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.