Two days ago I asked you, “Do You Mix With Headphones?”

You posted some really interesting stuff. Here are a few of my favorites:

David S.:

i cater to the most popular form of listening. so far, i’ve found that mixing to headphones and then listening on speakers has worked. i’m not rick rubin, but neither is anyone else who is not rick rubin.

Dave:

I do the main mix with Sony MDR-CD180 headphones, while checking with iPod buds, little Logitech laptop speakers and finally in my car. Between those, I can pretty much get it in the ballpark. I must be doing something right – on my last CD, even my most pickiest of listeners actually commented on how good it sounded. (excuse while I break my arm trying to pat myself on the back :-) )

Those both made me laugh out loud. 🙂

If you haven’t had a chance, go through the comments and read them. There are some really interesting perspectives. And definitely leave your thoughts as well. Discussions are always helpful.

Pros

Let’s talk about some benefits to mixing with headphones.

1. Less-than-ideal Mixing Environment

As you read through the comments, you’ll notice that there’s one central theme. Most people that use headphones do so out of necessity. If they had a properly treated acoustic environment with nice studio monitors, they would likely use those. But since they don’t have a great mix room, they revert to headphones.

I’ve talked quite a bit on acoustic treatment in your home studio. It’s absolutely a necessity for both recording and mixing. However, some people just can’t afford to properly treat their entire room. They may only have enough money to treat a portion of the room to allow them to get a nice, clean recording.

When it comes to mixing, though, frequencies are flying all around the room. There are huge peaks and dips in the frequency response of the room itself. (My room, for example, has some serious issues in the 120-160 Hz range.) All this craziness can make it very hard to get consistently good mixes. Acoustic treatment will help “flatten out” the frequency response of the room.

Headphones, on the other hand, don’t need acoustic treatment. They sound the same every time.

2. Increased Detail

Most people would agree that you can hear more detail on headphones than on studio monitors. I always use headphones for editing, for example. I want to make sure I don’t miss any pops or clicks in cross-fades, etc.

When mixing, headphones can give you an added amount of detail with things like EQ, compression, panning, effects (reverbs, delays), level balance, etc.

3. Keeping Things Quiet

Obviously, many of us live with other people, or in dorm rooms or apartment buildings. Also, many of us have day jobs, which makes “studio time” synonymous with “late nights.” When I first got the studio monitors I have now, I was living in an apartment, and I could only work on music at night. I was so bummed, because I never had a chance to try out the monitors, since they would wake the neighbors.

Cons

And now for some down-sides to mixing with headphones:

1. Limited or Exaggerated Frequency Response

One of the reasons we get big 6-inch or 8-inch studio monitors is so we can actually hear what’s happening in the low end.

Headphones typically cannot reproduce the lows the same way that studio monitors can. After all, they’re small little mini-speakers, so we can’t expect them to thump like a 12-inch subwoofer.

Sometimes headphone manufacturers make up for this by boosting the low end in their headphones. This isn’t necessarily wrong, but you need to keep this in mind when mixing on headphones. Since they probably don’t have a super-flat response, you need to know what the headphones are doing to your mix as you make your mix decisions.

2. Altered Stereo Image

When you’re mixing on studio monitors, when you pan something hard right, you’re still going to hear it in your left ear. The sound will travel from the right monitor, past your face, and into your left ear.

With headphones, this doesn’t happen. If you pan something hard right, it’s only playing in your right ear. This isn’t necessarily bad, but you might choose to pan things differently when mixing on monitors vs. headphones.

Also, the “center” of your mix is very different on headphones. When listening on monitors, anything panned to the center sounds like it is in front of you, between the monitors. With headphones, anything panned to the center sounds like it’s in the middle of your brain. This may seem like a non-issue, but it can effect how you handle things like lead vocals, bass, kick, snare…anything panned to the center. The lead vocal might sound great on monitors but WAY too loud in the headphones. Gotta find a balance somehow.

3. Lack of the “Wow” Factor

There’s something awesome about listening to a mix blaring loudly on a nice set of studio monitors. No matter how good you are at mixing on headphones, you’re really missing out if you never listen to your mixes on monitors. You need to be able to crank it up and enjoy. For one thing, it’s just fun. Secondly, it’s a great way to check for issues in your mix that you can’t hear at lower volumes with headphones.

A word of caution, don’t listen at super-loud volumes, whether you’re using monitors or headphones. Listen at a “reasonable” level and protect your hearing.

Final Thoughts

So, that’s my take on mixing with headphones. I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer here. You really need to evaluate your current gear, room, experience, and budget. If you can treat your room and get some nice monitors, great!

If you don’t have a dedicated studio room, or if you’re constantly mixing in different environments, it might be worth your while to get some nice headphones.

What do I do? I’ve had the pleasure of moving several times over the last year, and each room I’ve used for my studio has sounded very different from the one before. Since they’ve all been temporary, I haven’t been able to really dive in and treat them. So, I use a decent amount of acoustic treatment. However, the room still has some issues.

So I use headphones to give me a “room-less” mixing environment. I mix for a while on headphones, then I mix for a while on monitors. I’ve found that if I make major decisions with headphones and then “check” them on the monitors, it tends to translate much better than the other way around.

The biggest take-away point here is that you need to learn how YOUR system sounds. Even in a less-than-ideal mixing environment, you can get good mixes. You just need to know how to compensate for any problems your system brings to the table.

This is a long learning process, but it’s well worth it. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment.

[Photo by Paul.Carroll]

  • ipryda

    good info

  • Doug Beney

    Interesting stuff. I liked the part where you talked about learning your sound system. That seems to be key.

    I made an info-graphic illustrating the biggest differences between headphones and studio monitors. If you’re interested, I’d love if you could check it out.

    http://www.midilifestyle.com/blog/studio-monitors-vs-headphones-what-is-the-best-option/

  • Yevgeny J Potapov

    I can’t really see any cons about what you stated as “cons”. It actually more like “pros-2”.

  • chris gray

    I cant hear certain guitar parts that are panned far right on certain classic rock recordings. I have Sennheiser HD212s. The recordings sound great on KRKs though. I was listening to the Frusciante solo on “Suck My Kiss” and I can only hear some secondary guitar parts. The main lead isn’t there. Weird. And I can hear pans fine when I’m mixing.

  • Love my sennheiser hd280 Pros. My girlfriend got them for me a couple of birthday’s ago. The only issue i have is the curly cable. i’ve never been able to keep curly cables from getting all jacked up. still though, worth it for the sound clarity.

  • Ian

    I’ve been a ‘Stones fan for years but one night I listened to Let it Bleed and a couple of oter studio albums from that period on good headphones. That night I really got the detail of that famous two guitar sound. Before that they just sounded great, now I get why!

    • It’s amazing the new things you can hear in a recording you’ve listened to hundreds of times, right?

  • Bluebeep

    Awesome post! I’ve been very curious about this coz I tend to work at night and my roomie is a bore hehe

    I found another article that describes the stereo image and frequency response problems when mixing on headphones with some level of work around. Hope this helps too…

    http://www.rhythmic.ca/music-tutorials/mixing/articles/how-to-mix-with-headphones.html

  • I can’t seem to find those headphones around south africa.

    Can U Recommend any safe online stores, where I can purchase them?

    • Sweetwater.com – Give ’em a call. My buddy Luke is at 800-222-4700 x1236. He’ll let you know if they can ship to you.

  • I’m Still Skeptical about Purchasing a Pair of Studio HeadPhones because I want something that will Last & Give Me What I Expect From Them

    I recently came across good reviews on KRK KNS-8400 but still not sure if I should purchase them or Sennheiser HD 280 Pro or Another Brand.

    I URGENTLY NEED TO PURCHASE & I DON’T WANT TO REGRET IT

    • I’ve had my HD280Pro headphones for 5 years, and they still work just fine.

  • has anyone here tried beats by dr.dre studio headphones? how do they compare to others?

    • Hey Greg, I haven’t personally heard them, but I’ve talked to several different folks who have used them, and the general consensus was they have LOTS of bass and don’t sound very accurate. Some said they even seemed to distort the audio.

    • Kyle

      May be a bit late on this one, but having tried several, the Beats Solos sound absolutely horrible, and the Beats Studios have, as Joe said, exaggerated low end and scooped mids. Either way, for $200 and $450 respectively, neither sounds nearly as good as my $90 Sennheiser HD-280 PROS.

  • Great points, JSC.

    You seem like you might be new to HSC. I’m not against mixing on headphones. Heck, I love my Sennheiser HD650’s (See my review linked above.)

    I guess it really comes down to actually doing it on both headphones and monitors. We can talk theoretically about it all day long. In my experience I tend to EQ and compress more accurately and effectively with headphones. My level-balancing, however, tends to suffer on headphones.

    For example, I almost always mix lead vocal too hot in the mix when I mix exclusively on headphones. When I listen on monitors, I notice it quickly and make the proper changes.

    I think the ideal approach is to use both. You’re right, some hard-panning stuff might be great on monitors but not so much on headphones. Also, home studio room acoustics are generally fairly poor, which makes the studio monitors less “accurate” than a nice set of headphones. But I get the best mixes when I use both. That’s enough proof for me. 🙂

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  • B_d_c_

    Low frequencies should be felt so if your mixing dance music then IMO use headphones sparingly. Proper sound analysis tools are key (most quality meters don’t lie…for the most part), and referencing mixes of other tracks which you are happy with should put you on the right path.

    • Bluebeep

      I think the best is really using speakers but I donno if I can afford to treat my room.

      As you say.. reference mixes from other tracks – I think you mean make standard presets on eq plugs which is an awesome idea but what about tweaking the final bit. Maybe when you can you should use speakers but while using headphones it makes sense to get started with this.

      Good tip!

  • Just like many people, I currently cannot afford treating my room (or working on mixing during the day) so I would really like to see some good review of a few recommended headphone models recommended for mixing.

    • Bluebeep

      Seems like all headphones color the sound in their own unique way so it’s really a matter of trying a set on I think.

      What works for me might not for you. Nothing beats a trip to your music store 🙂

  • Never used ’em, but AKG tends to make good headphones.

  • Augusto Correia

    Hey Joe, can you shine a light on what models are cool for mixing and editing?

  • Col

    I stopped all mixing with headphones and now only use monitors unless its for critical listening or deep edits. my opinion is that a good monitor mix translates well to headphones but not so well vice versa when the whole mix has been done on headphones. I tend to only record and mix real instruments so this may not be true of other types of music ie electronic. the other issue I have with headphone mixes is how vastly different (and sometimes terrible) headphones can sound

  • I always mix with headphones. I listen to music almost exclusively with headphones anyways, so I already know what to expect.

  • Sam

    I LOVE my Shure SRH440’s…but I almost never mix on them. I’ll check stuff on them, but only after I’ve mixed it on the mains and the Avantones.

    I do think the Shure’s deserve some serious attention, though… they’re a steal at $100. Most people seem to agree that they’re actually better than the 880’s, which cost twice as much. I haven’t heard those, but I’m willing to trust them and keep the change!

  • Kirby

    Has anyone mixed with the SR-60’s (pictured above)? Strangely enough those are the headphones I was thinking about buying, as I’ve heard good things and liked them when I’ve tried them out.

    • I had a pair a few years ago. They were pretty nice, but they crapped out on me after a year or so.

  • My prediction is that wireless earbuds are going to replace computer speakers in the not so distant future. Once someone comes up with a hassle free charging solution and long lasting batteries that fit the form factor (i.e. small). At that point mixing for earbuds *will* be the norm.

    A while back I demo’d the 112db Redline Monitor plugin which aims to address headphone mixing issues. It did a decent job of lessening the extreme stereo issues Joe mentioned (i.e. center panned elements seemed to be more “in front” than in the center of your skull). Over all the plugin reduces some of that “poke you in the ear” quality that a punchy mix has in headphones. There are a couple of companies making something like this and if I were going to do a lot headphone mixing I might try them all out.

    • Jason

      I think ur “prediction” is ridiculous. I hate having earbuds in my ears any longer than I have to. I don’t always have to worry about noise (my neighbor’s gone A LOT) so I can crank it up whenever I feel like it. I listen to/record/mix music with a lot of low end and u cant FEEL that with earbuds (maybe a little with good cans). I have fellow musicians, friends, & guests over all the time too. U think I would pass out some wireless greasy earbuds??

  • Adam S

    I’d be interested to hear what types of headphones folks are using to mix in as well. I have Sony MDR-7506 that I am quite pleased with, but I do not have a lot of experience with other models out there. The Sony’s were around $100. I would be willing to spend a bit more than that now, maybe $250 tops, for something that was stellar.

    Like Joe describes, I have the day job, and a wife and a child, so in my spare moments of music making, it is usually with headphones on after 9-10PM when all else is quiet.

    This is purely hobby, and I don’t really know what I’m doing, but there is clearly a difference in the sound if I work on mixing a song in my headphones for a while then switch over to the monitors for a listen. I generally find that I get lost in the sound with headphones, it just sounds so rich and detailed, and then, when I switch over to monitors it sounds, well, kinda the opposite, just lifeless and flat.

    • I currently use the Sennheiser HD280Pro’s. They’re great for tracking and not bad for mixing. AKG and Sony $100 headphones are fine to. The high-end Sennheisers are nice ($400-500). Other notable brands: UltraSone, Beyerdynamic, Grado.

      • Adam S

        Thanks Joe. I also wanted to mention that I hear you on the take-away. I do not plan on rushing out to buy new headphones tomorrow. I definitely intend on learning the sound of the headphones vs. the sound of the monitors and attempt to learn to adjust accordingly.

        Of course gear lust gets the best of me sometimes, and it is interesting to know what others use and how they make out with piece of gear x.

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  • Lukas

    Thanks for another great post!
    This may seem like a silly question… Joe, in the post you say, that your room has issues around 120-160Hz. How would you tackle this particular range of frequencies? (My room resonates like crazy between 140 and 180Hz). Obviously acoustic treatment will not magically flatten only the range in question and leave, let’s say, 80-100Hz range alone, in order to balance everything out. Treatment is probably going to affect most of the low frequencies leaving us with the same relative balance between the two ranges, making the whole process a bit cumbersome, isn’t that right? (Or at least logical?) How would you approach that ?
    Thanks.

  • Alex

    Great post Joe. I think your insights on the topic are invaluable. I know I personally can’t afford acoustic treatment yet, or decent monitors, so I’m sticking to headphones for now. I know you are a proponent of the Sennheiser HD 280 pros, but what is your personal take Audio Technica brand? I’ve been reading up on the ATH-M45 studio monitor headphones, and they are at the top of my list to get. I want to make sure I am making the best purchase though. Your thoughts? Anyone else’s thoughts?