A musician mixing with headphones

Consider this when mixing with headphones

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There are baseline truths you can fall back on to improve your mixes, whatever your sound source – whether mixing with headphones or studio monitors.

A common question for aspiring mix engineers and music producers – especially those working in home studio environments – is, “Should I mix on studio monitors or with headphones?” The quick answer is you can achieve quality mixes with either method, or in tandem.

One complication to this dilemma is the thousands of choices available when it comes to buying headphones and studio monitors, with more coming to market every year. Luckily, there are some baseline truths you can fall back on to improve your mixes, whatever your sound source – whether you’re mixing with headphones or studio monitors.

Consider this when mixing with headphones

1. Try not to mix exclusively with headphones

Your perfected headphone mix might sound completely unfamiliar to you when played over a sound system. Why? Once your audio leaves a set of monitors, the room acoustics and reflections will alter the characteristics of those fiery lows and highs. Every room is different. Every room has a “sound,” especially if there’s little or no acoustic treatment. Some rooms will under represent certain frequencies (dips caused by nulls) and over represent others (peaks caused by standing waves). Be aware that many listeners will experience your tracks in a less-than-ideal environment, so you owe it to them and the artist (and yourself) to audition your headphone mixes in the real world as much as possible before signing off.

2. Headphones can color sound

Headphone models vary wildly in regard to their different frequency responses that will “color” the audio and affect the way you perceive your mixes. The response varies across headphone models, so if there’s an over represented low-end bump as part of the frequency response of your headphones, this can lead you to make unnecessary compensations, like attenuating bass frequencies or boosting high-end elements that don’t sound as powerful as the bass.

You wouldn’t wear red tinted glasses if you were color-grading a film, so why use a sound source that colors your audio? Do your homework and investigate the frequency response of your headphones before you make a decision – it’s important to make objective choices and choose headphones that provide as neutral a portrait of your audio as possible.

3. Use multiple sets of headphones when mixing

You know the importance of monitoring a mix through multiple speakers, but you’d be wise to ensure excellent translation across headsets too. This means listening to heaps of your favorite mixes on everything from top-shelf headphones to low-grade earbuds. Spend time in a quiet space and work to perceive and understand the sonic differences each headset provides. Remember, a well-mixed track will sound great, no matter how you’re listening to it.

Consider this when mixing with studio monitors

1. Break in your monitors

Monitors require breaking-in time. There are mechanical elements within the drivers that need to settle and adapt to the climatic environment of your mixing space. Once you’ve welcomed your fancy new pro monitors into your space, play music with significant low-frequency content through them at moderate levels for twenty hours or so. Once the transducers stabilize, you’ll enjoy optimum performance and the playback experience the manufacturer intended.

2. Choose a moderate mixing level

There seems to be a consensus about how loud you should listen to your audio when mixing – unlike most matters debated by audio aficionados. The magic number? 85 dB SPL – the equivalent of hearing city traffic from inside your car. Investing in a good dB meter will help you to keep an eye on the volume in your mixing environment. Mixing at loud levels can cause ear fatigue or even damage your hearing (and your livelihood), so be sure to monitor at consistent, moderate listening levels. A good rule of thumb: monitor at a level where you have to speak just a little bit louder than normal to talk to the person sitting next to you.

3. When choosing secondary reference monitors, don’t be afraid to be bold

You know those black and white near-field speakers you see in studios around the world? The ones that were discontinued in 2001? Should you seek them out for your studio? Opinions on this differ (a lot!) – there’s no consensus among audio pros on this one – but my answer is “Yes!” I am a proud owner of a pair of Yamaha NS10Ms and can confidently say that when they’re installed, driven, and positioned properly (turn the volume down for best results), they shine a light on midrange and top-end frequencies unlike any other monitor, revealing the flaws in your tracks. While the NS10s are unquestionably colored in their frequency response, this coloration forces you to shift your attention and ultimately your entire perspective on certain elements of a mix. Think of the NS10s as that trusty friend who delivers the brutal truth and won’t just smile and tell you your new haircut “looks great.”

If you can’t get your hands on a pair of NS10s, look for a great sounding pair of secondary monitors that you can learn to trust and will successfully translate you mixes across many output formats and open doors for mastering.

Whether you’re mixing on headphones or studio monitors, check out Neutron Elements, iZotope’s newest mixing plug-in.

iZotope makes innovative products that inspire and enable people to be creative. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, iZotope has spent over a decade developing award-winning products and audio technologies for professionals and hobbyists alike. Used by millions of people in over 50 countries, iZotope products are a core component of GRAMMY-winning music studios, Oscar and Emmy-winning film and TV post production studios, and prominent radio studios, as well as basement and bedroom studios across the globe. Through a robust licensing program, iZotope also powers products made by industry partners such as Adobe, Avid, Microsoft, and Sony. iZotope was recently honored with an Emmy® Award for Outstanding Achievement in Engineering Development for its flagship audio repair suite, RX®.

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8 thoughts on “Consider this when mixing with headphones

  1. IMHO, headphones can be useful for checking low level sounds, like fade transitions, reverb tails, edit points, etc. and for scrutinizing stereo placement. However, my experience is that mixes done on headphones simply do not translate to speakers. I would be extremely leery about using phones to make judgments about bass and lower midrange levels, since it is very unlikely that you are getting an accurate picture.
    Mixing on monitors, especially if you have a lot of empirical experience with how your mixes translate in other environments, generally produces much more acceptable results. HOWEVER the monitors, amplifiers and sound sources have to be good ones, and they have to be appropriately set up in an acceptably tweaked room, or, once again, you will get a totally inaccurate picture of your mix. Very few rooms, even tweaked ones, have no issues with anomalies in the bass and low midrange response. If you’re seriously trying to mix, you have to put some effort and resources into your monitoring system and listening environment or, with all due respect, you are just spinning your wheels.
    I also highly recommend making review copies of your mixes and listening to them in real-world listening environments, like a car or home stereo. That will tell you a lot about how your mix translates in a noisy and/or bandwidth reduced environment. Take detailed notes. Bring them back to the studio and see if you can implement them.
    While I know that there are supposed to be some really high tech headphones out there, as well as software plug-ins that supposedly allow you to emulate real listening environments on headphones, I really distrust this approach. Much better to have real speakers exciting real air going to real ears.

  2. that is why they have that round knob on the amplifier and radio
    turn it to the right to make it louder

    you should always burn cds at the same level to avoid such problems
    most commercial ones are too hot and need to be turned down

    make the music good not louder
    louder does not mean better

  3. “Radio-ready” isn’t a well-defined term. Everything that comes through the radio is heavily compressed. That works for car radios and CD players because it lets the listener boost the average level above the relatively high noise floor (from road, traffic, and wind noise) without the peaks making your ears bleed.

    But do you really want your CD mix to have that much compression? It takes all the dynamics out of the music…not a great idea if you intend the CD to be heard in quieter environments than a car.

    What you want to do is get yourself a decent mastering application (with ACCURATE metering) and master your mixes so they have all the dynamic range you want, yet they never exceed 0 dBFS.

    Better yet, get a copy of Bob Katz’s “Mastering Audio”, the definitive resource on mastering in the digital domain.

  4. I have a quick question. When i record,mix, edit, through the headphones, i take the cd to listen on a automobile audio, i have to turn the volume way up, volume is fine thru home studio headphones and speakers.

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