Airpods at the gym, classic earbuds on the train, old-fashioned clunky headphones in the studio – there’s no question our society has taken a liking to having music in our ears at any given time. Anyone from a casual listener to a professional sound engineer understands the importance of having quality sound accessibly.
Our focus with this gear guide will hone in on the latter. More specifically, we will break down the ever-popular question that has popped up time and time again with the increasing demand for DIY setups:
How do you mix on headphones?
While studio monitors are considered the main mixing tool for engineers, let’s not neglect the impact a pair of studio headphones can have on your mixing and/or mastering processes. Today, we’ll dive into a comparative analysis of using headphones and monitors, how they differ, which pairs may tickle your fancy and a cheat sheet of mix tips once you’re comfortable with a pair.
As with any and all processes that exist within the wonderful world of audio, there is a method to the madness. There’s a time and a place for any piece of gear, any equipment you come across, any studio component geared towards transforming your music into a professional-sounding masterpiece. In the instance of headphones, they most certainly have an important role in determining the outcome of how your mix ultimately sounds.
After tracking guitars, laying down velvety vocals, jamming out on an infinite amount of MIDI sounds and building the arrangement for an original song, it’s easy to hear everything through your favorite pair of studio monitors with rose-colored glasses (earmuffs?) In other words, don’t let yourself fall victim to the deceivingly luscious low-end and studio-grade volume that often comes with monitors. Are these bad attributes? Not in the slightest. However, many producers tend to gravitate towards a “bigger-is-better” approach to their tracks, compromising attention to frequency detail and harmonic balance for bowel-busting 808 bass or continent-sized volume.
On paper, this is the right idea, as “big” sound is all the rage these days. The problem with this approach is that a great deal of your music, under the assumption it was performed and recorded well enough, will sound very good through studio monitors with little to no treatment. With some stereo width added to the picture and any number of effects sprinkled on top, it’s even easier to fall in love with what you’re hearing. Where reference headphones tend to trip up some engineers is in their delivery of your sound. But that’s exactly their intention; instead of getting that stadium-sound engulfing your sonic space, you’ll receive a more balanced, flat, neutral response that may make everything sound dry in comparison.
But that’s okay.
Mixing on a pair of headphones gives producers and engineers a better gauge as to how their mix will translate in more common music settings. Most people aren’t casually listening to their tunes on a pair of KRK Rokits or Yamaha HS8 , which means your mix needs to sounds at its best on a car radio, iPhone speaker, laptop, cheap pair of earbuds, entertainment speaker or any other everyday audio device. Sure, that synth bass sounds fat and funky-fresh on your monitors, but unless you can hear if it blends with the rest of the instruments in your production via quality headphones, it’ll sound like a garbage truck filled with folding chairs rolling down a hill once you listen on your car speakers.
Open and closed-back headphones are absolutely clutch when it comes to being able to mix on-the-go. Engineers from the 80s, 90s and early parts of the 00s are quite envious that this technology exists now, but it’s absolutely possible to fine-tune and sculpt your mix on an Uber commute, subway trip or down in the park. Of course, having the right pair of headphones will seal the deal, but it’s a relief knowing that you don’t need a fully-treated studio to put together the secret sauce for your production’s final mix. This is particularly helpful for DIY engineers and producers on a tighter budget, as well. Using headphones takes away the need for a robust sonic atmosphere, while still promising a natural demonstration of your audio content in whatever DAW you work in.
Even die-hard studio monitor users will admit that their preferred setup can potentially mask some mix deficiencies. While having perfectly-positioned monitors provides that crystal-clear stereo width and optimal panning selection, they can’t promise that you’ll be able to key in on those itty-bitty details that ultimately make a large difference in overall mix sound. Is that buzzy background synth part going to distract a casual listener? Well according to your monitors, not at all. But the second those headphones go on, that synth suddenly bullies its way back into the mix with a treble-driven vengeance.
What the heck happened in between now and then?!
This is not unusual. Because of a more organic response, headphones can single out individual components to your track with, perhaps, more accuracy. A pair of studio monitors poses the risk of swallowing up certain frequencies or instruments, so be mindful of that when checking between the two. For what it’s worth, it’s always a smart idea to cross-reference and hear how your mix sounds across several mediums.
Just to be clear, this article isn’t meant to disparage studio monitors or encourage you to toss the pair you just purchased into the trash. That is not our intent here. Studio monitors are tremendously valuable in studio setups in both a DIY or production-house space, and offer that optimal stereo width that the professionals salivate over. They also allow engineers to tap into low-end with more intent, filling out mixes and getting them ready for distribution. All we want to do is demonstrate the fact that headphones are also useful, and how to use them properly if they’re your preferred mixing medium. Of course, don’t hesitate to visit our studio monitors section for added audio fun.
Perhaps you’re eager to discover that magical pair of headphones from this gear guide, and you’ll already fantasizing about making perfect mixes as you bask in a bathtub of gold and eat grapes dangling from the fingers of your celebrity crush.
Before you get there, though, check out a few handy-dandy tips for getting your mix to resonate beautifully in the modern era. Grab those headphones and get to work:
- Watch your volume! This needs to be the first bullet point, only because your well-being is such a priority at Sam Ash. That may sound dramatic, but mixing with headphones increases the risk of listening fatigue and potential hearing loss, if not done properly. Take a breather if you feel like your mix is starting to sound muddy and jarring, and keep your levels low enough to prevent long-term damage to your eardrums. 70db is a prime volume for a safe mixing practice.
- Be mindful of the juxtaposition between stereo width on headphones versus studio monitors. Some describe stereo image on headphones as a much more emphasized and highlighted audio sensation. Your left channel becomes exclusive to your left ear, your right channel becomes exclusive to your right ear and your forehead becomes your middle-mono space. It will sound strange and unfamiliar if you’re used to mixing mainly on monitors, so keep this in mind when panning your guitars hard L-R.
- Don’t be afraid to mess around with how your headphones are placed atop your musical noggin. Extend the headband to have them sit lower, move them at an angle forward or backward once placed, move them upward – experimenting can alter your objective listening experience and introduce a whole new stereo field.
- Headphones come in handy when it comes to picking up the good, the bad and the ugly. Be mindful of this, and pay close attention to any minuet but substantial audio discrepancies that could take a potentially great mix and kibosh it. This could include hisses, vocal pops, clicks from guitar loop transitions, unwanted feedback, frequencies you thought were taken care of, clipping from distortion or monster low-end and any other imperfection that wasn’t meant to be there. Address them before you send your mix out for mastering purposes!
- As alluded to earlier, it’s always beneficial to cross-reference and keep tabs on your mix through any number of external sound sources. Obviously studio monitors are the initial comparison tool, but don’t be turned off by the idea of checking up on your mix with earbuds, as well. They’re extremely common for listeners, and your track needs to sound good enough on them if you want your music to be accessible or licensable.
Ready to take a sonic plunge into a beautiful ocean of headphones? The wonderful part about picking the ideal pair is that there’s an option for everyone. Check out this list of some personal favorites and desired choices amongst those in the audio community.
Shure SRH 1440s
Kicking off the open-back headphones selections comes the Shure SRH1440 Professional Open Back Headphones, hallmarked by full-range audio and crisp attention to the frequency spectrum. A circumaural design promises exceptionally-wide stereo imaging with natural delivery, and this tends to be a popular choice among producers who gravitate towards rich low-end.
Samson SR850 Professional Studio Reference Headphones) An absolute steal when you consider the blend of value and quality. The Samson SR850 Professional Studio Reference Headphones deliver accurate sound reproduction, courtesy of 50mm drivers and a frequency response of 10Hz – 30kHz. Reasonably priced and comfortably accommodating, this is the perfect pair to get the ball rolling if this is your first headphone go-around.
AKG K 702s
AKG K 702 Reference Class Open Back Headphone
State-of-the-art technology meets legendary pedigree with the AKG K 702 Reference Class Open Back Headphones. Following up on the trailblazing craftsmanship from the K 701s, this juggernaut of a model operates with flat-wire voice coils designed for unparalleled accuracy. 2-layer Laminate Varimotion drivers works to neutralize pesky resonances distorting your sound, and an unbelievably wide 10 hz – 39,800 Hz response makes it perfect for audio engineers.
Beyerdynamic DT 1990s
Last but most certainly not least, this pair of headphones feel like it was constructed in a lab by the strongest of audio minds. Perhaps that isn’t too far from the truth; the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 PRO Open-Back Studio Reference Headphones have remained the professional favorite for decades. Tesla driver technology offers elite sound reproduction, accurate resolution and a beautiful painting of the entire frequency spectrum. If stereo image is what gets you warm and fuzzy as an audio engineer, look no further. This pair demonstrates dynamic and natural width to reveal your mix in its entirety, and does so perhaps better than any headphone in its class.
Samson finds its way back on the list with their SR950 Professional Studio Reference Headphones on the docket. A stellar option for those on a budget, this pair’s closed-ear design offers ideal sound isolation and enhanced noise reduction, resulting in accurate stereo imaging and the privilege of working in any non-studio setting. Take these bad boys to the front yard, on the train or to your child’s recorder concert without hearing outside noise or an ear-piercing rendition of “Hot Cross Buns”.
Sennheiser HD280 Pros
Comfortable, sturdy and useful, the Sennheiser HD280 Pro Headphones offer a snug fit with a uniform listening experience. DJs tend to be a big fan of this model, considering their impressively-high 102 db SPL and minimal outside-noise exposure. Throw ‘em in your gig bag, bust out your laptop and allow the crowd to vibe as you monitor all the action with the Sennhesier HD280s.
Audio Technica ATH-M50x
Designed for the rise-and-grind audio engineer who always has their head in the game, the Audio Technica ATH-M50x Professional Monitor Headphones boast exceptional clarity and extended frequency range to tackle any and all audio-based projects. Detachable cables give users added flexibility to work with a layer of convenience, and a collapsible design saves space on your work-desk or in a backpack if your talents take you on the road. Check out this pair if you’re no stranger to the headphone game.
Shure SRH 940s
Another familiar brand for our discussion, the Shure SRH940 Professional Reference Headphones pride themselves on long-lasting durability to get you through those intense mixing sessions and late-night creative bursts. Advanced audio technology grants this pair superior transient response and tight bass that won’t distort or cloud your mix. Oh, and for what it’s worth, they just look so darn appealing.
AKG K712 Pro
The moment you’ve all been waiting for. The AKG K712 PRO Reference Studio Headphones round out your selections like the big headliner at an outdoor music festival. This pair is your go-to if critical listening and objective mixing are at the top of your engineer to-do list. Precise attention to sonic detail and Varimotion XXL drivers allow this juggernaut of a pair to engulf you in the perfect headspace to crank out audiobooks, radio-anthems, film scores and any other project that has come across your desk. Or, mixing board, in your case…
For more information about closed versus open-back headphones, don’t hesitate to click on this link, courtesy of the audio nerds down here at Sam Ash.
Behind every great mix is a great engineer, with the right gear to tackle the job. Looking to make a splash with proper studio headphones? The team at SamAsh.com is ready to roll with you.