I can’t tell you how many hours of my life I’ve spent with headphones on my head. Whether you’re editing tracks in your apartment at three in the morning or recording vocal overdubs, headphones are an invaluable component of your home studio.
First Things First
We took a look at studio monitors in the last article. If you’re new to this whole home studio thing, you may be wondering, “If studio monitors are so important for getting good mixes out of my home studio, why do I need headphones, too?”
That’s a fair question. The biggest single reason you need headphones is for recording. Since you only want your instrument or vocal to be recorded, you’ll obviously need to mute the studio monitors while recording. You need to be able to hear what’s being recorded as you record it, and that’s where headphones come in.
This could be an arguable point. Let’s say you’re recording yourself singing and playing guitar. Perhaps you want to play and sing at the same time to capture the feel and energy of the song. (Oftentimes the song loses a little bit of energy when you record the parts separately, i.e. guitar first, then vocals.)
In this case, you’ll use headphones to make sure the microphones are positioned properly and that everything sounds good, but then you could take off the headphones and just play. (Of course, if you choose to record this way, you can’t record using any sort of click track or metronome.)
I’ll do this a lot with quick song demos. I’ll set things up, then throw the headphones down and just play. It’s very musical for me, and it helps me focus on the performance rather than the sound in my headphones.
There are many reasons, however, why you would want to record the guitar and vocals separately. For one, you don’t get the sound of the vocal in the guitar microphone and vice versa. Also, it allows you to focus on the performance of each instrument individually and to record several versions, or “takes.”
When taking this “overdub” approach, you record one part first (guitar, for example), then you record additional parts on top of it (like a second guitar part, drums, vocals, etc.). To do this, you need a way to hear the parts you’ve already recorded while you record the additional parts.
This is why you need headphones, since, as I mentioned before, you’ll be muting your monitors during the recording process.
Which Headphones Should You Get?
There are various types of headphones out there – open, semi-open, and closed. For recording, it’s best to go with a set of closed headphones.
Closed headphones (particularly circumaural or “over-the-ear” headphones) are designed to keep the sound from leaking out of the headphone and getting picked up by the mic.
I’ve had many a recording session where the guitarist plays the last chord of the song, and then as the music fades out you hear a tick…tick…tick… That’s the sound of the click track (or metronome) bleeding out of the headphones into the mic.
Few things are as frustrating as trying to get rid of that ticking. Take my advice – get a good pair of headphones that provide a good seal around the head. (Fun trick to fix this bleed issue: Use automation the click track to turn off after the final chord of the song.)
What I Use
They both sell for around $100, but the HD280s completely surround the ear. In fact, they’re so good that when I’m wearing them I don’t hear my wife come into the studio. She’s scared me so many times that I had to make a rule that she’s supposed to flick the lights when she comes in, so I know she’s there.
What About Mixing?
As I mentioned in the last article, headphones really aren’t ideal for mixing. However, they can be quite useful.
I always check my mixes on headphones to make sure it sounds good to all the “headphone wearers” out there. I also use headphones quite a bit when I’m editing, as you can hear little details a bit better.
As far as mixing goes, I know plenty of folks who do their mixes on headphones, but typically a good pair of studio monitors is going to give you a better chance at good, consistent mixes.
However, the biggest challenge you face when mixing is simply learning how to mix on whatever equipment you have. You need to learn how your equipment (either headphones or studio monitors) sounds. Then you must learn how to make that sound translate to the rest of the world.