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Mixing with Headphones: Avoiding Disaster

Talk to most engineers about mixing with headphones and you’ll hear a familiar refrain: “don’t”. That’s generally pretty good advice. You have to be really careful with headphones as they will “lie” to you about many aspects of your music. Sometimes, though, it can’t be helped. Maybe you’re on the road, maybe you can’t get into a studio, maybe you’re just making a rough mix for someone. If you absolutely must mix with headphones, here are some tips to help avoid the biggest mistakes people make.

Keep It Dry

Headphones don’t contribute much acoustic information to the sound you’re hearing because they’re so close to your ears.  Everything sounds very close.  You’ll be tempted to make things sound deeper, wider, and more lush than you should with headphones because of the flatness of the soundstage.  The best advice is to keep it dry because you have no frame of reference.  A dry mix is far more likely to sound good on speakers when mixed with headphones than one with a lot of delay and reverb.  Otherwise you’ll run the risk of a washed out sound devoid of impact when you add the acoustics of an actual listening environment and distance from speakers.

Keep It Simple

Fancy effects such as flanging, phasing, and their ilk will sound very different with speakers because their positioning will contribute natural phase shifts.  If you start messing with phase in your headphone mix you have no way of knowing what will happen when you add speaker distance into the equation.  Again, play it safe and keep things simple.

Use the Whole Stereo Image

While this is true when mixing with speakers, it’s especially true with headphones.  Headphones are two points of sound which typically generate three major lobes: left, center, and right.  These lobes will be loudest and things will sound especially huge when panned into these positions.  Remember that you have all the space in-between those lobes to use and that headphones will probably sound most impressive with things panned  hard.  Be aware of that and avoid the temptation to make everything live there.

Lean On Your Mastering Engineer

You are going to master this material, right?  When in doubt, cut and boost less.  Compress less. Headphones will seldom have flat frequency responses and generally have very different transient response than speakers.  For one thing their drivers are generally smaller and lighter, meaning transients will snap more aggressively.  Do yourself a favor and be conservative with EQ and compression.  Any equalization will introduce phase shifts and will degrade the inherent quality of the source material.  If you EQ too far the mastering engineer will have to EQ the other way, doubling the detrimental impact.  It’s best if you don’t compress the stereo bus at all.  A good mastering engineer will be able to turn a solid mix into a great mix if you give them room to do their work.  Their familiarity with their monitors and room will help compensate for your lack of monitors and room in the mixing process.

Use Multiple References

The same rules that apply to mixing with speakers apply to headphones: the more references you have the better.  In addition to your standard headphones (I use Sony MDR-7506) check on something very different (like I cross reference on Etymotic ER-4P canalphones).  Don’t forget consumer-grade headphones like plain white iPod earbuds!  If it sounds great on all of these, you’re more likely to have a solid mix.

If there’s any way you can mix on real studio monitors, do it.  Otherwise follow these tips and you just might be able to pull of a slammin’ mix with your headphones.

17 Responses to :
Mixing with Headphones: Avoiding Disaster

  1. Nick Lewis says:

    Great tips – headphones can be very misleading. Worth remembering how useful they can be even when you do have a great monitoring set up though. It’s always good to have another perspective, and a good pair can make tiny details easier to hear.

  2. ParanoidHumanoid says:

    Good advice. I am currently going to school for audio engineering, and for the most part we all use headphones to mix on Pro Tools. I definitely notice the difference in my mix between speakers and headphones. It’s all about quality control and adjusting levels for a perfect blended mix of soundwaves.

  3. Dan Connor says:

    Yeah, if you can reference on many sources it might work out but I’ve found once you grow accustomed to hearing the mix on headphones it’s hard to regain enough objectivity to undo “headphonitis” unless you leave the track for a month or something.

  4. Jeff says:

    The future is headphones anyway, so why not mix for them first?

  5. Dan Connor says:

    Because it really sounds *that much worse* on speakers when you mix on headphones first whereas mixing on speakers first usually produces good results for both mediums.

  6. I have definitely noticed myself not using all of the stereo image when mixing in the headphones. Like you said it is so easy to be naturally drawn to the hard left, right, and center because (obviously) that is where it sounds best. But it’s an illusion!

    Great tips, bookmarked, passing this on to another friend of mine who mixes in his headphones quite a bit.


  7. Dan Connor says:

    Thanks Ty! Cheers.

  8. I agree with this; mixing with headphone is just wrong. Although my experience is saying that many engineers are mixing with headphone. Great tips!

  9. Puiu says:

    Can you give us some advice on what headphones to pick? I’ve read many reviews and seen many videos which explain the ups and downs of certain models, but i would like a more professional opinion. Maybe you can write a blog post about this.
    Although i do a lot of research about everything i buy i feel like only 2% of what i read on the internet is actually true.

  10. David Abbot says:

    You should only temporarily mix with headphones like if it’s late at night but you don’t want to wake anyone up. From there do minor adjustments then go back to it the next day readjust some stuff with your actual monitors.

    If you’re trying to save money and that’s the reason why you bought headphones, I’d say that it is better to have one studio monitor and mix in mono.

    But just my opinion though

  11. This is solid advice for those folks, especially younger folks, just starting out making and mixing their own music. Often people in this position don’t have the money for reference monitors.

  12. Bcamaroz says:

    Mixing with your headphones is not the end of the world, but if you have the ability to choose between the two, why not use both method.

  13. Jamie says:

    Two things stand out to me about this article. First one being to keep it dry. i know with my headphones (Sony MDR 7506) I tend to make things very wet.

    This goes right into the other point have multiple references. your mix needs to be transferable. It should sound good on near anything that it is played on.

  14. This sounds like a “race to the bottom”, mixing for the guy listening in the subway or out running. I certainly hope somebody out there actually gets more enjoyment hearing good music on good speakers than a compressed mp3 file on ipod headphones.

    >The future is headphones anyway, so why not mix for them first?

  15. Mr Smith says:

    good info. i think keeping it dry is the deal according to my experience

  16. amo says:

    Great advice. I always thought mixing on high quality headphones was always the way to go

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