June 19, 2020
The days of every record being made in a commercial studio are long gone. In fact, some producers weren’t even born in those days. Now, productions are made everywhere from multimillion-dollar studios to bedrooms to airplanes. With so many people making recordings on laptops and without high dollar monitors or proper acoustic treatment, it makes sense that more and more mixing is being done with headphones.
Twenty years ago, though, suggesting headphones as a viable alternative to a traditional monitoring environment would have been blasphemy. So, is it still improper? Or can you expect to get a great mix in the cans?
The main goal in the mix stage of a production is to make a mix that sounds great (whatever that means for you and the song) across different platforms. Granted, a song is not going to sound the same on an iPhone as it does in Wembley Stadium, but it should still sound “right”. In theory, it doesn’t matter how you get there. In fact, the most tried and true way of achieving great translation is to check mixes on various listening systems – including headphones.
In years past, it was considered a no-no to mix with headphones because of a few key differences in the way headphones and speakers deliver sound to your ears.
The main difference here is something called “acoustic crosstalk.” Said simply, when you listen to a mix on a set of monitors, both ears hear both speakers. Because there’s a difference in timing between when sound from one speaker arrives at one ear versus the other, your brain can locate elements in the stereo image simply based on a volume difference between the left and right channels. This doesn’t happen in headphones, as each ear only hears its own channel.
So, one of the key problems with mixing with headphones is stereo imaging, which can sound very different on the different mediums. There are a few ways technology attempts to make up for this, like HRTF (head related transfer function) processing and binaural recording, to name a couple, but nothing to date quite measures up to a real live set of speakers.
Of course, this stereo “illusion” created by acoustic crosstalk is affected by reflections off nearby surfaces such as walls, ceilings, and even the desk. This is why most mixing rooms try to create a reflection free zone (RFZ) around the monitors and mix position.
If treating a room properly isn’t an option, creating a stereo image can prove even more difficult, and headphones may actually be the better option.
Here’s a fact not often admitted by purists: we’ve always used headphones in the mix process (just not exclusively). The reason for that is you can certainly hear minute details in the mix better in a set of cans. The two best examples of this are edit points and reverbs.
Edit transitions quite often sound perfect in the room monitors and glaringly obvious in headphones. It’s always a good idea to check and get edits tight using headphones. Reverb levels, meanwhile, can be much easier to dial in using headphones. A common technique for subtle reverb sends on vocals that you want to sound natural is to put on the headphones and dial back the reverb level until you can’t hear it’s there unless you turn it off. In the cans, turning the reverb off will be obvious, and now you’ve found your sweet spot.
Without putting too fine a point on it, yes, it is possible to achieve a great mix using headphones, even if headphones are all you have. You may need to adjust your technique a little, but it’s doable. A few things you may want to keep in mind for best success:
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"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord all of the earth; make a loud noise and rejoice and sing praises. Sing to the Lord with the harp and the voice of the psalm." - Psalm 98:4-5