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One of the most common questions from music producers who want to learn how to mix is: “Should I mix on headphones or studio monitors?” The answer is that you can achieve quality mixes on either, or in tandem. Ideally, you’re using both to analyze different aspects of your mix so you can produce audio that translates well across different listening envrionments.
To make things more complex, there are thousands of choices when it comes to buying headphones and studio monitors, with more added to the market every year. Luckily, there are some baseline truths to improve your mixes regardless of how you listen to them. In this piece, we explore top considerations for mixing with headphones and studio monitors.
Tips for mixing with headphones
1. Audition your mixes in both headhpones and monitors
As a producer, be aware that many people will listen to your tracks in less-than-ideal environments. So you owe it to yourself to audition your headphone mixes in the real world as much as possible by referencing your tracks on different monitors and in different listening environments. Your perfect headphone mix might suddenly sound unfamiliar to you when played over a PA system. Or maybe you can’t hear the vocals as well as you could before. Why? Once your audio leaves a set of monitors, the room acoustics and reflections might alter the characteristics of your music. Every room is different and has a sound, especially if there’s little to no acoustic treatment. Some rooms can overrepresent certain frequencies (peaks caused by standing waves) and underrepresent certain frequencies (dips caused by nulls). While not everyone has access to a full studio, try applying simple acoustic treatments and home studio hacks to improve your listening. Listening to a mix on different systems is crucial in helping you understand how your audio behaves in different environments which will help you make better mixing decisions.
2. Mix on headphones with a flat frequency response
Headphone models are as unique as snowflakes. They offer different frequency responses that can “color” the audio and ultimately affect the way we perceive our tracks. This response varies across headphone models, meaning if there’s an overrepresented low-end bump as part of the frequency response of your headphones, this may lead you to needlessly attenuate bass frequencies, or conversely, boost high-end elements that don’t sound as powerful as the bass. Panning, depth, and reverb effects can also sound far more prominent on headphones. For example, with studio monitors, both ears hear both monitors. The sound you hear from the right speaker will be quieter to your left ear, and vice versa with the left speaker and right ear. But with headphones, each ear hears only the left or right channel. Mixing on headphones can make you believe the stereo image is wider than it really is, and that can impact how someone experiences the audio on speakers later. This is why you may want to consider using both headphones and monitors when mixing or looking into using a plugin to simulate crossfeed. You can also use open-back headphones instead of closed-back headphones to allow sound to leak to each ear.
You wouldn’t wear green-tinted glasses if you’re color-grading a film, so why use a headset that colors your audio? This is why it’s important to choose headphones with a flat frequency response that provide as neutral a portrait of your audio as possible, so you can make objective choices.
3. Use more than one pair of headphones when monitoring
We’re used to hearing about the importance of monitoring a mix through multiple speakers, but increasingly, mixing engineers are also ensuring excellent translation across headsets too. You’d be wise to do the same. This means listening to heaps of well-regarded mixes on everything from a good pair of top-shelf studio headphones to low-grade earbuds to ensure excellent translation. Spend time in a quiet space (close the windows, etc.) and work to perceive and understand the sonic differences each headset provides, and remember: a well-mixed track should sound great no matter how you’re listening to it.
Tips for Mixing with Studio Monitors
1. Break-in your monitors.
New monitor speakers require breaking-in time, as there are mechanical elements within the drivers that need to settle and adapt to the climatic environment, i.e. your mixing space. Once you’ve welcomed your fancy new pro monitors into their space, play music through them at moderate levels for twenty hours or so, with songs that have significant low frequency content. Once the transducers stabilize, you can enjoy optimum performance and a playback experience as the manufacturer intended.
2. Choose a mixing level
Unlike most audio matters debated by aural aficionados, there appears to be a consensus around how loud you should be listening back to your audio during the mixing process. The magic range: 75 dB to 85 dB SPL depending on room size; the larger the room the louder you’ll have to mix within the recommended range. Investing in a top-notch dB meter will ensure you can keep an eye on your own mixes, though beware, mixing at loud levels can cause ear fatigue or worse—damage your hearing. 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 go old-school
What’s up with those black and white near-field speakers we see popping up in every studio in the world? Weren’t they discontinued in 2001? Should you seek out an old pair of studio monitors anyway?
Opinions on this differ (a lot!) but my answer is “Yes.” As a proud owner of a pair of NS10Ms, I can confidently say that when they’re installed, driven, and positioned properly (turn them down for best results), they shine a light on midrange and top-end frequencies unlike any other monitor, revealing the flaws behind your tracks. While the NS10s are uncontroversially colored in their frequency response, it's this coloration that forces the listener to shift attention and ultimately their entire perspective on certain elements of the mix. Think of the NS10s as that trusty friend who delivers the brutal truth about your new haircut, where others would politely nod and say, “Looks great.” Powered by a Hafler P3000 or Bryston 4B amp, (or something more economical like an ART SLA-1), they’ll potentially deliver the brutal truth about the inherent shortcomings of your mixes.
However, if you can’t get your hands on some NS10s, look for a great sounding pair of secondary monitors to add to your mix room that you can learn to trust and will successfully translate your mixes across many output formats.