You probably heard this too, that if you want to mix a song properly you will need an “uncolored” room, with acoustic treatment to avoid all the problems that could be generated from sound reflecting all over the place
So, isn’t it absolutely reasonable to ask this question? If it is possible to record & mix a song using only headphones? Since using headphones would eliminate the whole acoustic treatment issue from the start?
The great thing is, that there are ways to go about it!
In this post I’m going to tell you the answer to this question and I will also give some tips on how to get better sounding mixes while using headphones.
Headphones alone generally won’t cut it!
While getting great sounding mixes on Headphones is completely achievable, it is not the ideal way to go. You will run into some limitations.
Headphones (especially low-grade, commercial ones), tend to alter the sound to make it more pleasing. Their intensified stereo field and extremely hyped-up frequency response will make anything you play sound great!
So, imagine that you spent hours mixing a song on cheap headphones that you think is done, only to play it though your cars Sound System and realize it sounds absolutely terrible!
If you want to mix properly, you should at least get some monitor headphone with a flat frequency response, which will reproduce the mix as accurately as possible.
Having access to Studio Monitors, even cheap ones, will help you out quite a bit!
Why does this matter?
For a couple of reasons;
- When mixing on headphones you are not taking into consideration the room that you are in.
- Each ear will only hear the relevant channel, while with Studio Monitors both ears will pick up both signals, from the left and right speakers.
- Stereo imaging and panning information is much harder to judge on headphones, as is equalization sometimes, and stereo mixes which sound impressive over headphones can sound very wrong on speakers, and vice versa.
Why you still need headphones to mix!
High-quality headphones are useful for revealing some details that even the best speakers will often miss. In particular, I find it is much easier to find parts that need to be edited (like Hum, Pops, Clicks, etc.) while using headphones.
Sometimes these “edits” sound perfect on Studio Monitors but become really obvious when listening to them on Headphones.
Also, using Consumer-Grade Headphones to listen back to your mix is a great idea!
This works great as you get a sense of how your audience will perceive your sound, since most people listen to music on those kinds of headphones.
How to make your mixes sound better using headphones?
There’s a few steps you should follow in order to get the best sounding mixes possible.
Tip 1: Get High-Quality Headphones!
If you are serious about mixing songs on headphones, you can’t just go about it with the cheap ones you got with your Cell-Phone.
In order to appreciate the recorded track’s quality and be able to recognize parts that need to be edited, EQ’d, etc. you will require some that have a flat frequency response.
The better the headphones the slower your ears will fatigue also!
If you are looking for some superb quality Headphones, read this article about the Sennheiser 650HD, these are probably the best Headphones on the market that won’t get you broke.
Tip 2: Work at two volumes!
First set a volume at a level where you can hear everything perfectly but so that it’s not too loud! You don’t want to hurt your ears!
You will work at this volume the majority of the mix.
The most important thing is to not work at one volume for the entirety of the mix, because your ears and brain will get used to it! That’s why you will need another volume level later on, specifically a low one.
The next step is to lower the volume quite a lot! You should be able to hear everything, recognize each instrument, etc. but it has to feel more like background music.
What does this achieve?
It reveals mistakes in the mix. If your vocals, snare- or kick-drums, or any other instrument get lost or pop- up too much in the mix, then your it isn’t balanced properly.
Best way to go about it?
Wile mixing you should constantly switch from one volume to the other, this way you are much more likely to get great results.
Tip 3: Grab another pair of headphones!
No matter if you record cheap or even super expensive on headphones or Studio Monitors, you should always reference your mix with a second pair.
Why is this important?
It’s simple. Every set of headphones has its own EQ curve, they all will affect the sound in a different way. Which means that if you get used to one set only, and they sound bright or dull, your ears will become familiar with that sound and adapt.
If they sound dull, you are going to brighten up the mix and vice versa, which in turn will leave you with a less than ideal result.
Tip 4: Protect your ears as much as you can!
We all know that really loud volumes can hurt our ears, and if you plan on spending hours mixing you should absolutely worry about this!
Here is a chart that shows how many hours of exposure to a certain dB level are safe, before hearing impairment occurs.
Tip 5: Use reference tracks
This is crucial and you should always do it. This is also a good idea even when mixing with Studio Monitors.
The point of this is to make sure nothing is either too loud or exaggerated, or too quiet in the mix.
You can use another song that sounds absolutely amazing as a blueprint to compare if you’re on the right track or not.
Tip 6: Let your ears rest!
After long hours of mixing, your ears will get used to it and they will get tired. If you want to be able to do your best work, take a rest.
I’d recommend taking a long walk, don’t listen to any other music while you do this and give your ears enough time to recover.
I find that 5 minutes is definitely not enough. Take at least 30 min!
Tip 7: Listen back on multiple audio devices.
Lastly, after you’ve poured your heart and soul into those mixes, you need to listen back to them on as many other sound systems as possible. At you home, car, at a friend’s place, etc.
Don’t get too over confident thinking that, since your mix sounds great on headphones, that it will translate perfectly to regular sound systems.
You will most likely have to tweak a bit here and there, since you will get a more realistic representation of how the mix translates to the real world!
What should you be listening for?
- Vocal Balance: Does each word come through properly.
- Drum Balance: Do the snare and kick cut though the mix, are they too loud or too quiet?
- Overall impact: Do I get the same feeling as when I’m listening through my headphones.
I wrote an article about how to improve your headphone experience which you might be interested in reading!
You should always mix on Studio monitors first, if possible, then check the song with Studio Quality Headphones to get rid of Pops, Clicks, etc.
While achieving a great sounding mix only on headphones might be a bit trickier, it can absolutely be done. Is it the best way though? Not really. But at the same time, you shouldn’t only be mixing on Studio Monitors either. Using both is the way to go.