Music is shaped by the space it is made in. This is why audio professionals work in treated rooms with flat monitoring. It offers them the greatest chance to make something that sounds good no matter where it's played.
You may have already had the unfortunate experience of producing and mixing a song with headphones then playing it for a friend on monitors and realizing how off it sounds. Somehow, what sounded powerful and dynamic on headphones is now thin and one-dimensional. No fun.
Mixing with headphones entirely to produce and mix is not ideal. Compared with the environment described above, there is a much higher chance of introducing audio errors and not realizing it. That being said, we also know that having a proper studio is a luxury and not possible for many people yet.
Whatever your reason is for using only headphones—a lack of space, angry neighbours, a tight budget, or some combination of all three—there are still ways to make certain your music translates to other listening environments.
It goes without saying that if you produce and mix exclusively with headphones you should have a good pair designed specifically for these activities, in that they provide a neutral, or flat frequency response. What this means is that the entire frequency spectrum is reproduced as equally as possible so you can make informed decisions about EQ, signal levels, and dynamics.
Most listening headphones have a tendency to warm up music with overrepresented low-end, making it very hard to properly evaluate a mix. Should I cut the bass? Or boost highs to compete?
There are many headphone purchase guides available online and I strongly suggest you spend some time researching a model and frequency response that suits your needs before pulling out your wallet.
Some of the best choices for mixing with headphones:
For those who do have a monitoring setup (if you’ve made it this far), consider getting a pair of headphones as a point of reference. Many bedroom studios have less-than-ideal acoustics and headphones provide a reliable solution by cutting out room reflections and ambient noise.
Jeff Ellis, who mixed Frank Ocean’s first album Channel ORANGE uses multiple suboptimal monitors and headphones—representative of the playback systems used by listeners—to reference his work. Getting familiar with how your music sounds in multiple listening environments will train your ears to better identify and resolve audio issues.
Additionally, listening to a variety of well-mixed music with your headphones will give you a better idea of what “high quality” sounds like with them.
In pursuit of superior musical skills, we can overlook the importance of keeping our ears in good health. We’ve all been told “trust your ears” at one point or another. What this refers to is critical listening: the ability to properly evaluate sound quality and identify aspects of a great mix.
The longer we work, the more tired and agitated our ears become. For some, these sensations are a cue to call it a day. Others chose to combat the decrease in hearing sensitivity and clarity caused by ear fatigue with higher output levels, jumpstarting a vicious cycle that can lead to studio hangovers, and worse, hearing disorders like tinnitus and hyperacusis.
The isolated environment of headphones—in particular, of the closed back variety—make it easy to slip into this bad habit. If you crank up monitors, especially in an untreated room, low-end frequencies will make your table and walls shake and you will feel pressure in your chest and legs. This doesn’t happen in headphones, even at high levels, so it feels safe to turn things up. We also tend to acclimate to louder levels with headphones because we aren’t worried about bothering others in the process, unlike monitors in an apartment bedroom studio.
Like all bad habits, the way to prevent them is through self-control. At the start of a session, find a comfortable level where you can make out song details without much strain and resist the temptation to go higher. Regardless of whether you produce, mix, or master, timed breaks where listening is not the main activity are crucial to keeping your ears fresh and preventing listening fatigue. Of course, we all do love to listen loud sometimes. So, at the end of a session, when you don’t have anymore work to do, put your finished mix on blast for a satisfying reward.
How tonal balance can help when mixing with headphones
If you find yourself regularly increasing headphone monitoring during a session, you are probably trying to hear something that is not there yet, and hoping higher levels will reveal will it.
Unless you have been mixing or mastering for years, it can be difficult to pick out exactly what you’re not hearing. In fact, there could be multiple balance issues happening at the same time that are hard to separate due to the small headphone space.
Generally speaking, tonal balance refers to an even distribution of frequencies in a recording or mix, from low to high-end. Simply put, a balanced song sounds great—every instrument, vocal, and SFX has a considered place in the frequency spectrum, lending to better translation across multiple listening environments.
For further clarification, iZotope Education Director Jonathan Wyner put together a playlist of his go-to reference songs that demonstrate excellent tonal balance and a wide dynamic range.
Using a combination of visual cues, Tonal Balance Control is designed to help producers and mixers in non-ideal studio environments address where a song could benefit from a balance adjustment. Let’s take a look at how it all works.
I have Wes Fif’s “Face Clean,” a song from the above-mentioned playlist, in an otherwise empty DAW session and Tonal Balance Control on the DAW master. It should always be the last plug-in in a session, ensuring all audio goes through it before hitting headphones.
Based on an analysis of thousands of songs, Tonal Balance Control has three target presets to evaluate spectral qualities: Modern, Orchestral, and Bass Heavy. The production on “Face Clean” is sparse but it does have a heavy 808 kick, so I went with the third option. Above is a screenshot from a mid-song section where all elements (drums, bass, piano, and vocal) are present.
The white bars represent frequency distribution. Over the course of a song they move up and down as instruments are brought in and out. The blue overlays are the low and high bounds of four typical frequency ranges and should be considered a reference guide for your music. Tonally speaking, “Face Clean” is right on the money.
When you work with headphones, Tonal Balance Control is there to visually confirm or deny frequency balance suspicions so you can quickly make informed decisions. If you have mixing and mastering tools Neutron 2 or Ozone 8, this process is further streamlined by pulling up either one in Tonal Balance Control, which will reflect EQ and track level changes in real-time.
Below is an audio clip from a song I produced on headphones. I’ve been having trouble properly placing and sculpting the snare and hi-hats, so I gave it a pass through Tonal Balance Control to get a visualization of where improvements can be made.
Notice how the white line in the High frequency region is right at the top limit of the target bounds. This is clear indication I need a high shelf filter to attenuate frequencies in the 8–14 kHz range. The low and low-mid section are lacking too, especially for music aspiring to be under the Bass Heavy category. With an integrated Neutron 2—so I don’t have to leave Tonal Balance Control—I applied a boost at 80 Hz and 400 Hz and a cut a 2 kHz.
A drastic high-end EQ cut will bring the white line within the High target bounds, but it will also muffle my song in an obvious manner, which I don’t want. To compromise, I applied only a gentle rolloff at 10 kHz, then reduced the hi-hat track level by 1 dB.
Listen to the results:
The problematic areas sound better—the highs are smoothed and the lows have more bump—and this is reflected in Tonal Balance Control. There’s still more work to be done, but I’m off to a good start.
Note—we realize that not all music fits into one of the three preset target categories. From the Target drop down menu you can upload a single song or folder of songs and Tonal Balance Control will print a unique target for you to reference as you produce and mix.
Our perception of the stereo field in headphones is much different than with monitors. Whereas you can hear sound from a left monitor in your right ear and vice-versa (a phenomenon called crosstalk), with headphones you only hear the left channel in your left ear and the right channel in your right ear. Center becomes the middle of your head.
This makes it much more difficult to judge panning choices. Subtle to moderate pans seem to barely shift sounds from a center position. And hard pans give the impression a sound is right at the opening of your ear canal or slightly behind it, which can become a nuisance after an extended period of time. You may even be tempted to pan sounds closer to the center to avoid this strange spatial experience altogether. For this reason, many mixes done with headphones sound narrow.
Of course, with practice you get used to panning in headphones, and can make it work. But when possible, double check your panning choices on a pair of monitors, especially if they are for a client.
Producing and mixing exclusively in headphones poses a unique set of challenges for the modern music-maker. With tools like Tonal Balance Control, some of these challenges can be overcome to deliver music that sounds good regardless of listening environment.
In an ideal scenario, a pair of headphones with a flat frequency response should be a supplement to a monitor system, not a replacement. If you are think of getting a pair of monitors in the near future, we recently put together a list of the best options for home studios—take a look.