I often see introductory mixing guides that stress the importance of not relying on headphones for mixing music. While they make a lot of good points, it’s not completely true that you should never mix on headphones.
In fact, I think a lot of beginner and intermediate producers and engineers could benefit from mixing on headphones. These are the top reasons why mixing on headphones can be better than mixing on nearfield monitors. But first…
The Case Against Mixing on Headphones
The reasons that you shouldn’t mix on headphones seem pretty clear and compelling at first. The main ones I usually hear are:
- It’s less realistic
- Your ears get fatigued much faster
These are both true and I’ll address them here before you grab your pitchforks.
First off, there are some fundamental differences between mixing on headphones and mixing on monitors. The direct sound from a nearfield monitor isn’t completely isolated when it reaches your ears like it is on headphones. The sound emanating from each speaker blends together a little bit in the air. This phenomenon is called crossfeed.
It means that a small amount of sound from the left and right speakers will mix together and make the stereo image seem a little narrower. This is what leads engineers to claim that mixing on headphones gives your tracks an unrealistic feel.
On headphones, you have no awareness of how the sounds from the two speakers blending affects your mix. It’s true that the absence of crossfeed while mixing on headphones can potentially lead to problematic stereo field choices. But as long as you know it’s a risk you can avoid it!
There are some interesting plugins that can simulate the effect of crossfeed in your DAW, but why not keep it simple? Just be aware of your panning and the width of your sources in the stereo field and you won’t have a problem — don’t be afraid to pan wide!
The next main issue I normally hear is that headphones can cause bad ear fatigue more quickly. This is also true, but it depends on a lot of different factors. Ear fatigue can be an issue in any listening setup if you’re monitoring too loudly or sitting too close to the speakers. It’s extremely easy to lose track of your listening levels while mixing, but it’s incredibly important for your ears. Don’t mix too loud!
And no matter where you mix you have to take regular breaks for a variety of reasons. That won’t change even if you have the best listening chain in the world. But most importantly, not all headphones are created equal. I am certainly not suggesting you mix your album on a pair of consumer closed-back cans, or (heaven forbid) earbuds.
You’ll need good quality open-backed reference headphones to mix effectively. Open-backed headphone designs are much less fatiguing and much more transparent. That might sound like you have to spend a lot, but in comparison to the other options…
Headphones Are the Best Value for Your Money
Have you checked out monitor prices lately? There’s a huge variation. It seems like there are a lot of great options in the sub-$1500 range. But if you’re looking for a more serious pair many seasoned engineers will tell you to save until you can afford something in the $3000-4000 range.
That’s a lot of money! By contrast, the most expensive headphones in Sennheiser’s pro audio range top out at $1699 USD. Still a huge amount, but those are the best headphones money can buy!
Clearly headphones provide the best value in monitoring. Even a $500 pair is considered high end pro! The base price before you start seeing diminishing returns in functional quality for a pair of headphones is much lower than monitors. That’s a huge bonus.
You Need a Good Pair of Headphones in Your Studio Anyway
Even if you have nice nearfield monitors, you’ll still need a pair of headphones for other studio tasks like tracking or mix referencing. Why not start with a pair that are good enough to mix on? It’s the perfect investment if you’re just starting out with mixing.
If you know you won’t be able to afford monitors for a while at least you’ll have capable headphones to see you through. And once you get there you’ll have a great way to get a second opinion on your mix. Mix referencing is one of the most important processes for getting your mix closer to the sound of a polished professional product.
Good headphones should be your number one choice for referencing your mix somewhere other than your monitors. They’re a key part of any mature home studio workflow!
Room Acoustics Have More Impact than Speaker Quality
Most of the mixing environments that beginner and intermediate producers work in have very poor acoustics. That sounds judgemental, but I know you can’t help it. Unless your room is meticulously designed with acoustic treatment in mind it won’t even be close to flat or transparent.
Even if you bought top of the line monitors that cost as much as a new car, you would still have issues if you mix in a bad sounding room.
Headphones let you take your room out of the equation entirely. That’s a huge win. The single biggest issue plaguing non-acoustically treated spaces is inaccurate low end. EQing kick and bass wrong can mean your track has no foundation. That’s’ why even pros with high end mix rooms check their lows on headphones periodically — I’ve seen it happen!
Headphones are a vital piece of your gear arsenal, but there’s no reason they can’t be your main mixing tools. It’s true that they probably shouldn’t be your only option in the long-term, but until you get set up with a good listening chain, headphones are a perfectly workable solution.
Next time you feel depressed that you can’t afford a high end pair of monitors remember that you can still improve your work a lot by getting better at mixing on headphones.
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Michael Hahn is an engineer and producer at Autoland and member of the swirling indie rock trio Slight.