Tips for Mixing and Mastering With Headphones
Can you mix on headphones? Every engineer seems to have a strong opinion about the subject, but the truth is, you can mix on just about any system with enough practice. Mixing on headphones offers a lot of benefits—they're affordable, portable and make it easy to work without bothering others. But there are downsides to mixing with headphones, too.
In this blog, you'll learn how mixing and mastering using headphones can actually improve the sound of your tracks, as well as a few tips to help make sure your next session turns out great.
Benefits of Mixing and Mastering with Headphones
The first thing that draws most people to headphones over studio monitors is the price. Spend a few minutes scrolling through the studio monitors on your favorite gear site and you'll quickly discover that quality speakers are expensive. Comparatively, you can pick up a quality pair of headphones for a fraction of the price.
Plus, you'll always need a good pair of headphones. Most engineers quickly outgrow entry-level monitors and replace them with mid-tier monitors, but if you buy a nice pair of headphones early on, you could use them throughout your whole career.
Additionally, when mixing on studio monitors, it's important to make sure that your room is properly treated. Even the most accurate monitors in the world will sound imbalanced and uneven in a room with no acoustic treatment.
As the sound from the speakers bounces around the room, different frequencies become amplified and attenuated, causing dips and peaks throughout the frequency spectrum. Thankfully, when mixing or mastering with headphones, you don't have to worry about how your room will affect the sound.
Because the drivers are so close to your ears, you're able to hear exactly what's coming out of your DAW without it being affected by the sound of your room.
In addition to being more affordable and accurate than studio monitors (in an untreated room), headphones make it easier to hear the details of your mix. Before uploading your track to a streaming service, it's important to make sure there are no technical issues. Headphones make it easy to hear small issues like clicks, pops and peaks that are otherwise inaudible on studio monitors.
Finally, headphones are compact and portable, making it easy to mix from anywhere in the world. Whether you're bouncing between studios, mixing in a new setting, or even working on the go, headphones provide consistent, reliable sound wherever you go so you don't have to worry about how your mix will sound while working in a new environment.
Now that you know the benefits of mixing and mastering on headphones, let's take a look at some specific tips to help you get the most out of your next session.
Use Open-Back Headphones
Much like studio monitors, some headphones are better for mixing than others. Some headphones, like Beats and Skullcandys, are designed for listening. Others are designed for mixing.
You probably wouldn't mix a record through your laptop speakers, right? Similarly, earbuds or cheap headphones are not going to provide the detail or clarity you need to make informed mix decisions.
Instead, you should invest in a nice pair of open-back headphones. Unlike closed-back headphones, which are typically used while tracking due to their impressive isolation, open-back headphones are designed for mixing and mastering.
In order to produce sound more accurately, open-back headphones allow air to pass through the ear cups, which prevents pressure and unwanted echoes within the headphones themselves, resulting in a more balanced frequency response.
Because of this, open-back headphones provide no isolation. You can hear everything going on around you and anyone nearby can hear what you're listening to. While open-back headphones aren't great for mixing on an airplane or after hours in your apartment, they do provide more accurate sound than closed-back headphones.
Use A High-Quality Headphone Amp
Plugging a $30,000 vintage tube mic into a cheap preamp can ruin the sound. Similarly, plugging your headphones directly into your computer or laptop can really limit their sound quality.
Instead, it's best to invest in a quality headphone preamp. Headphone amps are designed to enhance the sound quality of your headphones by providing clean, consistent power.
Don't worry—you don't need to go down the hi-fi rabbit hole and blow a bunch of money on some custom box that basically controls your headphone level. You can pick up some high-quality headphone preamps at most music stores for around $50—most of which include multiple headphone outputs for live tracking as well.
Some of the more expensive models, like the Rupert Neve Designs RNHP and the Little Labs Monotor utilize high-quality components for studio-grade sound. And if you're really serious about mixing on headphones, check out the SPL Phonitor 2, which features built-in controls for laterality and crossfeed (more on that later).
Be Mindful of Panning
Mixing and mastering with headphones feels a little different than using studio monitors. When mixing on traditional studio monitors, the speakers are placed in front of you, with one speaker slightly to the left and the other on the right. When placed properly, the speakers will create a "phantom center" that makes it sound like the sound is coming from an imaginary speaker in between the two.
However, when mixing on headphones, one speaker is placed over each ear, which completely eliminates the phantom center. It no longer sounds like the music is coming from in front of you (because it's not). It sounds like everything is panned to the left and right with nothing in the center.
Because of this, it can be rather tricky trying to place instruments in the stereo spectrum while mixing on headphones. It's probably not the best time to start experimenting with pan positioning, unless you plan to check your mix on multiple systems later (which you should).
It's typically best to leave lead channels like vocals and solos in the center, along with low-frequency instruments like kick and bass. Some tracks, like rhythm guitars and keyboards can be panned hard left and right, but generally speaking it's best to avoid hard panning.
Optimize Your Headphones with Software
One of the biggest issues when mixing on headphones is the isolation. It can be great for preventing noise bleed while tracking, but when mixing, isolation can cause the stereo spectrum to sound unnatural.
When mixing on studio monitors, the direct sound coming from the speakers bounces around the room a bit, blending the signals from both speakers together before reaching your ears. When the signals from the left and right speakers combine, it causes the stereo image to sound more narrow. This phenomenon is called crossfeed.
When mixing on headphones, there is no crossfeed, which can cause your tracks to sound and feel unrealistic. Additionally, you have no idea how your mix will sound as the signals combine when played back on studio monitors.
Thankfully, there's a solution. Crossfeed plug-ins such as Goodhertz CanOpener, Waves Nx Virtual Mix and Slate VSX (as well as hardware units like those listed above) enable you to control the amount of crossfeed in your headphones and even emulate the experience of mixing in a professionally treated control room.
Additionally, you can enhance the sound of your headphones even further with frequency response correction software like Sonarworks Reference 4. With presets for dozens of the most popular mixing headphones, Reference makes it easy to quickly upgrade your headphones with studio-quality sound.
Use Reference Mixes to Guide You
Another great way to make sure your tracks sound natural while mixing and mastering on headphones is to use reference mixes. It's a lot easier to get your tracks sounding right when you have something to compare them to—especially when mixing on a new system.
REFERENCE makes it easy to quickly compare your tracks with your favorite mixes to make sure you're in the right ballpark. Just insert REFERENCE on your mix bus, drag and drop your references into the main window and engage the Level Match feature to make sure you're getting a fair comparison.
Toggle back and forth between your mix and your references. REFERENCE even gives you detailed instructions on how to improve your mix, including EQ balance, compression and stereo width.
Check Your Mixes on Multiple Systems
Whether you're mixing on a cheap pair of headphones or a multi-million dollar system in a professionally tuned room, it's best to check your mix on a few different systems before sending it off for distribution. People are going to listen to your music using a lot of different devices so it's important to make sure that your track sounds great on any system.
It's especially important to check your mix on multiple systems when mixing with headphones to ensure that the stereo spectrum sounds natural and not overhyped. In addition to listening on your headphones and studio monitors, it's also a good idea to listen using small speakers like your cell phone or laptop, full-range speakers like a hi-fi system, and your car stereo to make sure your mix is translating properly.
Bring a pen and paper to take notes while listening. Every time you hear something that you'd like to change, write it down. Do the same while listening on each new system and when you're finished.
Sometimes, it can be tricky to tell if the problem is caused by your mix, the playback system, or your listening environment. That's why it's important to compare notes from each listen.
If you took the same note in more than one location, it's safe to assume that the problem is with your mix. Head back to the studio, make any necessary adjustments, and check your mixes using the same systems again until you're happy with the final sound.
Use these tips the next time you're mixing on headphones to help you dial in a polished, professional sound!