We all know how important a good monitoring environment is for achieving great sounding mixes and masters. We also know how expensive setting it up can be.
The list for setting up a good monitoring situation can be daunting to say the least.
- A non-square shaped room
- Finding and spreading out “nodes” in your room
- Acoustic treatment
- Choosing the right speakers.
- Ideal speaker placement
- Ideal listening position
- Special and expensive wall and floor materials
…and the list goes on.
But what if there was another solution to your monitoring setup, one with much less hassle? What if you could get great sounding mixes and masters without the need for expensive materials, special rooms or even expensive speakers?
Wouldn’t that be awesome?
Well you actually can, and all you need are two things:
- Good, open-back headphones.
- Headphone amplification.
Some will say it’s impossible to mix and master on headphones, but that hasn’t stopped many professional producers, musicians and audio engineers from doing just that. Sometimes you don’t have a choice, and sometimes using headphones is actually the better option.
Advantages of Mixing and Mastering On Headphones
Considering the many factors involved in setting up an effective monitoring environment, using headphones for mixing and mastering has a number of advantages. In fact, if your monitoring situation is less than ideal then using headphones can actually help you overcome your monitoring problems.
Here are some of the advantages of mixing on headphones.
- Eliminate the need for expensive acoustic treatment
- Soundproofing is no longer an issue
- Room size and shape are no longer factors
- No need to worry about speaker placement and listening position
- No frequency buildup (low or high frequencies) to worry about
- Headphones are portable and can be used to get work done practically anywhere
- Uncover nuances and details in music that you might not pick up through speakers
- Very low frequencies are easier to hear on headphones
I can think of many more advantages to using headphones as opposed to studio monitors, including not getting complaints from your neighbors. Of course, if you have the budget and resources to setup a perfectly treated room then by all means go right ahead. But if you don’t, then forget all the talk about not being able to mix and master on headphones.
How to Choose the Right Headphones
So far we’ve been talking about the many advantages of using headphones to mix and master. But how do you choose the right headphones?
Just like with studio monitors, different headphones have different sound characteristics. In general, you get what you pay for with headphones so don’t skimp unless you’re really tight on cash.
For mixing and mastering purposes, the general consensus is that open-back, circumaural (cover the outer ear) designs work best because of their exposed drivers.
Open-back designs provide a more natural and open sound and simulate some of the cross-feed between the ears that happens when listening on speakers. They’re also more suitable for long mixing sessions and help reduce ear fatigue.
My personal recommendation and that of many well respected producers and audio engineers around the world would be Sennheiser’s HD650s.
There are many options to choose from at different price points but the HD650s strike a great balance between price and outstanding quality.
Other great options include:
- Beyerdynamic DT 990.
- Audio-Technica ATH-R70x.
Regardless which headphones you decide to go with, make sure they’re comfortable to use and suit your needs and budget.
To get the best sound quality from your headphones you should definitely consider investing in a high quality headphone amplifier (DAC). Due to the impedance of these headphones they would benefit greatly from a dedicated power source that will allow you to boost their levels and significantly improve sound quality.
You’ll find if you try to connect these headphones directly to your computer’s headphone jack that you will not get the levels, clarity and sound quality you’re looking for. Connecting them through a headphone amplifier provides higher output levels, tighter bass response, smoother mids and improved stereo imaging.
The make and model of headphone amplifier will depend on your budget and impedance of your headphones. In general, the higher the impedance of your headphones, the stronger an amp you’ll need.
A little bit of research into the subject will go a long way in choosing a headphone amplifier that will suit your needs and help you get the most of your headphones.
My suggestion is to invest in a good audio interface that provides the needed headphone amplification. I’ve tried many audio interfaces and found that anything from Audient blows the competition out of the water in the same price range.
Of course, again your budget will determine what your final decision will be so put in the research time.
Get to know Your Headphones
As with any other piece of audio equipment, you need to calibrate your ears and get them acquainted with your headphones. Get to know your headphones inside out and how things when listening on them.
A great way to do this is to listen to commercial music through your headphones and get to know how the different frequency ranges sound.
You can even go a step further and import commercial tracks into your DAW and listen to them through your headphones while watching a spectrum analyzer (Voxengo SPAN).
Check out the Mixing & Mastering With Reference Track Course. it will teach you everything you need to know about using headphones and reference tracks to get your own tracks to sound amazing.
You can also use an EQ or multiband compression plugin to boost or solo different frequency ranges.
Doing this will help you understand how different frequencies translate on your headphones and guide you in your mixing and mastering process. It’s all about training your ears and getting to know your equipment.
Once you get to know your headphones and really understand their frequency response you will realize the real power of using them when you produce, mix and master. Just remember to frequently revisit reference tracks for proper comparison.
With headphones you can immerse yourself in the details and subtleties of music. You’ll notice you can hear details you otherwise would not notice if you were listening on speakers. You’ll find that you can dive deeper into the sound and uncover and add nuances that will add another dimension to your music.
You’ll also be able to hear in more detail the effects of compression, distortion, pumping and transient shaping that you might not notice when listening on speakers.
This has obvious advantages when it comes to mastering where attention to detail is vital to improving a mix and fixing issues.
Use Those Headphones!
Remember that many of your fans and listeners will be experiencing your music through headphones. This makes using headphones all the more important to perfecting your sound.
Even if you don’t intend to use them exclusively to mix and master your tracks, which you certainly can do, you should at least use headphones to check how things are sounding.
With all the advantages of mixing on headphones, keep in mind that it is also important to check your mixes on speakers to make sure they’re translating the way you want them to.
You can also use speakers to find out more about how your headphones sound out in the real world. Using both headphones and speakers, even cheap ones, can give you the best of both worlds so it’s in your benefit to do so.
Go ahead and use those headphones and don’t be discouraged by a less than perfect listening environment. If you found this article useful or know someone who might enjoy it please share it!