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Mixing Tips

Mixing On Headphones

Mixing music on headphones can be a challenging task, but with the right techniques and tools, it is possible to produce professional-sounding mixes.

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Black Rooster Audio 11 Jan 2023

"Headphones can be incredibly useful for a mix engineer because they allow you to focus on specific elements of the mix and make precise adjustments. They also allow you to work on your mix anywhere, at any time"
-- Andrew Scheps (Grammy award-winning mix engineer)

This quote from Andrew Scheps highlights some of the benefits of mixing on headphones. He emphasizes that headphones can be incredibly useful for focusing on specific elements of the mix and making precise adjustments, which can be challenging to do with speakers. Additionally, the portability of headphones allows for flexibility and makes it possible for a mix engineer to work on a mix at any time, in any location.

It's important to remember that despite the limitations and issues when mixing on headphones, it's still a valuable tool for the mix engineer, it allows for a different perspective of the mix and can help uncover details that are harder to detect on speakers. Moreover, it's widely used as a secondary reference for double checking, specially on the go.

Here are some common issues, that will make your headphone mix sound pale and lifeless:

  1. Inaccurate perception of bass frequencies: Many headphones' closed-back designs might result in a lack of bass response, making it challenging to balance the low end with other components of the mix.
  2. Stereo imaging problems: Headphones can also affect stereo imaging, making it challenging to accurately visualize the positioning of instruments and vocalists in the stereo field.
  3. Long-term use of headphones when listening to music can cause fatigue and a lack of objectivity, which makes it more difficult to make important decisions about the mix.
  4. Limited frequency response: Many headphones have a limited frequency response, meaning they may not accurately represent the entire frequency spectrum of the mix.
  5. Difficulty in detecting phase issues: Because headphones sit directly on the ears, it can be harder to detect phase issues which can cause problems with the stereo image, and affect the perceived loudness of the elements of the mix.
  6. Lack of room acoustics simulation: Headphones don't replicate the sound of a real room, which leads to the lack of understanding of how the mix would sound in different physical environments, this can lead to making wrong adjustments and decisions.

If you're looking to mix music professionally on headphones, here are some tips to help you get started:

  1. Use high-quality headphones: It is important to use headphones that accurately reproduce the frequencies of the audio spectrum. Cheap or poorly-made headphones can color the sound and make it difficult to accurately mix the music. Consider investing in a pair of reference headphones, such as the Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro or the Sennheiser HD 650, which are widely used by professional audio engineers.
  2. Calibrate your headphones: Just like with studio monitors, it is important to calibrate your headphones to your ears. This can be done using a headphone calibration software, which measures the frequency response of your headphones and creates a custom EQ curve to compensate for any deficiencies.
  3. Use reference tracks: One of the best ways to ensure that your mix sounds professional is to compare it to a reference track, which is a professionally-mixed song in the same genre as the one you are working on. Use the reference track as a guide to help you balance the levels and EQ of your mix.
  4. Monitor your mix in mono: Monitoring your mix in mono can help you identify phase issues and balance issues that may not be as noticeable when listening in stereo. This can also help you make more informed decisions about the placement of instruments and vocals in the stereo field.
  5. Use EQ and compression sparingly: It can be tempting to overuse EQ and compression when mixing on headphones, as they can help mask any deficiencies in the headphones. However, this can lead to a mix that sounds over-processed and lacks clarity. Instead, use EQ and compression judiciously to enhance the sound rather than masking it.
  6. Take breaks: As descibed above, mixing music on headphones can be a mentally and physically exhausting task, as you are constantly listening to the same audio for extended periods of time. It is important to take breaks to give your ears and brain a rest, as this can help you approach the mix with fresh ears and a clear mind.

By following these tips and practicing regularly, you can learn to mix music professionally on headphones. While it may take some time and effort, the results will be worth it as you advance your skills and knowledge in mixing music on headphones.

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Add a comment

Comment by Jay Sandez |

...and last but not least: use all the metering options you have available. :-P

Comment by Marc |

Tip Nr. 2 does not work, and won't ever work in reality. Human ears' physiology, mainly the shape and size of the ear canal, is too complex and individual, in order to "calibrate", the software would need to scan your brain.
You better pick a pair of headphones which sounds closest to your experience when listening on speakers – the dilemma being, you first need calibrated speakers/acoustics, otherwise you can't know what to listen for.

Comment by Bebbsn |

Hmmm...
"Human ears' physiology, mainly the shape and size of the ear canal, is too complex and individual, in order to "calibrate""
"listening on speakers – the dilemma being, you first need calibrated speakers/acoustics"

Comment by Jamie Marvel |

Thank you for the great reminder list.

Comment by Tomas |

Using proper crossfeed software such as CanOpener is also essential when using headphones for mixing/mastering

Comment by Adonis |

Step # 1: visit a otorhinolaryngologist and get your earwax buildup cleaned out
Step # 2: listen to lots of your favorite songs on your new flat response headphones
Step #3 : buy mixing monitors
Step # 4: realize the monitors are useless in a non-treated room
Step # 5: weigh the price of building a home studio properly versus outsourcing your music to a sound engineer
Step # 6: come to the conclusion that regardless the steps above, no one cares about your music in the first place

moral of the story: do it cuz you love it, no one else gives a rat ass

Comment by Lucas |

After trying numerous crossfeed, and frequency correction tools over the years, my headphone chain now consists solely of Airwindows Monitoring (on set to "Cans B,") which sounds the most natural to me, and Toneboosters Morphit, which is has given me frequency correction that immediately, and drastically, improved my mix translation, despite the fact that I'm very familiar with my headphones.
Ironically, they were some of the last plugins I tried out for those corrections, so hopefully this helps some people find out about them sooner rather than later.

Comment by Rusty |

Adonis!! Perfectly said! Comment section can now be closed.

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