Audio / Tips and Solutions

Four Essential Tips for Mixing with Headphones

With the ever-increasing mobility of music-production equipment, the subject of mixing and mastering on headphones becomes increasingly relevant. While there is no real substitute for mixing and mastering on tuned near- or mid-field monitors in an acoustically treated room, headphones certainly have a role to play in production. Whether for convenience, portability, noise considerations, or other reasons, here are a few ideas to keep in mind when mixing with headphones.

1. Protect your Ears

When wearing headphones, recognize that because the drivers are situated directly next to your ears, there can be a greater risk of hearing damage than there would be when using studio monitors. Because wearing headphones can be rather immersive, and mixing is often a very time-consuming process, it's essential to take regular breaks to prevent hearing fatigue. Keep track of both the SPL level and the amount of time spent mixing, so you don’t accidentally damage your hearing. The following is a chart of permissible sound-exposure times at different SPL levels from the CDC:

SPL             Time
85 dB    8 hours
88 dB          4 hours
91 dB      2 hours
94 dB     1 hours
97 dB        30 minutes
100 dB        15 minutes
103 dB     7.5 minutes
106 dB3      .75 minutes
109 dB1  .875 minutes
112 dB        Less than 1 minute
115 dB       Less than 30 seconds

Choose Your Gear Wisely

A wide variety of headphones is available for various applications. When mixing, it's important to select a pair that has as flat a frequency response as possible, so your mixes will translate across different playback systems. Many headphones are designed for personal or hi-fi listening, and provide a deliberate bump in the bass, and a cut in the treble, to make the music sound more fun and engaging. While this is great for listening, it can lead to problems when mixing, because the frequency response of the headphones can skew your perception of the frequency response of your mix.

Another major consideration is whether to get closed, semi-open, or open-backed headphones. Open and semi-open-backed headphones usually have a flatter frequency response, and a more realistic presentation of bass. However, open headphones are unsuitable for tracking and recording applications, because an audible sonic bleed can get picked up by your microphone(s).

One option to consider is purchasing headphones and studio monitors that are made by the same manufacturer. The engineering departments of many audio companies will design and voice their headphones and monitors to complement one another. For example, if you're in the market for both headphones and studio monitors, consider buying a pair of Focal Spirit Professional Headphones and a pair of Focal Alpha monitors. These products were designed to be compatible with one another, so that you can switch between headphone and monitor mixing, while retaining a relatively consistent sound signature.

Ultimately, the question of what to buy is subjective, and the only way to know what works for you is to audition a variety of headphones. Select the pair (or pairs) that work best for the style of music you intend to mix.

Here are a few headphone recommendations:

If you have the budget for it and really want to invest in headphone mixing, consider purchasing a dedicated monitor controller, such as the Dangerous Source. One step further is to invest in software or hardware signal processing that helps model the way sound moves within a room, for an experience that more closely resembles the experience of mixing with real monitors.

On the software side, take a look at programs such as New Audio Technology Spatial Sound Card Pro (SSC) Stereo – Virtual Sound Card and Wave Arts Panorama Stereo Tool Plug-In (Native). These software plug-ins model the way a sound would occur in different studios and acoustic environments from around the world. They utilize head-related transfer functions to create sound localization cues that create the impression of spatial information.

3. Learn your gear on mixes you know

Realize that when mixing with headphones, you're not trying to make the track sound good just on that particular pair of headphones, but rather, you're creating a mix that will translate well to a variety of different playback systems. This can be difficult, because the physics of headphones make it nearly impossible to generate the full-frequency spectrum. Bass sounds require significant space for the waveforms to develop, and headphones lack the majority of spatial information needed for stereo imaging and reverb processing. 

To make a mix sound the way you would like it to on other systems, it's useful to maintain a catalog of reference tracks that you know well. For example, imagine you're working on a "bass drop" in an electronic music song, and you want it to hit in a way similar to the drop in a track that you really like. Listen to the reference track through your headphones, and work the low end on your own mix so that it sounds similar to the reference track. Then check to ensure that both your mix and the reference mix sound the same on a pair of near- or midfield studio monitors.  

4. Manage your expectations: know what to mix on headphones and what to leave for studio monitors

Headphones can be very useful for focusing on subtle details and correcting errors in individual tracks. The clarity and isolation from acoustic coloration can make it easier to fix problems with distortion, pops, and clicks, as well as perform dynamic signal processing, such as compression, on individual tracks.

On the other hand, headphones are not so good for tone-shaping processes, such as equalization and reverb, because the frequency response of a sound (especially bass frequencies) varies with the distance from the source and the acoustic properties of the space in which the sound occurs.

Unless you decide to invest in acoustic signal-processing hardware or software, such as the products mentioned earlier in this article, it's probably best to limit headphone mixing to the error correction of individual tracks, and leave other processes such as imaging, tone shaping, reverb processing, and low-frequency mixing for a time when you can use studio monitors.