With all of the potential equipment options for monitoring, along with budget constraints, it can be tough to decide what’s needed in your mixing setup. Ideally, mixes should be referenced on a wide variety of systems, and each type of system can help in the quest for translatability and clarity.
In this article, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of mixing with various types of monitoring systems. We’ll cover headphones (closed-back vs. open-back), studio monitors (near-field vs. far-field), and the benefits of alternative systems like Bluetooth and car speakers.
Headphones: closed-back vs. open-back
The main difference between these two types of headphones is exactly as it sounds. Closed-back headphones have a solid metal or plastic backing behind the ear cups, while open-back headphones have slits or perforations in the back.
The holes in the backs of open-back headphones allow air and sound through, creating a different listening experience than that of closed-back headphones.
Closer to consumer-grade headphones
It’s important to have quality headphones that allow you to hear details in the mix. However, it’s also important to realize that most listeners won’t be using super expensive audio engineering headphones.
Most consumer headphones (for listening, not necessarily mixing) have closed backs. This is one of the main benefits of closed-back headphones. Being able to have a listening experience similar to that of your audience can help your mix translate to more people. Even if you have an expensive pair of closed-backs, this will be more similar to the average listener’s headphones than open-backs will be.
Maximum sound isolation
It’s no wonder why the average person prefers closed-back headphones. With the solid cup, they are designed to cut the listening experience off from the outside world. This makes sense for the average person on the subway who just wants to listen to their music.
For the same reason, closed-back headphones are great for mixing engineers who want to minimize sound pollution while working. This is helpful for those who work in noisy environments or like to work on-the-go.
Just as closed-back headphones allow minimal sound in, they also allow minimal sound out. If you work somewhere that you need to be quiet, closed back headphones will allow you to listen to your music at a louder level without bothering people around you.
More intimate listening experience
With minimal background noise, audio playing through your headphones will be more in the foreground of your overall listening experience. This can be helpful for hyper-detailed work, now that there is less background bleed.
Also, some people simply prefer the “in your head” sound of closed-back headphones. While having headphones with a flat frequency response and an accurate sound is most important, it doesn’t hurt to have headphones that make listening to music enjoyable.
“In your head” isn’t always a good thing
The main upside of closed-back headphones is also its main downside. By being cut off from the outside world, it’s very easy to get trapped in your head, especially during long sessions.
Without hearing other sound to reference against your mix, it can be easy to lose perspective without taking occasional breaks. This is a big reason why many studio-based mix engineers work on monitors.
Minimum sound isolation
The benefit of open-back headphones is that they don’t block outside world like closed-backs do. Sound from your surroundings, even ambient noise, is able to interact with the sound of your mix.
Even in a relatively quiet environment, this has the effect of adding space, as if the mix were resonating in the world around you. This is similar to listening with monitors, as the mix will sound like it’s projected into the room. This a drastic difference from the experience with closed-back headphones, which place the mix between your ears.
With this added space, the open backs provide a wider and deeper stereo experience, which sounds great and helps for holistic and balance-based listening.
No “in your head” effect
It’s a matter of taste whether you prefer the “in your head” sound or the “in the room” sound, but open-backs won’t trap you in your head like closed-backs can. Open-backs can make it easier to keep your reference and make accurate mixing decisions deep into sessions.
The air passing through the headphones will also allow your ears to breathe a bit, and will usually be more comfortable for long sessions than closed-backs.
Minimum sound isolation
The main benefit of open-backs can also be annoyance. As surrounding noises are audible, it’s tough to work accurately without being in a quiet space. I’ve tried working on a plane with open-back headphones and could barely hear myself.
Because of this, you don’t really get the same portability out of open-back headphones that you do with closed-backs. But if you’ll mainly be working in one quiet place, this won’t be too much of an issue.
Open-backs also bleed more than closed-backs, allowing people around you to hear what you hear. If you need to work silently, it’ll be tough to do so with open-back headphones.
Less like consumer-grade headphones
For the reasons we mentioned before, most consumer headphones are closed-back. The listening experience is quite different on open-backs, so your reference for the average listener’s experience could be off.
If you do decide to go with open-back headphones, it’s still important to have a pair of closed-backs to use as references.
Monitors: near-field vs. far-field
I won’t dive too deeply into the differences between near-field and far-field monitors, as I’ve actually covered that in another article on the types of studio monitors.
Essentially, near-field monitors are smaller and positioned closer to the listening position, while far-fields are larger and placed further from the listening position.
Closer to consumer-grade monitors
Near-field monitors are smaller and easier to fit in smaller spaces. Consumers are much more likely to have near-fields because of this; owning far-fields doesn’t really make sense if you’re not mixing.
Like closed-back headphones, having a reliable pair of near-field monitors will more closely recreate the average listener’s experience.
More direct sound
By being closer to the listening position, near-field monitors will deliver more “direct sound” to the mixer’s ears. Direct sound is simply the group of sound waves that reaches your ears directly from the driver, rather than those that have reflected around the room before reaching your ear.
As less of the total audio hitting your ears will be from the room, near-field monitors can minimize the effects of room acoustics. If you don’t have acoustic treatment in your mixing space, near-fields can help you pay attention to the “true” sound of the mix without being affected by room resonances.
Can work in basically any studio
Because they are relatively small, near-field monitors are a good option for any studio. That, along with their lower price point, make them viable for bedroom studios and professional ones alike.
It’s worth mentioning that near-field monitors are not necessarily “worse” than far-fields. They simply serve a different purpose, as hit records have been mixed on near-fields for decades.
Require isolation pads or monitor stands
The only real downside to near-field monitors is that they shouldn’t be simply placed on your mixing desk. This can cause the desk to vibrate, adding artificial resonances into your overall listening experience and potentially causing inaccurate mixing decisions.
Luckily, foam isolation pads or monitor stands can eliminate this problem, neither of which are very expensive. Just keep in mind that a bit of additional equipment is needed to get the most out of near-field monitors.
Deeper and more well-defined low end
Far-field monitors, as they have larger drivers, are able to create a more full and defined low-end. This is incredibly useful, as a properly-mixed low-end is necessary for a professional-sounding mix. This is the reason that you’ll find far-field monitors in many professional mixing and mastering studios.
Enjoyable listening experience in the right room
Like with open-back headphones, far-field monitors make your mix sound like it’s emanating from the room around you, giving you a wider stereo experience. This, coupled with the added low-end, makes music listening a blast on far-fields.
Require a well-treated room
However, because far-field monitors are designed to take advantage of the room, that room has a huge effect on the listening experience. In an untreated room, far-fields can easily create resonances, making accurate mixing a challenge.
Acoustically treating a room can be tough if you’re on a budget, but would be necessary to get the most out of far-fields.
Less like consumer-grade monitors
The average listener does not have a giant pair of far-field monitors sitting in their bedroom. Far-fields serve a mixing purpose, and as such should not be used as your only monitors. Any far-field user should also have a reference pair (or two) of near-field monitors for reference.
As we’ve mentioned (about a million times now), it’s incredibly important to hear your mix like the average listener would. This is a benefit of closed-back headphones and near-field monitors, as they most closely mimic the types of systems that a consumer would have.
However, it can be just as helpful to add actual consumer systems to your mixing process. Be sure to check your mixes on earbuds, bluetooth speakers, car speakers, and any other system you can find. Ideally, your work should sound good on all of these.
You don’t have to actively mix on these systems, but it’s worth using them to check your mix. It should translate across them, not just sound good on your headphones or monitors.
Getting the best bang for your buck
We’ve covered the pros and cons of types of equipment, each of which can range in quality and price model to model. Generally, and especially if you have a limited budget, it’s a good idea to invest into one or two great pieces of monitoring gear rather than a bunch of mediocre ones.
If you can only get one piece of equipment to use as your main monitoring, and if you have a room for mixing, a pair of near-field monitors is a great choice. Near-fields will allow you to do detailed work due to high direct sound, while still allowing sound to resonate in the room. This is important for mixing as much as it is for enjoyable listening.
Nonetheless, some improvements to your listening environment can help if you only have a pair of near-fields. The benefit of headphones is that they eliminate room acoustics from the equation, a factor which will still exist with near-field monitors.
But for the reasons we’ve covered, you honestly can’t go wrong with near-field monitors. Even studios that have a pair of far-fields will have near-fields as well.
If you can add a pair of headphones, closed-back headphones will probably serve you best. They are generally more portable and will allow you to work more flexibly.
Additionally, these will completely eliminate room noise while you mix, which make them a good partner with the near-field monitors. And in return, the monitors can help relieve your “in the head” sickness after working with the closed-back headphones for a while.
At the end of the day, however, it’s best to just have as many options as possible. After checking a mix on closed- and open-back headphones, near- and far-field monitors (in a good room), and a variety of other systems, there should be no mysteries.
Each of these systems provides certain benefits, and each will show the mix from a different angle. With a better understanding of how the mix actually sounds, it’s much easier to arrive at a final product that sounds great for every listener.