Can you mix with headphones? The ultimate guide to headphone mixing

Can you mix with headphones? The ultimate guide to headphone mixing

In this article, we’ll learn the pros and cons to creating a mix with headphones.

Whilst just about everyone would love a mixing room with perfect acoustic treatment and a high end pair of monitor speakers, for many home studio users this is not possible.

Perhaps your mixing room isn’t acoustically treated. Maybe you mix late at night when your family are asleep. Maybe you mix music when you travel. Whatever the reason, for many people, mixing with headphones is a necessity.

In this blog post we’ll cover the upsides and drawbacks of creating a mix with headphones. We’ll also look at 4 tips which will enable you to do the bulk of your mixing with headphones, switching over to speakers only to check and tweak certain aspects of your mix.

First, let’s look at the pros to mixing on headphones…

Mix with headphones pro 1: the sound is not colored by the room:

When you’re listening to sound coming from speakers, you’re not just hearing the speakers. You’re also hearing the sound of the room. The room’s acoustics can drastically colour the sound that you hear. Some rooms may accentuate some frequencies or under-represent others. That’s why it’s important to acoustically treat your room when mixing on speakers to create a neutral listening environment. Of course, when you mix with headphones this is not something that you need to worry about. That’s because the sound is going straight to your ears without interacting with the room.

Mix with headphones pro 2 – consistency and familiarity:

Another great benefit to mixing on headphones is the consistency that this provides. An important part of mixing is using a system that you’re familiar with. With headphones, no matter where you mix, the sound you are hearing will always be the same. This allows you to move from place to place and always have a mixing system with you that you’re completely familiar with.

Mix with headphones pro 3 – you hear more details:

When you work on headphones, you can really hear the detail in the mix. You’ll find that you can pick out things which you likely wouldn’t notice when listening on monitors. This can be great for picking up on clicks, pops, and edit points which may otherwise go unnoticed.

So, mixing on headphones offers some clear pros. But there are a few cons to mixing on headphones as well…

Mix with headphones con 1 – panning and stereo imaging can be hard to judge on headphones:

When you mix on speakers, you hear not only sound from the left speaker in your left ear and the right speaker in your right ear, you also hear sound from the left speaker in your right ear and the right speaker in your left ear. This is referred to as ‘crossfeed’. The sound from the left speaker reaching your right ear and the sound from the right speaker reaching your left ear arrive slightly later and at a lower volume level than the sound from the right speaker reaching your right ear and the left speaker reaching your left ear. These differences in arrival time and volume level are two of the key factors that our brains use to perceive the location of a sound.

However, crossfeed does not occur when using headphones. Your right ear hears only the right channel and your left ear hears only the left channel. As such, the differences in arrival time are missing. This leads us to perceive stereo images differently on headphones to the way we do when listening on monitor speakers. With headphones, sounds appear to be placed on a straight line running between our ears rather than appearing to emanate from in front of us in the way that they do when listening on monitor speakers. For many, this sounds unnatural and can make it difficult to make informed judgments about the stereo imaging of a mix.

Mix with headphones con 2 – headphones can colour the sound:

Headphones often do not provide a flat frequency response. They are designed this way intentionally. Headphones will often boost the low end. This is done to compensate for the fact that you can’t ‘feel’ the low end in the same way that you can when listening on monitor speakers. Similarly, headphones will often exhibit a roll off in the high end. This compensates for the way that we perceive an accentuated high end when mixing on headphones due to the speakers sitting so close to our ears. As such, mixing on headphones which don’t have a flat frequency response may lead you to make ill-informed EQ decisions.

Mix with headphones con 3 – fatigue sets in quickly:

When it comes to mixing on headphones, fatigue sets in much quicker than it does when mixing on monitors. Your ears get tired far more quickly and your ability to make critical mixing decisions deteriorates faster than it would when using speakers.

So, how do we overcome these problems so that we can mix with headphones and still get really good results? As promised, there are a few things that you can do which enable you to do the bulk of your mixing on headphones and then check and tweak certain things on speakers.

Headphone mixing tip 1 – mix at low volumes:

In order to minimize how quickly fatigue sets in, it’s important to mix at a conservative volume. This is also important in ensuring that you don’t cause yourself hearing damage.

Headphone mixing tip 2 – take regular breaks:

Due to the way that fatigue can set in quickly when mixing on headphones, it’s important to take regular breaks. Much more regularly than you would with monitor speakers. A break every 30 mins should be considered the minimum when mixing on headphones.

Headphone mixing tip 3 – check your stereo imaging on speakers:

As we know, stereo images are not represented in the same way on headphones as they are on speakers. Panning decisions made on headphones will not necessarily translate well to speakers. Nor will panning decisions made on speakers necessarily translate well to headphones. It’s important to check your mix on both monitor speakers and headphones to make sure that you have struck a balance which works well for both.

(Bonus tip – you can also explore plugins which are designed to emulate the characteristics of a mixing room through your headphones, such as the Waves NX plugin.)

Headphone mixing tip 4 – check the frequency response on monitors:

Lastly, it’s important to check your frequency content on monitor speakers. As we know, your headphones may not necessarily be particularly flat. Even if you’ve invested in a pair of headphones which are designed to have a flat frequency response, checking your mix on multiple systems is always advisable. So listening to your headphone mix on speakers to check the frequency content is a really good idea. Is the low end missing on speakers due to your headphones having an accentuated low end? Is the high end too harsh on speakers due to your headphones having a high end roll-off? Listening to a reference mix and comparing it to your own mix on a pair of monitors with a flat response will help you to discover whether your mix requires some EQ tweaks.

Following these four tips will enable you to do the main elements of your mix using headphones. Utilizing these tips means that you only need to make a few checks and tweaks on monitor speakers to ensure that you have a mix that will sound good for both speaker listening and headphone listening alike.

Do you like to mix with headphones? If so, what steps do you take to make sure that your mixes sound great? Leave a comment below.


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