Is it possible to mix with headphones? Everywhere you see this question pop-up, you see a lot of Yes and No responses with good reasons. Basically, this means it’s possible to do audio mixing with headphones but it will depend on your experience, tools, knowledge and a whole lot of other factors.
Some musicians don’t have the luxury to build a professional studio where they live because they might not have enough space. Sometimes they have the equipment but can’t play it loud because there’s kids sleeping.
No matter the reason but some people don’t have any other choice except to rely on headphones for both production and audio engineering. So on this tutorial I’ll share with you some tips that will help you get great mixes using headphones.
Get Good Quality Headphones
It goes without saying that the headphones you’ll be using to mix doesn’t have to be any average headphones. And, don’t use Beats by Dr. Dre. Those headphones sound good for listening purposes, they were not designed for audio engineering.
Beats by Dr. Dre have an exaggerated boost around 100Hz which can easily fool you to thinking they sound good. Instead you need headphones with a flat frequency response like the Audio Technica ATH-M50. These are designed for mixing music, the Audio Technica ATH-M50 are Pro Studio Monitor Headphones.
Other companies that make good headphones for audio engineers are Sennheiser, AKG, Shure, Sony and Yamaha. But the ATH-M50 always comes up on top. So get yourself a good pair of studio monitor headphones that are designed for the purpose of mixing music.
Protect Your Ears
Mixing can be a time consuming process so it’s a good thing to take regular breaks to avoid ear fatigue or hearing damage. Keep the overall volume of the mix at soft levels. That will not only help you get a punchy sound but you’ll be able to protect your ears and mix for longer periods.
Ears are always fresh in the morning and that’s a good time to do your mixing. Don’t take 5 minutes breaks when mixing, that will not be enough time to refresh your ears.
Take a long walk or drive without listening to loud music, that will help. Just take good care of your ears and they’ll take care of you.
Those who use headphones for production, engineering, listening to favorite songs and watch movies have a better chance of making a good mix. Simply because they know what a good quality song should sound like on their headphones.
Spend a lot of time with your pair of headphones, it is crucial for you to know your headphones in-and-out.
Getting The Right Balance
Getting all sounds well balanced in a mix using headphones can be a challenge. If you can get the correct balance from the source then that will make your mixing job a lot easier.
Another thing that makes the whole balancing a problem is that there is not much low-end information on headphones, it becomes guesswork. But if you’re used to listening to other people’s music with those headphones then it won’t be a big deal to get the mix well balanced.
… and this leads to our next tip.
Use Reference Tracks
If you’re using headphones then you’re going to need some material to use as reference. More especially for the low and low-mid frequency range.
Use reference tracks to make sure nothing is exaggerated or too quiet in the mix and you have everything well balanced. Get as many references as you can and make sure they have similar instrumentation even if it’s not the same genre.
Avoiding Stereo Image Problems
One thing I’ve realized is that if I pan sounds right and left when mixing on headphones, when I test the mix on speakers most of the sounds that were panned disappear. This makes the entire mix sound unbalanced, and that’s when reference tracks come in handy.
Headphones can make sounds seem loud so be careful. Another thing to avoid is to use stereo image plugins drastic, keep every processing as subtle as possible. This can make your music lose punch and definition.
Subtle Amount of Processing
When you’re using headphones make sure that whatever processing you add is subtle. Delay and Reverb if added too much will make your mix muddy and sounds will lack clarity. So avoid drastic effects processing to keep the sounds punchy.
Too much EQ will change the tone or timbre of a sound. If you add a lot of compression, your mix will have an undesirable pumping effect, ruin the transients, lack dynamics and kill the life out of your mix.
Just make sure you add a subtle amount of processing and keep things dry (not 100% dry though) because the ear cups are too close to your ears which can mislead you to add more processing. But remember that if the processing is too subtle then some sounds wont sit well in the mix and they will lack width and depth, so get a good balance.
Ask yourself why do some people don’t use headphones at all, not even ear-buds. There are people who never listen to music with any earpiece. The music can be good for a short time then start to sound weird or cause them a headache.
This is caused by the shadowing effect. When music is playing on speakers, the sounds that come out of the left speaker will be received on the left ear then go to the right ear as well. The same with the sounds coming out of the right speaker will also be received by the left ear.
But both ears don’t receive sounds from one speaker at the same time, on the other ear it will arrive a bit later and at a slightly reduced level. With headphones, your left ear only receives sounds that are on the left channel which is unnatural. That is the shadowing effect.
There are some tools you can use to fix this problem, by using an acoustic simulation plugin. Which feeds a bit of the left channel to the right channel to mimic the natural feel. These might help, but at the end of the day they’re just tools and never accurate.
Headphone Mix Translation
This is the final and most crucial part of mixing music, getting your song to translate well in most sound devices. Once you’re happy with your mix then burn it on a CD and listen to it on different sound systems.
To get a good hearing then do some DIY mastering on your final mix then test it alongside your reference tracks on different sound systems, both indoors and outdoors sound devices.
In most cases, you’ll find that you need to do some more adjustments. That is why I wouldn’t advise you to do a final mix on headphones, take it to the studio and do the final touches using speakers.
Headphones are good for exposing things such as pops, clicks, distortion or over-processing in a mix. So use them as a reference monitoring sound device but not as your main audio mixing output device. Mix with speakers 1st and test with headphones, not the other way around.
But as you know, there’s no right or wrong way when it comes to mixing and creativity as a whole, these are only guidelines. Just make sure what you do matches industry standards.
Hope you found this tutorial useful. Share this blog post on your social networks, I made it a lot easier by adding sharing buttons right below so use them 🙂