Welcome to Day 9 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

Yesterday we took a look at studio monitors, but what if you don’t have studio monitors?

Or perhaps you’re like so many home studio owners; your prime time to work is when the wife/kids/pets are all sleeping. Gotta keep things quiet, so you reach for your trusty headphones.

Can you get a good-sounding mix with headphones?

There are two trains of thought here. Some people will tell you that the only way to get great mixes is to use studio monitors. They’ll refer you to the hundreds of great-sounding albums out there, which were all mixed on monitors, not headphones.

Other people will tell you that headphones are wonderful for mixing. They’ll tell you that since they fit directly on your ears, you don’t have to worry about all the pesky acoustic issues in your room. And they’ll argue that most people listen to music on earbuds these days anyway.

I think both groups are right. Yes, most professionals mix on studio monitors. Yes, it’s possible to get a good mix on headphones.

The key is to learn how to mix on both.

For example, panning a guitar hard left won’t sound nearly as dramatic on monitors as it does on headphones. On headphones, you’re only hearing the guitar in your left ear. On monitors, you still hear it a little bit in the right ear.

Also, balancing levels is very different from headphones to monitors. I’ve found that if I mix a lead vocal on headphones exclusively, nine times out of ten it’s too loud when I listen on monitors.

There are a thousand other little inconsistencies between the two. The key is to spend time with both. Listen to your favorite album on both your headphones and your monitors.

There will be subtle differences. Knowing these differences will be the key to mastering the art of mixing on both headphones and studio monitors.

For more, read this article I wrote called Headphones: To Mix or Not To Mix. I spell out in a bit more detail the pros and cons between monitors and headphones.

Day 9 Challenge

Your challenge for today is to repeat your Day 8 Challenge on headphones. Listen to the same album, and leave a comment on what differences you noticed. How will this change your approach to mixing?

  • Arjun

    Unfortunately, since I do not have studio monitors, I guess I did this challenge in Day 8. However, I completely agree with Joe about vocals sounding louder on other speakers when mixed exclusively on headphones. I was wondering about why I was running into this anomaly. I thought that maybe I was the only one who was running into this problem, being an amateur mixing engineer. But, it looks like I’m not.

  • Matt

    My headphones are a bit more revealing and detailed than my monitors, and stereo image seems a bit more defined. I can hear the bass better than on my monitors. Also, since they are closed back headphones, there isn’t the background noise such as the computer hard drive, et cetera, to deal with.

  • Great idea Joe, I love nothing more than an excuse to listen to a whole album in it’s entirety! 🙂 The album I’m currently listening to the most on my monitors and headphones is Lee Ritenour’s 6-String Theory. If you don’t own this album, I highly recommend it:

    http://www.amazon.com/6-String-Theory-Lee-Ritenour/dp/B003K025TQ

  • Well, actually, I somehow managed to do my recent mix best on my headphones. I was really surprised at the outcome. It is balanced so well now. But do not pan on headphones with a great success…on the other hand I often check my stereo width with headphones.

  • 112db’s Redline monitor has been a blessing in tandem with my HD600s!

    http://www.112db.com/redline/monitor/

  • Create Music Tips

    I just know that when I get a good mix from my monitors, it almost always sounds great on my headphones. But when I get a good mix going on my headphones, it usually sucks on the monitors.

  • Preshan

    My headphones are a bit more revealing and detailed than my monitors, and stereo image seems a bit more defined. My headphones don’t have much bass though, so when mixing on them, I literally have to think “If I can hear the bass clearly, it’s too loud…” But then again, I don’t mix very bass heavy. I’ve got HD280’s.

  • Everett Meloy

    I almost always mix with headphones and then listen to it on the monitors to check interment placement, levels and panning. Then bounce back and forth to get the happy medium.

  • Christopher w

    My headphones have too much top-end so I do have to check that my compensations are correct often. Headphones are deficiently different from monitors, I think they are not the most accurate but you do get immersed in the sound.

    • I think it also depends on the headphones. My Sennheiser HD650’s, for example, are much more accurate than my monitors.

      (Not necessarily BETTER, but seemingly more accurate.)

  • Frank Adrian

    I often get an initial mix with headphones (yes, I have a wife and daughter and a less than ideal sonic isolation situation). After that, it’s less time (and usually minor tweaks) to get the final mix in your monitors.

    The other thing that you usually want to do with headphones is precision work – things like editing individual tracks. The details (too loud breath sounds, string squeaks, etc.) that annoy you really stand out in the headphones. Get them to a non-annoying level with headphones and you you’ll have them just right in the mix (enough to give the mix life, but barely noticeable). They’re also great for details like adjusting timing of parts closer to the click.

    So, just like everything else, monitors aren’t always the right tool. I wouldn’t recommend trying to get a mix through earbuds, though (although you still want to listen to your final mix in them to make sure that it doesn’t totally suck). Finally, remember that the quality of the work will depend on the quality of the headphones and don’t forget comfort as well as sonic precision when you pick out a pair.

  • Bob Sorace

    I use headphones to check my panning. Being a huge Pink Floyd fan, I try adding a little creative panning in a lot of my stuff. Funny that I’ve not listened to any Floyd with only headphones. I generaly don’t like headphones very much, I like the music to punch me in the chest, but it looks like Dark Side of the Moon’s gonna get a spin on the headphones.

    • Bob Sorace

      What a great exercise! You can really get lost in the music. You really hear everthing, parts I didn’t know were there are suddenly jumping out at you! I started seeing the songs like a clock, drums, bass and lead vocals at 12 o’clock, guitar at 8 o’clock, Piano at 3, background vocals at 5 and 7. Of course all of these went out the window at certain points during the album. I need to do this alot more, great tip Joe!