Headphones are the ideal mixing tool. Any noisy neighbours are silenced, the acoustics of your studio space no longer matter, and you can hear all those little hidden details of the audio. So, if headphones are so great, why do professional studios still use monitor speakers? Is there something wrong with mixing using headphones? In this blog, we explain it all!

Should You Mix with Headphones?

Don’t Headphones and Speakers Sound the Same?

Headphones give a completely different audio experience to speakers. This difference is almost always due to the fact that, with a set of headphones, the speakers are sitting directly ‘on’ your ears, while with monitors, there’s always going to be some distance between the speaker and your ears. With headphones, the right and left channels are entirely separated and fed to your left and right ears, while with speakers, both your right and left ear can hear both channels at once. This ‘crossfeed’ gives you a more three-dimensional audio image. Also, since it’s hard to discern any depth when listening through headphones, it’s just as hard to create depth. You’re also more likely to be a little timid when using reverb or delay when wearing headphones because it can quickly feel like too much. And, while everything sounds more defined with headphones, it’s that definition that will stop you from trimming the frequency spectrum and giving the instruments their own space in the mix.

Should You Mix with Headphones?

Ok, So Should I Just Set Fire to My Headphones?

No. For a start, that would be bad for the environment, and headphones do have a role to play in the mixing process since there is no speaker system able to give you the same level of detail as a good pair of headphones. If you can’t hear where you’ve been busy cutting, copying and pasting via your headphones, then you can be pretty certain that the rest of the world won’t hear your ‘edits’ either. Also, when tweaking release times or reverb tails, the detail afforded by headphones is always more than welcome. Even in a serious home-studio, the lower frequencies can drive you nuts when mixing through a set of speakers, since smaller spaces can often lead to a ‘boomy’ bottom-end. After a quick check with your trusty headphones, you can figure out if that boomy resonance is actually present in the recordings so you can do something about it, and if it’s caused by the room, then you can just ignore it.

When Speakers Aren’t an Option

What if mixing with the help of a good set of studio monitors is simply not possible? If you’re already aware of the pitfalls, then we’ve come a long way. A typical ‘headphone-mix’ usually sounds too small, dry, and undefined, and features like the vocals or snare can be too loud. This said, by regularly listening to your latest favourite albums and tracks with your headphones in your spare time, you can develop a better sense of where the balance lies and start to notice that you can actually go a little too far when it comes to panning and effects. There are also a number of things that you can add to your workflow to make sure that your mixes will translate well to speakers. A great habit to develop is to regularly compare your mix to the professional mixes of tracks from the same genre – otherwise known as a ‘reference track’. But when you do this, don’t forget to avoid trying to reach the same volume level as your reference track. It can also be worth investing in a plugin that mimics the ‘crossfeed’ effect and the acoustic character of a good monitor room.

So, how do you mix? Headphones or speakers? Does it work for you, or are you coming up against any issues that you’ve found some good solutions for? Let us know in the comments!

See Also…

» Headphones & Hearing Damage: The Facts
» Headphone Impedance Explained
» Headphone Buyer’s Guide
» The Finer Points of Studio Monitor Placement
» Studio Monitor Buyer’s Guide

» Studio Headphones
» All Headphones & Accessories
» Studio Monitor Speakers
» All Studio & Recording Gear

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