Putting it All Together – The Monitor/Headphone Mix
With most hardware and software recording systems, the easiest mix to send to the performer’s headphones is the one that is being heard in the control room. But this is rarely the best plan:
• If you compromise the “on the fly” pre-mix in the control room, you may not hear technical or musical problems that need correcting while recording.
• Each performer will also probably want specific things in their personal mix, so a “one mix fits all” approach won’t keep everybody happy.
A better approach is to create a separate mix for the performer, or separate mixes for each performer, and dial in only things they need to hear. This can be done by using aux sends on a hardware console (Aux 1 is left, Aux 2 is right), or a stereo bus routed to a dedicated pair of interface outputs connected to the headphone system when using a DAW.
Personal headphone monitor systems allow each musician to dial in their own mix on a control box they are given. Groups of sounds are sent to the system controller via auxiliaries, busses, or other assignable outputs on the mixing console or DAW audio interface. These are then transmitted to each performer’s personal mixer. These systems mean that you don’t have to get everybody’s mix right, or create a single “one mix fits all,” and each performer is responsible for their own mix. But they can take longer to set up and might sometimes give inexperienced musicians too many choices, resulting in endless tweaking and little satisfaction! A good premix and setting each level control on the monitor mixers to a generic mid position will give the musicians a good starting mix they can tweak to their satisfaction.
Too much going on in a busy mix can be distracting to performers, so it’s a good idea to strip down a thick mix to the essential elements needed to promote a great performance. For example, sixteen auxiliary percussion parts and six keyboard pads probably don’t add any significant rhythmic or harmonic information that isn’t provided by the drum set, rhythm guitars, and main keyboard part. Those extra layers may add textural interest to the final mix, but they will probably not benefit a headphone monitor mix.
To perform well, performers need to hear rhythm, pitch, and form:
• Rhythm is provided by the drums. In rock and pop styles, the kick and snare are fundamentally important, followed by the micro-level groove information supplied by the hi-hat and cymbals. If the hi-hat and cymbals are too loud they become overpowering and kill natural groove because the performers don’t relax with them, but instead try too hard to be on top of them. The opposite is true for jazz, where the hi-hat and ride cymbal are most important, and take the place of the kick and snare in rock music.
• Pitch information is provided by a combination of the bass and harmonic instruments (guitars and keyboards). The bass provides the musical fundamental of the chord – the note from which the singer calculates the melody’s pitch. The harmonic instruments provide chord type and closer pitch-matching information.
• The form of the song should be obvious if the performers can hear the instruments providing rhythm and pitch, and the arrangement of the song is good!
Most importantly, the performers need to hear themselves! Some performers like lots of themselves in the headphone mix, while others will remove or partially remove a headphone muff so they hear lots of their natural sound in the room. For some, too much of themselves in the headphone mix is unfamiliar and will prevent them from giving their best performance.
The addition of some natural sounding reverb may mean that less of the performer is necessary in the headphone mix – the reverb tail provides an extra layer of acoustical feedback. This is the same effect reverb tails have in real rooms, and the reason people like singing in reflective bathrooms and lively halls.
Gently compress singers, wind, brass, and orchestral string soloists in the headphone mix, as you are doing the pre-mix – but do not record the compression. This allows the performers to “go for it” without suddenly hearing too much of themselves in the headphones.
Ultimately, the better the headphone mix is, the better the performance will be. A good headphone mix is especially critical for overdubs – final vocals, horn solos, string parts, etc. When the performer is drawn in by what they are hearing, their performance is always better.
Single muff or double muff headphones? Many performers like to remove one muff from their ear so they can hear some of their natural sound in the room. Whatever they need to do to get a great performance is okay – with a few words of caution:
• An unsealed ear muff leaks sound which the microphone can pick up – so listen carefully for tinny headphone spill (and even feedback if the mic is cranked up in the headphone mix). Using single muff headphones will reduce this problem, and they are more comfortable than “half wearing” a muff.
• By removing an ear muff, the performer doesn’t only lose 50 percent of their mix – they actually lose closer to 60 percent because of the way our hearing works. Approximately 40 percent of the auditory information is supplied by each ear, and the remaining 20 percent by the brain’s processing of this information. Removing one muff probably means that the mix needs to be turned up more in the other ear – louder than it would need to be if both muffs were worn. This puts the performer at an increased risk of hearing damage in that ear.
A good approach to creating a good personal headphone mix for a performer is to:
• Put the performer themselves in their headphones so they are comfortable.
• Add the bass, then the harmonic instruments (guitars/keyboards) to their mix so they can match pitch but still hear themselves adequately.
• Finally, add the drums so they can hear time, rhythm, and groove.
Do listen to the headphone mix yourself as you create it – either in the room with the performer, or on identical headphones in the control room. This way you can hear problems, create solutions, and ensure the mix is at a safe listening level.
Excerpt from Mic It! by Ian Corbett © 2014 Taylor & Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.
About the Author
Dr. Ian Corbett is the coordinator of the Audio Engineering Program, and Professor of Music Technology and Audio Engineering at Kansas City Kansas Community College. He also owns and operates “off-beat-open-hats – recording and sound reinforcement” which specializes in servicing the needs of jazz and classical ensembles in the Kansas City area. Since 2004, he has been a member of the Audio Engineering Society’s Education Committee, and has mentored, presented, and served on panels at local, regional, national, and international AES and other professional events. Ian has also authored articles on audio recording related subjects for Sound On Sound magazine.