Headphones and Mixing
By Mike Senior
Since the Sony Walkman first arrived on the scene back in 1979, headphone listening has become so widespread that you’d have to be pretty cavalier to sign off a mix without checking how it translates for such an enormous group of consumers. Therefore, the second important supplementary monitoring system (after a small, unported, single-driver speaker working in mono such as the classic Auratone 5C Super Sound Cube) I’d suggest using as a matter of course is headphones. Clearly there are limits to how much low-frequency output headphones can deliver, but your Auratone should already have alerted you to any problems that might arise from basslight playback, so that shouldn’t be news to you. What’s more important about headphones is that almost all of them transmit each side of your mix exclusively to one ear, whereas with speakers the two stereo channels are always heard to some extent by both ears. For this reason the stereo image is much wider on headphones (the image encompassing an angle of 180 degrees, where speakers only cover around 60 degrees), and any sound at the stereo extremes feels disconnected from the rest of the mix as a result. Whether the image stretching that headphone listeners experience helps or hinders your particular mix will depend on your own preferences and the expectations of the musical genre you’re working in, but if you don’t check your mix on headphones, then none of your decisions will be properly informed.
But the usefulness of headphones for monitoring in the small studio isn’t limited to telling you how a sizeable chunk of the public will perceive your mix. Headphones also serve an additional practical purpose, because their sound isn’t affected nearly as much by your monitoring environment. In the first instance, background noise from computer fans, nearby traffic, or next door’s line-dancing class are reduced in level relative to the mix signal when using headphones, which means that fewer subtle technical problems will slip through the net. Things like brief audio dropouts, bad edits, and momentary fader-automation slipups stand out much more clearly on headphones, and it’s also easier to detect the onset of digital clipping on stereo files—the left and right channels will usually clip at different times, so the sprinkles of digital distortion appear characteristically right at the edges of the 180-degree stereo field. The lack of room reflections when monitoring on headphones is another advantage, because it serves as something of a safety net in the event that comb filtering or room-resonance problems are seriously jeopardizing your balance judgments. If you’re working on an unfamiliar system or have only limited control over your own monitoring environment, then a pair of familiar-sounding headphones can be a godsend.
If your budget’s tight, then you’ll be pleased to know that the audio quality required of a set of headphones in this context isn’t tremendous, and £50 ($75) should give you all the fidelity you need, but do still try to get studio (rather than hi-fi) models if you can. In fact, the kinds of headphones that most recording musicians use while overdubbing are usually more than up to the mark. That said, there are actually strong reasons why most small-studio owners may find it worthwhile to spend more money here if they can. The first is that topof-the-range studio monitoring headphones are capable of doing many of the jobs you’d expect of speakers, which is great for situations where you only have limited access to decent nearfields. You might be one of 20 students jostling for time in your college’s single studio; perhaps you can’t afford to set up your own decent nearfield system yet and can only check things periodically on a mate’s rig; maybe you’ve been threatened with slow lingering death if you wake that baby one more time. Regardless of the reasons, the ability to get a measure of real mixing done on headphones can dramatically increase the amount of time you have available for improving your production’s sonics.
Clearly, the peculiarities of the stereo picture will present some additional panning and balance difficulties whenever you work primarily on headphones, plus even the best headphones won’t give you a proper impression of your low end.
On the flipside, though, the absence of room acoustics problems means that you may find that audio-quality and tone decisions across the rest of the spectrum actually turn out to be more dependable. In my experience, the problems when working with excellent headphones are by no means insurmountable as long as you still have at least some access to an Auratone and a pair full-range nearfields—whoever’s they happen to be. As a matter of fact, given that my personal favorite top-end headphones (Beyerdynamic’s DT880 Pro, Sennheiser’s HD650, and Sony’s MDR7509 HD) all retail for under £350 ($500) I almost always recommend one of those sets as a first monitoring system for those starting out. My honest opinion is that unless you’ve set aside at least £1500 ($2000) for nearfield speakers and acoustic treatment, then you’ll get more reliable mixes from a pair of top-drawer headphones—particularly if you’re able to hijack someone else’s nearfield system briefly from time to time to check the low end and stereo image.
So why bother with nearfields at all if headphones can provide much of the same information? As in a lot of studio situations, a big reason for the outlay is speed. It’s quicker to do the bulk of your mixing work on a listening system that gives you the whole frequency response in one shot. Although it’s perfectly feasible to produce commercial-quality mixes without nearfields of your own, it involves a good deal of extra legwork to sort out the bass end in particular when headphones are the main workhorse. General mix balancing on headphones also typically takes more time, because the wide stereo image and overexposed mix details can be misleading—common pitfalls are balancing both lead parts and delay/reverb effects too low. To keep yourself on the straight and narrow you’ll have to rely more heavily on an Auratone substitute while processing your tracks, and you’ll also need to compare your work much more frequently with competing commercial productions. All of this only really makes sense in the long term if you’ve got a whole lot more time than money. Or to put it another way, a cheap razor blade will cut a blade of grass beautifully, but I still don’t begrudge the extra expense of a lawnmower.
The above is an excerpt from Mixing Secrets for the Small Studio by Mike Senior
Mike Senior developed an interest in recording while studying for a Music Degree at Cambridge University, and worked as an assistant engineer at a number of London studios including RG Jones, West Side, Angell Sound, and Music By Design. Following an MSc in Music IT at City University, he landed a full-time job as in-house engineer at Great Linford Manor Studios, working with artists such as The Charlatans, Reef, Therapy, Nigel Kennedy, and Wet Wet Wet. In October 1999, he moved back to Cambridge and joined the editorial department of Sound On Sound magazine full-time, where he was Reviews Editor for six years and presided over the launch of the popular ‘Studio SOS’ and ‘Mix Rescue’ columns. He now devotes his time to freelance engineering and writing for Sound On Sound, as well as training and consultancy for a number of educational institutions. His best-selling book Mixing Secrets For The Small Studio provides a complete mixing guide based around the techniques of more than 100 of the world’s most famous producers.
Check out Mike’s extensive collection of free online resources page which provide hundreds of in-depth audio demonstration files, the huge ‘Mixing Secrets’ Free Multitrack Download Library for students/teachers, detailed budget-friendly hardware/software recommendations (including Mike’s Freeware Top Ten), dozens of mix critiques (with audio files) for ear-training in The Great ‘Blood To Bone’ Mixoff, and lots of links to further reading.