Using Headphones When Mixing? Here’s What You Need to Know

With the evolution of portable music players, people now use headphones more than ever to listen to music. Headphones offer an intimate listening experience and can guarantee privacy.

Can you mix with headphones? It is possible to mix audio tracks with headphones but you should always cross reference your mixes with other headphones or speakers due to the headphone’s built-in EQ curve.

Headphones let you hear the tiniest errors, audio dropouts, fader automation, unnatural crossfades and undershoots. This guide will help you understand headphones and how you can take advantage of them to create world-class music

Can you Mix with Headphones?

Mixing with headphones is frowned upon by some musicians due to headphones having a built-in EQ curve.

Manufactures of headphones commonly adjust the headphone’s EQ to give the listener extra effects such as more bass or treble.

If you’re going to use headphones to mix with it is very important to cross reference your mixes with other pairs of headphones, earphones or speakers so you can hear how it sounds on other devices.

If you decide to still mix audio with headphones you need to make sure to use a second pair of headphones and listen to your mixes on regular speakers.

Use a second pair of headphones

It is always advisable to use another set of speakers to reference your mix. It doesn’t matter if you mix on expensive studio monitors or headphones.

The trick here is quite straightforward: headphones have different built-in EQ curves which will affect the sound output.

This is important because if you have headphones that are on the bright side for example, mixing may produce a dull output.

As result, you will not be able to mix the top end perfectly. To deal with this problem, you need another pair of headphones.

Listen to the mixes on regular speakers

Once you are done mixing your song on both sets of headphones, the next step is to ensure your audio song has the right balance and translatability.

To do this, listen to the song on normal speakers for at least a day, to help you evaluate the condition of your mix.

As a result, you will get a more vivid image of how the mix translates to the real environment and the common listener.

Closed-Back or Open-Back Headphones? The Differences:

What are open back headphones?

Open back headphones are designed to allow air to penetrate via the ear cups into the speaker element.

This factor ensures pressure does not affect sound coming from the speakers. In addition, there is a small amount of echo inside the headphones, which does not affect your mixing.

However, open back headphones cannot block outside noise. So, expect to hear different sounds and noises from your surroundings. The headsets also leak sound out.

Therefore, if you are in an environment where there are many people, you will hear everything they are saying and they will hear what you are listening to.

Furthermore, open back headphones are more fragile than other types of headphones such as closed-back and semi-open headphones. So, if you want to own open back headphones, you must treat them with great care.

Pros of open back headphones

  • High-quality audio files
  • Critical listening
  • At-home listening

Cons of open back headphones

  • Listening at the office
  • Commuting
  • Listening on the plane
  • Blocking outside noise

What are closed back headphones?

This type of headphones has a sealed back, which is completely closed to block outside noise. It only allows sound from the speakers to reach your ear.

The difference between closed-back and open-back headphones is that your mix will not sound natural in closed back headsets as this type of headphones are made specifically to block outside noise.

If you wear closed-back headphones for a long time, they can make your ears warm and sweaty. Although this may come as a setback, the headsets are perfect for use in public places or where a person is commuting.

Pros of closed back headphones

  • Listening at the office
  • Casual listening
  • Recording/mixing audio
  • Commuting

Cons of closed back headphones

  • Venting heat around the ears

Benefits of Mixing With Headphones

Freedom of Location

When using studio monitors, you are restricted to only one location. While this is perfectly fine, it may not be when you are on a break or on the road, or if you do not own a studio yet.

However, headphones allow you to work whenever and wherever you please. There is no need to think about acoustic treatment

More cash in your pocket

Headphones are not cheap, and so are the good ones. However, when you compare the costs of setting up a studio and purchasing studio monitors, headphones are way cheaper.

High attention to detail

When it comes to quality, studio monitors outperform headphones. However, there is another way headset are better than studio monitors.

The fact that they are against your ears allows you to clearly hear each instrument and vocal in the mix.

This makes them perfect for identifying noise such as chair squeaks, pops, and clicks. You can also use them to add subtle sound effects that you cannot hear on studio monitors.

Work silently at any time

This is perhaps the most obvious benefit of headphones over studio monitors. When you are making music in your home studio or bedroom, mixing at 4 am on studio monitors can be uncomfortable to you and your neighbours.

Whether you are making noise or if it’s your neighbors distracting you, using headphones for mixing is a painless and faster solution to any noise problem.

Be Careful of Stereo Imaging

Stereo imaging is the art of giving an image a 3-dimensional visual impression. It can also be described as the technique of placing audio signals somewhere between the right and left speaker. The pan control is used to determine this placement.

Do not phase flip

The phase flip technique is one of the many tricks that music producers use in stereo image editing. This manipulation technique allows you to create a wide stereo image from the mono source.

By manipulating the mono signal and reversing the phase of the song, combining it back with the original copy with signals panned right and left creates a broader image for one signal. However, as a producer, you should avoid this technique at all cost.

Try to use micro-pitch shifts: avoid overusing panning for width

Can a mixer take a mono signal and add some additional width? Yes, it can. Panning lets you place a mono track on any area in the stereo sound field.

If you want to fill up the stereo space in an arrangement, you have to duplicate the mono signal and delay the copy by 20 milliseconds.

Next, you will want to pan the two signals right and left to create a bigger doubling effect, which is the sound of two broadly spaced musicians or instrumentalists performing the same part in unison.

This is known as ADT or standard doubling, a technique which many sound engineers use regularly.

Avoid using auto panning all the time

Auto-panning is extremely useful because it gives you the best repetitive echo and adds some excitement and liveliness to a song.

There are all kinds of auto-panning plugins that you can choose from – a great example is PanMan, which has the soundtoy effect.

There is only so much you can do with this plugin. For example, you can create an interesting motion between speakers.

In addition, you can add different effects on the mix- from running sync’d to temp to creating smooth auto-panning.

Headphone Mixing Tips

Use reference tracks

Before you mix your tracks with headphones, pull up several reference tracks. Reference tracks are basically songs that have been mixed professionally and sound similar to the project you are working on.

While listening to the reference tracks, pay attention to each element keenly- the reverb, the low end, the panning, and volume back, etc.

Listen to all the instruments in the song separately carefully. That is the best way to get used to your headphones- hearing what other professional mixes sound on your headphones.

This is crucial especially if you have just bought a new set of headphones or studio monitors. Use at least four different reference tracks to prepare for mixing.

Work at two volume levels

Put on your headphones once you fire up your mix and determine a decent volume which you should be able to hear everything well.

You should always strive to protect your ears when using headphones. The cranked volume will only make you think your mix is better when it’s actually not. It is at this initial volume that you will do 95% of your mixing.

Jot down the initial volume on the interface, but do not work at this volume for the entire mixing because your ears will get comfortable with the way the mix sounds and become lazy.

You need a lower volume instead. Turn down the volume knob until you can comfortably hear all the instruments in the track. Alternatively, you can make your own one-click switch in the digital audio workstation.

The best thing about a lower volume is that it reveals a lot of unhidden sound. If at this volume you can hear the vocals, snare, kicks and hits hats, then the instruments are balanced.

But if the vocals and crucial instruments disappear at quieter volume then the track is not mixed well. So, monitor the mix at both levels and you will be able to balance the tracks well.

Other Things to Consider When Mixing with Headphones:

Just because it’s easy to mix with headphones does not mean you should only use headphones

The mixed track may sound different when played over a home theatre system. This is because when the audio leaves the studio monitors, room reflections and acoustics might interfere with fiery beats. Rooms are not the same and so is their sound.

Peaks caused by standing waves can overrepresent or underrepresent some frequencies. You need to know that many people will be listening to your song in an unideal environment. So, make sure that your mixes are tuned to the real world as much as possible.

Always stay neutral and take not of headphone coloration

Different models of headphones have unique features. Each comes with its own frequency response that can affect the audio and how people perceive tracks. Response varies from one headphone model to another.

Therefore, if the frequency response is overrepresented with low-end bumps, you may have to reduce bass frequencies and increase high-end components that are less powerful than the bass.

Use different headphones when you are monitoring the tracks

It has been emphasized for many years that it is crucial to monitor a mix via several speaks. On the same nerve, many sound engineers are also making sure there is perfect translation across headsets as well. It would be advisable to do the same.

You will have to listen to your mixes on different speakers, from low-grade earbuds to top-shelf headphones to ensure outstanding translation. Look for a quiet environment and try to comprehend the sonic difference in every speaker that you have.

Keep in mind, a well-balanced mix should always sound great irrespective of how or where you are listening to it.

Related Questions:

Can you use in-ear monitors as earphones? You do not have to worry about that with in-ear monitors. The headphones boast of noise cancellation features that help you hear the monitor mix and also protect you from loud noise from loudspeakers.

What are the best headphones for mixing? The best headphones for mixing in the market are Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro, Sennheiser HD280 Pro, Sony MDR-7506, Focal Spirit Professional, Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro, Shure SRH 1540, Extreme Isolation EX-29, and the AKG K 701 headphones.

What volume should I mix music at?  Use 82dB for the first 4 hours of mixing and make sure you take small breaks in between the sessions. Spend the next 4 hours to list to the beat, lyrics, vocals to make sure that they are balanced and see if you can add any music ideas into the mix before mastering it.