head), and a firm grasp of the particulars of its sound flavors that you need to account for, you’re almost ready to get started mixing! It’s good practice to listen to an appropriate reference track before you begin.
Choose a song of the same genre or style, with a similar feel as the music you’re intending to mix. It’s best to choose something that’s widely accepted as a “great mix.” But, it should at least be something that you consider an excellent example of what you’re aiming for in the sound of your own mix.
Listen to this reference song through your headphones carefully a couple times through. Pay attention to how each of the primary tonal ranges sound: deep bass percussion and effects, mid-bass tones, lower and upper midrange melodies, and treble brightness and crispness. Also listen to the attributes of the stereo image: wide or constrained or highly separated.
Make note of how these details sound in your reference song and keep them in mind as a guide for how to set levels, EQ, and panning in your mix.
What to listen for in your track
When you begin your mixing work with headphones as your monitoring system, you should follow the same basic procedures as you would with any other mix monitoring system. Listen carefully to each of the major tonal ranges:
- Deep bass: kick drums, 808, low pads
- Upper bass: bass guitars and low notes on pianos, strings, and synths
- Lower midrange: vocal and melody instrument body
- Upper midrange: clarity in vocals and timbre in strings and synths
- Treble: percussion and air/space/sizzle
Now, we’re ready to mix
Here are three quick pieces of advice for adjusting your normal mixing procedures to working with headphones instead of studio monitors.
1. Set your EQ for each track in the mix to maximize the impact of that track on its own, as well as for how it combines with all the other tracks in the song.
This is where you should pay special attention to the flavoring of sound you’ve gotten to know so well with your headphones by now. Make sure the EQ you’ve dialed in for each track accounts for any particular tonal leaning you expect it to have in your headphones. Each tonal range should sound and feel similar to what you heard from your reference track as well, going back and doing an A-B comparison between them as needed.
2. Similarly, when it comes to stereo image, you should follow the same type of procedure.
First, place each instrument, voice, or sound in a panned location according to how you wish the song to sound. Apply any effects for stereo widening as desired. Now, adjust the panning and stereo effects to account for the particular stereo width and balance character you noted in your headphones during your test runs with them. And be sure to check how the spatial feel and flavor of your mix sounds compared against your reference track as well.
3. Finally, just as with any mix, verify the volume levels, both of individual tracks and of the overall song as a whole, match your expectations.
If your headphones produce unusually loud sound, then your mixed song should feel unusually loud. In other words, as with every other aspect of sound, the volume level you hear in the headphones for your mix should have the same particular sonic characteristics that your headphones produce with any other well-mixed song.
That’s your confirmation that you’ve produced a great-sounding mix!
In summary, yes you can definitely produce a solid and reliable mix using headphones, as long as you follow the procedures and precautions detailed above. Good luck!
Erik Veach is the owner and lead audio engineer at Crazy Daisy Productions, providing mixing, mastering, and sound editing services since 2001. He is the original pioneer of automated intelligent mastering systems, introducing them for use in professional music production in 2003.
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