Transform Your Rough Recordings Into Released Records, Even If You Only Have a Home Studio

6 Top Tips for Mixing With Headphones

Headphones can be a powerful tool for mixing and mastering. They eliminate many of the issues caused by untreated mixing rooms, such as frequency buildups and harsh reflections. They make it easy to clearly hear all the details of your mix. They’re compact and portable, so you can take them anywhere. And best of all, they’re significantly more affordable than studio monitors.

However, mixing with headphones is not without its drawbacks. Many headphones feature exaggerated frequency response curves, which can drastically alter your sound. Headphones also have a much wider stereo image than studio monitors, which can make it difficult to place instruments in the mix. Plus, they tend to cause ear fatigue more quickly than studio monitors.

Thankfully, these are all simple issues to overcome. Check out some of our favorite tips for mixing on headphones to ensure your mixes translate to any system.

Use Open-Back Headphones

It’s a common misconception that studio or commercial headphones are useful for mixing. You don’t use your built-in laptop mic to record vocals in the studio, right? So why would you use your earbuds to mix?

While closed-back headphones offer better isolation while recording in the studio, open-back headphones tend to provide a more balanced frequency response and a more realistic stereo image.

Open-back headphones are kind of like speakers that you wear on your head. They allow air to pass through the ear cups, which prevents pressure from building up and altering the frequency response. It also makes them more comfortable to wear during long mixing sessions.

Open-back headphones tend to offer a more neutral frequency response, making them better suited for critical listening. However, their open-back design does little for isolation, meaning they’re probably not the best choice for late-night mixing sessions or listening to music on the bus.

Keep a Focused Stereo Image

Listening to music in headphones can be an immersive experience—but it’s not exactly realistic. Headphones have a wide stereo image that places you in the center of the sound. 

On headphones, mono sounds like they’re playing in between your ears, while studio monitors make them sound like they’re playing right in front of you—more like a traditional live performance.

When mixing on studio monitors, you hear the sound of the right speaker in your right ear first, then in your left ear a few milliseconds later. This is called crossfeed, and it’s how our ears help localize sound. 

But when mixing in headphones, each channel is completely isolated, meaning you only hear the right channel in your right ear and vice versa. This can make it difficult to accurately place instruments in the stereo spectrum. While it may be tempting, avoid hard-panning instruments when mixing in headphones for a more natural sound.

Use Software to Enhance Your Headphones

While it’s true that mixing with headphones can feel unnatural when compared to traditional studio monitors, there are plenty of programs designed to help improve the experience.

Programs like Sonarworks Reference 4 help flatten the frequency response of your headphones for a more accurate mixing experience. 

Most headphones feature hyped-lows, scooped mids, and boosted highs to make them sound more exciting. With a completely neutral frequency response, you can trust the sound that comes out of your headphones, and know that your mix will translate to any system.

Even with a completely flat frequency response curve, it can still be difficult to dial in the finer points of your mix, like depth and stereo width. Without hearing your music in a live environment, it can be easy to add too much reverb or make extreme pan moves.

Software like Waves NX simulates the depth, natural reflections, and stereo imaging of a real acoustic space. When you move your head, the sound changes—just like you’re sitting in front of a pair of studio monitors in the control room.

Use Reference Mixes

Even with a perfectly calibrated pair of headphones, it can still be tricky to know how to balance each element in your track—especially during long mixing sessions.

By using reference tracks, you can quickly compare your session to your favorite mixes, which helps answer questions like how loud should the vocals be, how much bass should there be, or how wide should you pan certain instruments.

You can either import tracks directly into your session and toggle back and forth to compare each mix or use dedicated plug-ins like REFERENCE to help speed up the process.

Avoid Ear Fatigue

Since headphone drivers are so much closer to your ears than traditional studio monitors, the risk of ear fatigue is much greater. Not only does ear fatigue make it difficult to make critical mix decisions, it can also cause permanent hearing damage. That’s why it’s so crucial to take care of your ears while working in the studio.

To avoid ear fatigue, be sure to listen at a reasonable volume. According to the International Organization for Standardization, the ideal listening level is around 85 dB SPL

However, this can be difficult to measure without specialized tools. As a rule of thumb, make sure you can easily hold a conversation over the level of the music. If someone enters the room and says your name, you should be able to hear them over the sound of your mix.

This becomes increasingly difficult with closed-back headphones, which is why a good pair of open-back headphones are so vital for mixing.

Of course, taking frequent breaks will also help prevent ear fatigue. Try to set a timer and take a 15-minute break every couple of hours to help give your ears time to rest.

Check Your Mix on Other Systems

It can be especially difficult to dial in the low-end while mixing on headphones, as many of us are used to “feeling” the low end from studio speakers.

An age-old method for telling when the bass is at an adequate level is when you can feel it in your chest. However, you’d have to monitor at a deafening level to make that happen while mixing on headphones.

Instead, simply try checking your mix on a system with decent low-end. Before sending a mix to a client or approving a track for distribution, listen to it on your home stereo system, in your car, and preferably somewhere with a subwoofer to make sure the lows are tight and punchy.

Follow these tips when mixing on headphones and you’ll be well on your way to dialing in studio-quality tracks!

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About Audio Issues and Björgvin Benediktsson

We help musicians transform their recordings into radio-ready and release-worthy records they’re proud to release.

We do this by offering simple and practical music production and success skills they can use immediately to level themselves up – while rejecting negativity and gear-shaming from the industry. A rising tide floats all boats and the ocean is big enough for all of us to surf the sound waves.

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