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Maybe you’ve gotten to know the sound of your monitors like the back of your hand or invested in a finely-calibrated mixing room for the most transparent sound possible—or maybe you’re working with entry-level monitors in an untreated room and not entirely sure you can trust the results yet. No matter what your monitoring setup looks like, headphones can always improve your mixing.
If headphones aren’t a regular part of your process, you’re missing out on a critical mixing tool that will help you make better decisions and create balanced mixes that translate accurately for all listeners. Even if you have a set of boutique three-way tower speakers you’ve mixed on for 40 years in a room with finely-tuned acoustics, you’re still not seeing the whole picture if you don’t check your mix in headphones.
Don’t get us wrong; having a good pair of monitors will always be important, but it’s certainly not the endgame of mixing. To be the best mixer you can be, you’ve got to make full use of all the tools at your disposal. Imagine if an artist always painted with a long brush from several feet away and never turned their head or looked closer to see the detail in their work. The paintings would still look good to a casual observer, but anybody who looked from a different angle or got up close to appreciate the finer points might be disappointed.
In this article, we’ll cover some of the major ways that headphones can help you make better mixes and suggest some high-performing open-back models at a variety of price points.
When you switch from mixing on speakers to headphones, you’ll instantly hear everything from a new perspective. Certain details (or flaws) will stick out more in headphones, allowing you to focus in and fine-tune your mix at a microscopic level. This is especially helpful for making smooth edits, fine-tuning plugin settings and hunting down sources of noise.
Another important reason to reference your mix in headphones is to experience your work how the end listener will hear it. Headphones and earbuds are the default for millions of people who listen to music while they exercise, commute or study, and even some audiophiles prefer a top-shelf pair of planar magnetic open-backs like the Audeze MM-500 to a set of boutique hi-fi speakers. A large portion of gamers use headphones as well, so if your music is destined for a game, you might even want to start your mixes in headphones for best results.
If you have multiple types of headphones, earbuds or in-ear monitors, you’re at an even bigger advantage because you’ll be able to hear your mix from more perspectives. For example, you can make sure there’s enough bass to be heard on budget-level earbuds without becoming overpowering in bass-heavy consumer headphones. That’s not to say you should make major changes based on how one particular product sounds—they’re simply references to take into account.
Panning in stereo is completely different with headphones compared to speakers. The standard angle of separation for stereo monitors is 60 degrees, while headphones put the left and right channels at 180 degrees from each other. That’s like sticking your head in between your speakers (and you can bet your mix would sound pretty different that way)! If you want your panning to translate well on both types of systems, mixing with headphones is a critical step.
Have you ever listened to a stereo remix of music made in the 1960s or before, which was originally mixed in mono? Often, the drums, bass and other instruments will be hard-panned left or right—something you rarely hear today. That’s because when you listen in headphones, the balance of the mix is sometimes so lopsided that it can distract from the song itself. We’re not saying hard-panning is wrong, just that you should consider what it might sound best for, such as double-tracked guitars or vocal harmonies.
If you mix in a spatial audio format like Dolby Atmos, DTS:X or Ambisonics, good headphones are a must-have. With a binaural decoder, you can experience a fully spatial mix in headphones and pan sounds all around you, including behind and above your head. In-ear monitors are best suited to binaural monitoring because their sound isn’t affected at all by the shape of your ear, but a decent pair of over-ear headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro will do just fine. Even if you don’t mix in spatial audio formats, certain modeling headphones like the Steven Slate Audio VSX use binaural technology to let you hear your stereo mixes in different virtual spaces.
If you’ve ever spent time dialing in the perfect reverb sound only to discover it sounds completely different in headphones, you already know how much your mixing environment can affect the sense of space in your mix. The air between you and the speakers, plus reflections from your room (unless it’s completely covered by absorbers), will give everything a small baseline level of “perceived reverb;” which can influence the way you use reverb plugins.
Here’s how it works: while monitoring your mix on speakers and hearing that extra bit of room reverb, you’ll add an amount of additional reverb that feels right for a given track. However, when you listen back to your mix in headphones, you’ll hear only the added reverb, making everything sound just a bit drier. Don’t let this psychoacoustic trickery freak you out too much, though. As long as you make it a point to put on some high-quality headphones once in a while, you’ll have an accurate picture of the reverb in your mixes.
The isolation and up-close sound that headphones provide (even relatively inexpensive open-back models like the Neumann NDH 30) also makes it easier to hear the subtle character of your reverbs, especially the quiet decay tails. If you solo a track and its reverb send in your headphones, you’ll be able to hyper-focus on the nuances of the sound and fine-tune it just the way you want it.
Just like with monitors, you can only trust headphones that have a very transparent sound or that you’re very familiar with the sound of. If you can get your hands on a pair of neutral, open-back headphones like Audeze LCD-X, you’ll be in a good spot. Otherwise, a slightly more musical sound is fine, as long as you’ve listened to plenty of other music with them so you know what you’re judging your mix against.
Besides the overall sound, characteristics like transient response, self-noise and dynamic range are all extremely important, so be sure to compare these stats when shopping for headphones. Finally, comfort is almost as important as sound, so be sure to get a lightweight or well-padded pair like the Clear Mg Professional from Focal that won’t bother you after a long mixing session. Once you’ve found the perfect pair of cans and integrated them into your workflow, better mixes are sure to follow.
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