How To Easily Mix With Headphones – Your In-Depth Guide
People often ask me, “can I mix and master with just headphones?”
Yes. 100% yes. But don’t take this lowly writer’s word for it, Andrew Scheps, the mixing engineer behind superstars like Adele, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, and Beyoncé told the crowd at a NAMM show once that he predominantly mixes completely in the box on headphones.
So if he does it without much trouble, I think you can too.
However, you shouldn’t just end there. You still need to make sure your mix translates. So make sure you listen to your mixes on as many speakers as possible so you can hear how your mixes translate in the real world outside of your fancy studio headphones. Your mix can’t just sound good on your headphones. It has to sound good to the rest of the world too. Regardless of whether you’re mixing exclusively on headphones or not, the cardinal rule of translation is that your mix has to sound good everywhere.
Another thing, if you mix exclusively with headphones you’re leaving out one part of the equation.
The downside of mixing with headphones is that you still need to run your mix through every single hi-fi system you can find just to make sure it sounds ok in a real room on real speakers. Unfortunately, with headphones, you’re going to do that more often if you don’t mix with monitors to begin with.
You need the room around you to make accurate decisions. When you listen to music on speakers you’re not just hearing the music coming out of the speakers, but also the music reflecting off the walls. Ironically, the room is also a disadvantage, especially if you don’t have an acoustically treated room and it sounds reflective and echo-y. If you’re working in a subpar situation without a decent studio room, then headphones might be a better bet overall.
Good for Details
Headphones are really useful for checking details and doing really close critical listening. Think of them like a zoom in tool for audio. When you need to check out your audio up close and personal you solo it and listen to it in headphones. But when you take the room out of the equation, the sonics will change.
That said, headphone mixing is quite common, and it does adhere to all the same guidelines as mixing on monitors. It’s just a little more time consuming during the “perfection phase” because you still need to make your mix translate to every speaker system.
If you’re stuck mixing with headphones because you’d like to mix your hardcore EDM metal next to your sleeping newborn baby, here are some things to think about when you gotta keep it quiet.
Use Quality Headphones
Use good headphones from a reputable brand that designs headphones for audio work, like Sennheiser, Shure, or Sony for example. There are more brands out there, so it’s up to you to do your research to find the best headphones for you.
I’m hesitant to recommend specific models because it’ll date this sentence faster than you’ll find a troll on Gearslutz. As long as you follow the rest of the translation steps in Step By Step Mixing and cross-reference your mix on other speakers, not just your awesome (but hyped) headphones, then your mix should be fine in the end.
Check Your Mix On Speakers
Even if you don’t have quality reference monitors in your bedroom, I’m sure you can listen to your mix on some kind of speakers. The car speakers. Your TV’s surround system. Your dad’s old (“vintage”) HI-FI he only listens to AM radio on. Whatever you can find. Take copious notes and make sure to fix anything that sticks out during your mix revision session.
Be Careful With Stereo Imaging
Your headphones will exaggerate the stereo image because you’re putting a speaker on each ear instead of letting each speaker blend together in the room. When you’re mixing on monitors you’ll hear both speakers at the same time with both ears. With headphones your right ear only hears the right side, and vice versa. That might make for some weird mixing choices that you wouldn’t otherwise have done if you had mixed with monitors.
Open-Back Headphones Might Be Better
Because of the aforementioned stereo problem and lack of crossfeed from one ear to the other, open back headphones can be more helpful because there will be bleed from one ear to the other that doesn’t happen with closed back headphones.
Review Your Mixes on Other Headphones AND Earbuds
To get the absolute best translation possible, not only do you want to check your mixes on as many speaker systems as you can, but you may also want to try other headphones as well as crappy iPhone earbuds. You’re mixing for the listener, not the audiophile troll on Gearslutz, so make sure your mix sounds great to the final consumer. They are the most important, regardless of what the haters say.
Use Reference Tracks
Mixing on headphones doesn’t change the importance and usefulness of using reference tracks to make your mix sound closer to a commercial mix. It’s an even more interesting exercise because commercial mixes can often sound much different on headphones than you’re used to hearing them on speakers. Refer to the reference mixing chapter earlier and follow the same process with your cans on.
Use Room Simulators
Nowadays there are some plug-ins you can use that can emulate the sound of a room through your headphones. Unfortunately, I don’t have any experience with using them because I simply check my mixes on my monitors, speakers, and earbuds. But, I thought I’d mention the possibility for the sake of giving you a complete list.
Whenever you mix with headphones you run the risk of pushing things too far back. Because all the tracks are right there around your ears, they automatically sound louder and more present, which in turn makes you add more reverb to push things back. Or you lower the volume of the vocal because it’s too present in your mix.
But the thing is, when you play it back on speakers, you might end up with a wishy-washy mix. Things that were present before might be drowned out by other instruments. The vocal might sound super present on your headphones, but once you play your mix through the monitors it’ll be crowded out by all the other instruments.
It’s easier to start your mix on monitors and then tweak them with headphones. But if headphones are all you got, then make sure you check out your mix on as many speaker systems as possible. You don’t want that vocal to be drowned out just because you were lazy.
For more in-depth techniques on making your next mix the best one yet, check out Step By Step Mixing – How to Create Great Mixes Using Only 5 Plug-ins right here.