Here are the main steps to achieving good mixes, when mixing on headphones:
- Use a Headphone Amp
- Calibrate your headphones
- Reference on other listening systems
- Don’t Hard Pan
- Mix in Mono
When more people than ever listen to music primarily on earbuds or headphones, mixing with headphones, or at least referencing on them, is key to getting a sound that translates well.
In this article we’re going to cover the best practises you can use, when mixing on headphones.
How to Mix on Headphones
A lot of professional producers and mixing engineers might want to dissuade you from using headphones for most mixing purposes.
While there is truth to the fact that headphones aren’t the optimal way to mix your music, it’s hardly as big of an issue. When you take the necessary steps to prevent any shortcomings, that might come with headphone mixing, you can make some really great mixes, just mixing on cans.
While mixing on monitors can be better, referencing your mixes through headphones is a necessary step for every mix.
Headphones, unlike monitors are right on your ears, which means you get a more intimate and wide sound than you do with monitors. Headphones also really help, to find any tiny details or mistakes, that you wouldn’t be able to hear on your speakers at all.
The key to good mixes, when working on headphones, is referencing. You can mix 90% of your mix entirely on headphones. The last 10% you should reference through monitors, car speakers, crappy earbuds, etc.
There might be things in your mix, that will be apparent in cheap earbuds, and won’t be in your $3000 monitor setup.
Headphones however, tend to have a less flat frequency response, when compared to studio monitors, so some form of correction can be extremely helpful when mixing on cans.
Calibrate, or tune your headphones!
As we just mentioned, headphones are less flat than professional monitors. Even top-of-the-line mixing headphones won’t be as flat as mid-range studio speakers. This is why headphone calibration and compensation is a great tool you can use, to make your headphones more accurate.
Software such as Sonarworks Reference 4, have most popular mixing headphone models pre-set, as well as a detection mode, to correct any other pair of headphones.
Reference 4 takes the frequency response of your headphones, and adjusts it, so that it’s more flat, and accurate. This lets you trust your ears more, and it helps with translation between different devices.
While this isn’t something you HAVE to get as a beginner, when you’re mixing on headphones more seriously, Reference 4 can be a big help.
What are the advantages of mixing on headphones?
Mixing on Headphones have a lot of advantages, mainly, the fact that most people listen to music on headphones, rather than speakers.
Not counting enthusiasts and audio professionals, how many people you know, have a banging hi-fi setup at home. Now think of how many people you know have a pair of headphones or earbuds.
You can start to see the point right? Most music nowadays is consumed in a binaural environment, which is why mixing on headphones should be encouraged more and more.
Headphones are also much better than studio monitors at reproducing tiny details. Headphones provide a much more intimate sound than monitors, so doing precision EQ work and resonance taming is great on headphones.
Lastly, it has to be mentioned that unlike studio monitors, closed-back headphones will not be affected by your room at all. This makes it perfect for mixing on the go – you always have a consistent listening environment, to reference your music to.
What are the disadvantages of mixing on headphones?
Sound staging is usually the main issue with headphones because, you hear everything really close up, with the left and right channels separate.
This makes mixes on headphones sound overly wide and separated.
Most music is presented as a stereo audio file. Stereo, in it’s most basic, is sound from two sources, (left and right) combining together in space. Stereo speakers for example are stereo, because they combine in the air, before reaching your ears, this is called cross feed.
Headphones are binaural, instead of stereo. While the difference is barely noticeable consuming music, when you mix stereo music in a binaural listening environment, the difference is massive.
Closed back headphones also tend to have a “shut-in” sound, and can tend to sound more energetic, than your music actually is. This leads to mixes sounding flatter, than you thought.
Open-back headphones are usually considered to be preferable for headphone mixing. By leaving the back of the drivers open, you get a more spacious, and speaker-like sound, than you would with closed-back headphones.
However, open-back headphones leak a lot of sound, meaning they don’t block sound around you. This makes noisy environments, bad for open back headphone mixing. If you are in a noisy space, go for closed back.
It also needs to be mentioned, that Accurate Bass Reproduction is an issue with pretty much every pair of headphones out there.
When mixing an entire track on headphones, you’re likely to find you bass sounds either too weak, or too overbearing, which is exactly the time when you should reference your mix on other listening systems.
Ear Fatigue and Taking Care of Your Hearing
If you’re a mixing engineer, or musician, your ears are probably your most important asset. Protecting your hearing is one of the most important things for musicians.
Prolonged exposure to high volumes can lead to hearing loss and tinnitus.
Scary things aside however, ear fatigue is a very common thing with headphones. While it may be hard to notice while you’re carried away with making music, you notice it when you take your headphones off.
Taking breaks and removing your headphones is key, to keep your ears sharp. When you’ve been mixing for 4 hours on your headphones, you’ll start to make mistakes that you’ll have to fix later.
Lastly, if you’re a musician, you probably love seeing live music. Get some quality flat-response ear plugs when going to loud concerts or shows. Some bands such as the doom-metal trio Sleep go on stage with so many amplifiers it’ll blow your head off.
If you value your hearing, wear some damn earplugs. Our favorites are the Earos One and Earasers. If you want to know more about earplugs, check out our awesome article on the best earplugs for musicians!
What Headphones Should I Use?
Of course, the age old question, when it comes to mixing on headphones, which are the best headphones to mix on? This is not an entirely simple question to answer however, because there are tons of awesome headphones in all different price ranges.
If you want to find your next mixing headphones, consider reading our awesome list of our top 9 studio headphones. (All budgets included)
That being said, if you’re on a budget, Beyerdynamic DT-990 Pro’s are some of the best headphones you can get. If they’re a bit out of your budget, the Audio Technica M20X headphones are the cheapest ones you can get, that still sound flat, and are good to mix on.
If your budget allows for it however, look into Sennheiser HD-800 S or Beyerdynamic DT-1770 Pro’s which are some of the best headphones we’ve ever heard.
Headphone Amps and Interfaces.
While most modern headphones are designed for as large of a market as possible, studio headphones can be more difficult to utilize to their full potential.
Impedance is the issue here. While most earbuds range from 20-40 ohms, some studio headphones can go as high as 600 ohms.
The higher the impedance of your headphones, the harder it will be for your source to drive it. In simpler terms, if you plug in 600 ohm headphones into your phone, you’re probably not going to hear much. If you hear anything, it will be very quiet.
For headphones with higher impedance, you will need a headphone amplifier or an interface/sound card.
Matching your headphone impedance with your interface or headphone amp is necessary, when buying professional heapdhones.
For example, the Beyerdynamic DT-990 headphones have 3 different models, 32-ohm, 250-ohm and 600-ohm impedance versions. Whenever possible, you should get the highest impedance headphones for your listening setup.
While there are awesome low-impedance headphones, the higher the impedence, usually, the better the headphones will sound.
So, when buying professional headphones, don’t make the mistake of buying 600-ohm headphones, for use on the bus with your phone, make sure you can actually utilize, what you’re purchasing.
Make The Most Out Of Your Tech
Regardless of room acoustics, you can make consistently good mixes, if you learn how to use your headphones properly.
As previously mentioned, using software such as Sonarworks, to flatten the frequency response of your headphones is a great way to get pro level accuracy from budget quality headphones.
Headphones have a characteristically larger than life sound staging, as well as exaggerated bass frequencies. Additionally, the lack of cross feed can make you mix wider than you should.
There are multiple things you can do to minimize any symptoms of mixing with headphones, let’s look at some of them a bit more in-depth.
Mixing in Mono
Mixing in Mono is a mixing technique that pre-dates any other type of mixing. There are plenty of professional mixing engineers, who still mix primarily in Mono.
You might be thinking:
When we’re going for an immersive sound, how could mixing in mono help in any way?
Short answer – clarity. The most important part of your sound space is the centre. It’s where your kick is, your bass, it’s the ground on which the rest of the music is built around.
Most issues with mixes, are inherently in the center of the mix. Proper balance of your center elements is what creates clarity and gives each instrument space to work.
That being said, you can’t mix an entire mix from start to finish in Mono. You’ll be checking your Stereo quite often, to make sure that your sound is still wide and immersive, and great to listen to.
We usually love mixing in mono, but periodically. Some interfaces even have an awesome Mono button, to instantly mono your mix. Having a quick way to switch between stereo and mono is extremely helpful when mixing.
If your mix sounds great in Mono, it probably sounds great in stereo too.
TIP: Make sure that you hear every element of your arrangement in mono! If there are parts missing, you need to adjust your mix. The difference for Stereo and Mono should only be width.
Don’t Hard Pan!
Remaining with the theme of mixing in mono, when mixing with headphones, stay away from hard panning any of your elements.
While you won’t be able to tell much difference between 80% panned and hard panned on speakers, the difference is very apparent on headphones, due to the lack of crossfeed.
Ever take one earbud out, and can’t hear half of the song? This is because a mix has been hard panned. When you pan a track hard left, it will be completely inaudible in the right channel.
Making sure, that every sound has elements that exist in both ears, creates a way more natural and cohesive stereo image.
Referencing is easily the best way to make sure your headphone mixes sound great.
Checking your mix on as many different listening devices as possible will help you to hear a different perspective on your mix.
The key to a good professional audio experience is versatility, you shouldn’t be missing any part of the song, because you’re listening on a sub-par device. So, when referencing, make sure to listen and see if everything that is important to the track is audible.
Referencing shouldn’t be left to your studio headphones and monitors, because most people don’t have those.
Listen to your mix in a car stereo, on your phone speakers, on cr*ppy earbuds, laptop speakers. Sometimes the cr*ppiest speakers can tell you things about your mix, that you never noticed on your expensive headphones or monitors.
Sound quality doesn’t matter when referencing, all that matters is that you hear your mix as close to what you intended, as possible.
Another great tip is to play reference tracks through the audio devices you’re using to hear how your track compares.
Headphones are notoriously inaccurate, when it comes to low end bass frequencies. And, getting a good sounding, solid bass, is difficult when mixing on headphones.
Here are some great plugins to use:
- NX Virtual Mixroom – simulates a real studio room, accurately to help you make informed decisions
- Smart:EQ 3 – an intelligent AI EQ that makes scarily good suggestions for mixes & masters.
- Smart:comp – an AI compressor that helps you make extremely accurate decisions quickly.
- Sonarworks Sound ID Reference 4 – tuning headphones, getting flat frequency response.
- BASSROOM – for mixing bass in headphones & making informed decisions.
Plug-ins like these are awesome when need extra information to make the right mixing decisions, even on the most budget studio headphones.
While a lot of mix engineers would try to persuade you to mix the classic way – on studio monitors, mixing on headphones has become more than viable.
Today, a good pair of headphones is an absolute necessity for every mix engineer. Whether you’re just referencing your mix on headphones, or mixing the entire thing on cans, knowing how to utilize your gear to the best of it’s ability is key.
From getting great headphones and an amp, to assistive correction software, to headphone based mixing decisions, there’s a lot that goes into creating a successful headphone mix.
Hopefully this guide has helped you figure out what you need to do, to make your headphone mixes sound better than they ever have.
Check out our awesome headphone list, for some of the best studio headphones you can get today.
Alternatively, we have a great list of the best studio monitors available, for you to check out.
Toms is a music producer & DJ, born and raised in Post Soviet Latvia. Currently based in Brighton, Toms has had over 6 years of experience with all things production and in that time, he’s done a tonne of cool stuff! He’s played multiple festivals, had experience in the field with mixing & mastering and even become a freelance journalist in the music industry.
Toms currently creates music under the alias Sovereign. Producing music that’s intimate and subtle, while full of edge and energy, the young producer combines the artistic sounds of Trip Hop artists like Massive Attack, with the energy and youthfulness of producers like Flume, Jamie XX and Yaeji. You can check his stuff on Soundcloud.