Who ever would have thought that making music professionally on headphones would be such a polarizing topic? While one group of audiophiles swears by the utilization of headphones during the mixing and mastering process of a song, there are just as many naysayers that feel there’s no room for headphones in a proper mix environment.
As always – the truth lies somewhere in the middle. There’s a middle ground where some mixers are mixing completely on headphones and finding enormous success in the process. There are other engineers using them specifically as a reference to compare to their main monitors. Then there are others that go back and forth between the two.
Can an amazing mix be made with little more than a laptop and some headphones? Absolutely.
Can headphones actually hurt your ability to effectively mix a song? Yes again.
It’s all a matter of knowing what you’re doing when you slip them over your ears…
Frequency Spectrum & Dynamic Range
First and foremost, we need to acknowledge that the quality of headphones is better than ever and continues to improve. Even the most budget-friendly pair of studio cans today is a result of decades of research and development. An amazing pair of headphones can be purchased for $100 or less.
Some of you may be wondering how much R&D can really go into a pair of headphones, and you might be surprised by the answer. Acoustics are a tricky thing as anyone fighting with a live room’s design can attest to, but headphones take it to another level. Taking into consideration the close proximity between the ear and the speaker, headphone design is an art form.
The most recent innovations we’ve seen have come in the form of frequency range and dynamics. Modern headphones can get louder while also keeping softer sounds crystal clear. They’ve got the full frequency spectrum and their disposal and they use chambering to help lower frequencies resonate – offsetting the need for massive amounts of energy or larger speakers to have the same impact.
Client Pleasers vs. Accuracy
If we take a step back from headphones specifically, you may have heard the term “client pleaser” thrown around already. Essentially, a client pleaser is any speaker that does more to please your clients than it does to give you an accurate depiction of your mix. The reason you’d want this seems pretty obvious – a happy client is going to like your work enough to come back. But when it comes to our work as engineers and mixers, we need something that’s accurate above all else.
So how do you know?
Look at the frequency response chart of the monitors or headphones you’re looking at buying. You’ll want the flattest response possible to remove the “sound” of the speaker from the equation as much as possible. Think of it the same way you would with an interface; you want something that’s going to get the job done without coloring your sound too much.
Client pleasers are still fine to have around the studio and I know some artists that love to track through them. The bass through some of the higher end consumer headphones are incredible, but they’re just not accurate.
When your job is to mix the song, accuracy needs to be your top priority.
Open-Back vs Closed-Back Headphones
Another way that engineers and mixers are using headphones to mix without having them color their sound is by using open-back headphones. If you’re not familiar, there are the headphones that usually have a perforated back to them to the point where you’ll often see right through it to the speaker or listeners ear.
Open-back headphones have become so popular in recent years, there are even mastering engineers that swear by them. Even still, they’re not without their flaws.
For example, you’d never want to track with open-back headphones and you’re probably not going to want to mix with them in a public environment. The open-back design allows lots of sound to bleed through the back of the headphones, making them a not-so-ideal option for anyone that can’t mix in isolation.
But for those who can be alone in a room with their headphones, open-back designs provide some of the most transparent sounds there are. There’s no pressure built up like there is with a closed-back design, meaning you can mix for hours on end with far less fatigue.
Once again, transparency and accuracy prevail as the leading factor when it comes to professional headphones for mixing.
Monitoring Isn’t Everything
While your monitoring is going to be one of the most important elements of your mix environment, it isn’t everything. Put an inexperienced mixer in a professionally designed studio with amazing monitoring and I’m willing to bet they still won’t get a result as good as a professional with a laptop and headphones.
You need to understand each element of your mix and the processing they commonly require to take full advantage of your monitoring setup, headphones or otherwise. That’s why we pulled together our Virtual Signal Chain Secrets guide – as a quick reference for any of your channel strip concerns.