A good set of headphones is undoubtedly an essential bit of kit for any serious music maker. An invaluable tool during recording they can also prove useful in post-production, revealing bad edits and problems in the stereo image that might slip through unheard on speakers. In many ways, for the producer on a budget, headphones seem like the ideal monitoring solution: a good pair of headphones costs considerably less than a comparable set of speakers and you don’t have to worry about the acoustics of the room or sound leaking in or out. But before you run off and stick your studio speakers in the local classifieds it’s worth being aware of some of the issues surrounding headphone monitoring.

To demonstrate the essence of the problem why not try this simple exercise for yourself: next time you’re part way through working on a track, switch from listening through speakers to headphones. What you’ll probably find is that the effect is quite disorientating and that you’ll immediately question some of your mix settings.

The fact is that the two provide a very different listening experience. When listening through speakers sound from an individual speaker will reach both ears, bouncing off walls or other surfaces within the room, so you end up hearing a bit of the left channel in your right ear and visa-versa. But when listening on headphones none of this cross-talk between left and right channels can occur as the sound is piped directly into each ear.

This has implications for the stereo image and you’ll probably find that the spread of your mix doesn’t quite match up between the two. There isn’t really a work-around to ensure that a headphone mix sounds right on speakers, except to pan by eye rather than by ear and get used to where to place stuff to get the right results. Working the other way, a common recommendation to help ensure that a mix translates better to headphones is to to avoid panning elements to the extreme left or right, as these can end up sounding ‘stuck’ in one headphone.

But the differences go beyond stereo image. When listening on speakers the result of hearing both direct and a delayed (cross-talk) versions of the sound is that a degree of phase cancellation and masking can occur as the two mix, changing the original sound. However, when listening with headphones because we receive only the direct sound in each ear the same masking effects won’t be present and this can lead to very different decisions about EQ and even the level of elements within a mix. Again the solution is more a case of trial and error than any particular rules you can follow.
Low frequencies seem to cause the most trouble when it comes to mixing. Part of the problem is that headphones don’t allow us to physically feel the bass as we do with speakers, and this and can lead to over hype it. The other part is that a lot of headphones (even some quite expensive models) don’t have a very accurate bass end either peaking around certain frequencies or being overall lacking. In general open back models will offer a flatter frequency response, but at the cost of sound isolation.

A benefit of the plugged directly into your ear approach is that headphones can be capable of revealing details in a mix such as bad edits and other noises that might otherwise be missed. Engineers often talk of headphones allowing them to ‘see through’ a mix. But this clarity can have a down-side when it comes to judging the level of reverb that’s appropriate. Reverb will tend to be more apparent and this can lead us to create mix that sound quite dry on speakers.

Having said that headphones present a very different listening experience, much of the general guidance for monitoring on speakers still applies, such as listening at a safe and consistent volume level. Resisting the temptation to gradually increase the volume over the course of a mixing session is important not just to protect your ears but also to maintain a realistic impression of your mix. Because of the way the human ear works, variations in volume affect the apparent tonal balance of what we hear. Monitor too low and your mix will appear lacking in top and bottom end, listen too loud and it’ll seem like there’s extra bass and treble energy – either of which will affect your decisions about balance and EQ. 85dB spl has become the de-facto standard in studios as the most appropriate listening level, as it is where our hearing exhibits the fattest frequency response. If you have a SPL meter then calibrating your monitors is relatively straight forward, but headphones aren’t as easy. Our advice is to work at a normal listening level and if in doubt err on the side of caution. And just as the position of speakers in a room is important so is the position of headphones on your head. By even slightly changing the position of headphones on your head you can radically alter the tonal balance. Find a position that comfortable with the headphones centred on you ears and stick to it.

The accepted norm amongst engineers has always been that you mix for speakers and fix (if checking at all) for headphones, because the former is how most people listen to music. But with the iPod generation increasingly plugged into their white earbuds it is arguably increasingly important to consider how a mix will transfer from speaker to headphone. And as with almost everything in music production, no single piece of kit provides the whole solution. Just as we don’t entrust all our recording to one microphone, or all our eq’ing to one plug-in or hardware unit, so we don’t want to put all our eggs in one basket when it comes to monitoring. Whichever listening gear works best for you, it’s a good idea to take the time check your mixes on the other, the result will be better mixes and happier listeners. GBP 200 which will buy you a reasonable pair of studio monitors will certainly get you a very professional set of headphones, and if you’re a bedroom or mobile musician then that could be the better investment. The most important thing is to get to really know your headphones.

Quality Music radio: DATABLENDER FM

4410
Tv

PressPausePlay

5229
Tv

How to create wide open mixes

6853
Production

Seven ways to reduce noise

8714
Production

Mixing - the 12 step program

8111
Production

Arrangement 101

5643
Production

Tips for mixing the low end

5894
Production

The audible frequency range

6320
Production

Mastering basics for musicians

7472
Mastering

10 questions about mastering your recordings

5874
Mastering

Preparing your mixdown for mastering

5688
Production

Tips for mixing for vinyl

9922
Production

Gez Varley

7037
Interview, synthience

Viktoria Rebeka

5402
Interview, synthience

Andy Wonderland

4898
Interview, synthience

Andrea Suglia

5372
Interview, synthience

Mikrokristal

6317
Interview, synthience

Luke Hess

5721
Interview, synthience

Stereo editing and mastering

5904
Mastering

Preparing music for mastering

5885
Mastering

How the professionals do it

5539
Mastering

Audio mastering in your computer

6074
Mastering

T-Racks mastering audio techniques

10811
Mastering

Digital audio editing

5944
Production

6 mono to stereo methods

5548
Production

Outboard processing

5445
Production

Mixing on headphones

5898
Production

Using the side-chain

4986
Production

Watch your levels

5175
Production

Parallel compression

5720
Production

The sub-kick trick

6536
Production

5 perspective tips

5292
Production

Vocals in the Mix

5365
Production

Panning Tips

5961
Production

Using Compression

5349
Production

Tech Talk - Sherman Filterbank

7620
Tv

Tech Talk - Funktion One

6735
Tv

The Creation of Techno Music

5984
Tv

Mixing for vinyl record

6025
Production

20 tips on home mastering

6947
Mastering

18 ways to give your music groove

8479
Production

23 tips for better home recordings

7769
Production

48 ambient production tips

14289
Production

30 EQ techiques

9301
Production

35 music production pro tips

9565
Production

Pre master levels

11229
Mastering

9 mastering tips for beginners

9790
Mastering

20 tips on music mixing

8382
Production

8 synthesis tips for beginners

7674
Production

Your guide to frequency

16271
Production