For producers on a budget, mixing in headphones is often the only option – but that doesn't mean your productions have to suffer
Last month we looked at some of the best headphones for mixing and production. This month, we look at a few things to bear in mind when mixing your project with headphones.
Mixing on headphones, rather than studio monitors, is a fact of life for many producers these days. Lack of space, lack of money money and large, angry neighbours are all good reasons to adopt a set of cans. Headphones do actually have some advantages over a traditional two-way monitoring system, but they also have a few drawbacks that need to be accounted for. So let's look at how you can do that.
Few people listen to music by sitting directly between two speakers pointing straight at them – but this is what happens when we mix in our headphones. Essentially, you only hear the left channel in your left ear and the right channel in your right ear.
This creates issues as music is not experienced this way in the real world. In the real word, your right ear hears sound from the left speaker as well as the right, plus the sound of both bouncing off the walls, floor and ceiling, and so being delayed before reaching the ear. As you can imagine, this barrage of different soundwaves coming from different directions colours the stereo image and the way instruments blend together in the mix.
Periodically checking your mix on speakers – if only for a few seconds at a time – will help you make comparative adjustments and keep you from going too far up a blind alley.
If you used a lot of stereo widening effects to make your track sound cinematic and hyper-wide in your headphones, you may be in for a shock when it’s played on a club system and you’re listening from one the side of the room!
The stereo field will always sound a great deal narrower on speakers than on headphones, so a real world check on monitors, Bluetooth speakers, car stereo etc now and then is important. Hard panned instruments can simply disappear in a mono set-up, so a simple solution is to limit the amount of extreme L&R panning, especially on main parts.
If extreme panning is a must, use a reverb and have that reverb hard panned to the opposite side, to make it sound more natural and less disorientating. Make sure you have reference tracks on hand, especially to check where your bass levels are at.
One of the drawbacks of mixing with cans is ear fatigue. The longer we work, the more our ears become desensitised to volume and lose their objectivity. Naturally we will tend to increase the volume, further agitating our ears and limiting our ability to make the correct choices. I cannot stress this one enough: it’s time to take a break! A good way of managing this is to take timed breaks and to set a moderate listening level from the start.
The devil's in the detail
Headphones are great for hearing tiny details that often go unnoticed on speakers. Artefacts such as clipping channels, clicks and background noise are all much more apparent, as are effects such as over-compression: the distortion and pumping associated with over-compressing will be fairly obvious when it's right up against your ear.
The downside of this ability to hear so deep into the mix is that you can end up spending a lot of time chasing ghosts, obsessing over the minutiae of every last detail and losing objectivity. Many of these details will go unnoticed on a dancefloor.
One particular aspect of mixing that is famously difficult when using headphone is correctly weighting reverb, mainly due to the fact that you can hear it so well. As you add even a little reverb to a sound, it becomes very audible. It can also be very seductive, as you may be tempted to push it up in the mix. Alternatively (and more often) you can go in the opposite direction and back off the reverb so much that the loudspeaker mix sounds overly dry and without space and depth.
Solutions would be to reference on other systems and, in general, to add a little more reverb in the cans than initially feels right. Using very low-level reverb can help a sound sit better in the mix: even at -35dB to -40dB lower than the direct signal, it will gently glue and add depth, without washing out your mix if you want to keep it upfront and sharp.
If you work a lot on headphones (or plan to) and take your mixing environment seriously, then Sonarworks 4 is a game-changer, and at €99 a budget-friendly one at that.
I’ve used many different sets of phones and it’s fair to say that two different models of allegedly 'flat' headphones can sound quite different. Often there is a scooped midrange that exaggerates the top and low frequencies, which can lead you into murky waters tonally and result n mixes coming out sounding thin and overly dry. This is where Sonarworks walks onto the stage like the new sheriff in town.
Sonarworks is an acoustic calibration package that corrects the frequency response of your headphones by using EQ to compensate for the dips and peaks in most current models. To date over 100 sets of cans that have been modelled, and more are been added all the time. Once installed, Sonarworks sits as a plug-in on your master channel, where you can select your model of headphones.
You may have a pair of Sennheiser HD25s, for example: these then have a corrective EQ applied to them to flatten out the tonal discrepancies on that particular model. The beauty of this is that it can turn a cheap pair of headphones into a genuinely useful mixing tool – in fact, the cheaper the phones, the more dramatic the results!
For example, on a set of beyerdynamic DT-770s the difference is very noticeable, and the harshness of the upper-mids is smoothed out significantly. With Sennheiser HD25s the difference is pretty staggering, too: the flabby, exaggerated bass is tightened, the kicks no longer overhang and the low- and higher mids are clear and transparent. Whereas my Sennheiser HD650s, which are very flat already, improved a little – the bottom end seemed to extend further – but the difference wasn’t as night and day as on the other two pairs I tested.
What Sonarworks does, then, is provide a headphone monitoring set-up that you can have confidence in, rather than having to second guess the limitations of your headphones' frequency response.
If you are new to producing mainly on headphones, it’s going to take some time to acclimatise to your new acoustic environment. A reference pair of speakers are important, but if money is tight a set of budget monitors or hi-fi speakers will keep you right if you have a good set of cans. Referencing your material against other productions on other systems is also a must, but with practice your judgement will become more intuitive over time.
Words and pics: Chris Lyth