Jump to these sections:
Tips for producing and mixing with headphones:
- Learn how your headphones translate sound
- The best quality studio headphones for mixing music
- Keep track of your level when mixing with headphones
- Turn down your levels in headphones instead of up
- Get off the headphones from time to time—even if you have no good alternative
- Use headphone-assistant technology
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Music is shaped by the space it is made in. That’s why audio professionals often prefer work in treated rooms with flat monitoring. No wonder, then, that working in headphones is a controversial topic: many people hate it, and others have made a career out of it.
You may have had the unfortunate experience of producing or mixing a song with headphones, and then realizing how off it sounds in speakers. Somehow, what sounded powerful and dynamic on headphones is now thin and one-dimensional.
And yet, headphones might be your only option. Maybe your space is untreatable, your neighbors are angry, or your room treatment budget and equipment budget is lacking.
If that’s the case, you don’t have to be too down on yourself. It’s still possible to do great work in headphones—you just need to understand their limitations and find some workarounds. You may even find, in time, you’ll enjoy the benefits of working in headphones!
In this episode of Are You Listening? learn about the pros and cons of different monitoring options (headphones vs. monitors) and how your listening environment affects your perception.
The number one benefit to mixing on headphones is portability—if you narrow your setup down to a high-powered laptop and a pair of headphones, you can work anywhere—though some might say you also need a high-quality DAC for the computer, a headphone amp, etc.
But theoretically, with knowhow and relatively solid gear, a computer and headphones is all you’d need to work.
You also won’t disturb those around you, including your neighbors (if you work at home) or your family (likewise).
I’ve been working out of a home studio since 2010. Neighbors, I find, are understanding most of the time, and easily ignorable when they’re annoying. Family, less so. Headphones help the kiddies stay asleep. These considerations are what makes mixing with headphones easier.
Simply put, headphones cut you off from the room. If you’re working in a poor acoustic environment this might even seem like a benefit, but a good acoustic space is an important part of the equation. Without it, you don’t experience the room interacting with your music, which is essential for understanding how to mix.
You’ll also run into a crossfeed problem, as our perception of the stereo field in headphones is much different in headphones from how it is in monitors.
In a room, you can hear the left monitor in your right ear and vice-versa (we call this phenomenon crossfeed, or 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, as well as reverberation decisions, among other things.
It is absolutely OK to produce music on headphones. If you’re producing on headphones, it demonstrates a commitment to the work—a passion!
Think about it: you are excluding yourself from the world to fashion your art. You want to be doing this so badly that you are shutting everything else out. If headphones are what allow you to make the space to produce music, you should absolutely use headphones!
With a newborn in my lap, I mixed and mastered the first season of American Hostage for Amazon. It was an extremely ambitious project, one with tons of music and directional sound design. It topped the charts for many weeks, got a score of great reviews, and what’s more, my partner didn’t kill me for blasting noise at all hours.
Do I say this to brag? No. OK, a little. But mostly it’s to demonstrate that headphones are a viable choice provided you know what you’re doing on them.
Even so, I recognize their limitations: When I pull off the headphones and sit in front of speakers, the material coheres in a way impossible to glean from cans.
So, over the years, I’ve developed—and have continued to develop—a disciplined approach to mixing on headphones. What follows are my tips for mixing with studio headphones.
Tips for producing and mixing with headphones
If you want to move your work towards mixing on headphones, you have to know your headphones intimately. The same goes for speakers, of course, but with headphones, you have the added issue of understanding how your headphones translate to the physical realm of speakers.
The only way to learn your headphones is to devote time and conscious energy to the practice. It helps to have a reference playlist of tunes you know like the back of your hand.
Listen through your tunes and ask yourself questions like, “does this sound exactly like I remember?” and, “if not, how is it different?”
You can also use software like Tonal Balance Control to try to marry what you’re seeing in the analyzer with what you’re hearing. Run your reference playlist in Tonal Balance Control, select the fine view, like so:
And then ask yourself questions about the various ranges. “I see this tune is particularly heavy in the 1-3 kHz range; what instruments are being affected here?” “Is the next tune in the playlist equally heavy in the 1-3 kHz range, or just this one?”
Conscious analysis is paramount for learning your monitoring system—and for improving your mixing technique. In combination with an analyzer like Tonal Balance Control, you can use an EQ to quiz yourself, soloing the bands you think you’re noticing to see if you’re correct in identifying them by ear.
There’s no way around it—if you’re going to devote time to mixing on headphones, you need quality studio headphones. All headphones color the sound to some degree, as do all speakers, all rooms, and all sets of ears. But you must avoid the consumer stuff for mixing and get something that aims for balance.
Here are some good quality audio mixing headphones that don’t break the bank:
And if you do want to break the bank, you can always look into audiophile-grade headphones, like models made by Audeze, Grado, and other brands. Either way, you’ll spend less on good headphones than you will on equivalently good monitors and a pile of acoustic treatment!
Be aware of the differences in headphone types, extending to the drivers (dynamic, planar magnetic, balanced armature, etc), and implementation (closed-back, open-back, in-ear, etc). Try out the different kinds if you can, and pick the ones you gravitate to.
For example, lots of people will tell you open-back headphones are essential for professional mixing and mastering in music. I’m not one of those people: after investing in open-backed headphones like Audeze LCD-Xs and Sennheiser HD 650s, I discovered I’m a closed-back person. I get better results using my closed-back solution—so say the clients, at any rate.
You may work differently—trust your informed instinct!
You don’t want to blast your headphones loud, because that will permanently destroy your hearing. Similarly, you don’t want to listen too quietly, because you won’t get an accurate accounting of lows, mids, and highs.
People have different ways of keeping track of their levels, or different tricks for combating the loudness/frequency balance conundrum. Me, I measured the sound pressure level (also known as SPL) of my headphones to ascertain a comfortable, non-deafening level, and noted what settings on my interface allowed me to get that particular SPL. Now, I know how to set up my headphones for a good base level. I stay here most of the time.
And if you find yourself wanting to turn up your mix on headphones, take a break.
Breaks are important to producing and mixing—and doubly so in headphone work, so we can protect our ears. If you find yourself wanting to turn the headphones up to “hear things more clearly,” take a break instead and give your ears some time to relax.
Sometimes, taking a break isn’t a possibility, due to deadlines. And sometimes, you find yourself in a position where things just don’t sound good due to aural exhaustion. Often the inclination here, when mixing in headphones, is to turn up.
Don’t do that.
If you can’t take a break, turn down a little bit, give yourself five seconds of silence, and play little snatches of your references—ten second snippets. Then, take another five second break, and listen to your mix. This often provides a nice reset for your perspective. Now, you can turn up to your original level, and not worry as much about damaging your hearing (provided you’re taking breaks!)
For me, this tip has become invaluable: if I mix exclusively in headphones, the mix is not going to compete against work that has seen speakers on its own mixing journey.
I find passive translation checks are not enough here—I can’t just bounce the tune, take it to another room/car, and listen—I need to be able to play with the mix as I go.
I’m lucky in that I have my own treated room with a system I spent years putting together. I love listening to music on those speakers, and if I’m working in my room, I love to go back and forth between cans and speakers.
But as I’ve mentioned, I have a newborn in the house, so my time on speakers is limited. Lately I’ve been employing the Andrew Schoeps method of cross-checking my stereo mixes on my computer speakers. Though it doesn’t give me the wonderful sensation of feeling the bass in my chest, I can at least hear the frequencies moving through the air.
When I do this, I make sure to listen to my reference mixes before judging my own work. It helps reset my ears.
Your computer speakers can actually tell you a lot—especially since people will listen on their computers. Just make sure to understand what they can’t tell you, particularly about the low end.
Lots of headphone correction software exists—equalization programs that purport to flatten your phones. Lots of crossfeed algorithms are also out there, which introduce some of the left signal into the right ear and vice versa, to recreate the feeling of listening in a room.
Relatively new to the market are headphones that recreate the feel and sound of specific monitors in specific rooms.
Does any of this stuff help?
The answer, of course, is highly personal, and can also evolve with time. There was a moment where I felt headphone-correction software was necessary to my work. Now I don’t use it at all.
My current headphone practice involves a set of ATH-M50xs (picked because I know them deeply), a free crossfeed plug-in from Airwindows that I flick on from time to time, and a set of speaker-modeling headphones. I rotate among these setups, and it gets the job done. I’m sure it’ll keep evolving!
Start mixing music with headphones
Producing and mixing exclusively in headphones poses a unique set of challenges for the modern music-maker. With time and practice, some of these challenges can be overcome to deliver music that sounds good regardless of the listening environment.
If you’d like to learn more about mixing in headphones—and the differences between headphones and speakers—check out these considerations for mixing with headphones vs. studio monitors. And if you're mastering, check out the video below that discusses using headphones when mastering music.