Mixing Music With Headphones

mixing music with headphones

Most engineers are always against mixing music with headphones. However, that hasn’t stopped many other musicians to do it.

There are also other companies whose main priority is to help engineers to be able to get great quality mixes on headphones. We’ll talk about these companies later on in this post.

In the times that we’re living in, with the pandemic, most of us are now working at home and have no choice but to use headphones to produce and engineer music.

In today’s tutorial, I would like to share some of the techniques and tools that I use to get Pro mixes using headphones.

Can You Mix Music With Headphones?

If you ask this question to different audio engineers, I bet you’ll get a different answer from all of them.

Some will say no, others might say maybe and only a few will say Yes.

The short answer is Yes and No because it depends on a lot of different factors.

Things such as the type of headphone you’re using (we’ll talk about recommended ones later on) is one of the biggest factors. Not all headphones are designed the same or built for the purpose of audio engineering.

Another thing you’ll need to consider is how often you listen to music using headphones, if you don’t use headphones regularly then you don’t know what a good mix sounds like on headphones. These are the people who’ll struggle to mix on headphones.

For those who’re used to listening to music, watching movies, or play games on headphones then it will be much easier for them because they already know how good quality music sounds like on headphones.

Is it Better to Mix With Headphones or Speakers?

In general, studio monitor speakers are the most preferred way. But that doesn't mean good work has never been done on headphones, it’s just not that common.

So, the short answer is to always use speakers (if the room is treated) and then use headphones for reference monitoring purposes.

But there are exceptions, for instance, I would prefer using “studio monitor headphones” (more about this later) over using speakers in an untreated room.

It’s really hard to get great results in an untreated room since the room reflections will interfere with what you’re hearing.

Some people will spend $2000 on speakers in an untreated room. That’s ludicrous, I would rather spend $2000 on acoustic treatment and spend $200 on speakers.

So, if you’re mixing at home without acoustic treatment then headphones are the best choice. But not just any headphone, use ones that are specifically designed for engineering.

Stereo Image

One of the biggest problem with headphones is that your left ear will only hear what comes out of the left headphone speaker. This is called Crossfeed.

headphones vs speakers

Photo credits: samma3a.com

The diagram above shows how a natural way of listen to music looks like, with speakers, the left ear picks up sounds coming from both the left and right speakers.

Even when someone is speaking to you, their voice will be picked up by both ears.

So, that’s what makes it much more difficult to judge panning choices. This is why most mixes that are mixed with headphones sound narrow. It’s because you get tempted to pan things too close to the center.

You’ll do that without even thinking about it because you’ll be trying to avoid the strange spatial experience.

This doesn’t mean it’s impossible to get a great mix with headphones, this just means you should be prepared for a lot of trial and error.

In a matter of time though and with a lot of practice, you’ll get used to panning in headphones.

What Volume Should I Mix at With Headphones?

I don’t believe in dishing out numbers for the best levels, but what I would suggest is to use listening levels.

I know some people listen to music very loud on headphones, but you’re an engineer so you don’t want to do that, you always have to cherish your ears since they’re your biggest asset.

When I say listening levels, I mean, when someone is calling you then you should be able to respond without taking off the headphones.

You should be able to have a short conversation with someone without lowering the volume or taking the headphones off.

If you can hear all the sounds in a mix clear at listening levels then the song should mostly translate well on other listening devices.

Take Regular Breaks

It is very important to protect your ears and avoid ear fatigue.

One of the most important parts of mixing a song is to take regular breaks. This will help you reset your ears.

Take regular breaks at different intervals, when you’re starting the mix then you can go up to 40 minutes max (at listening levels), then you’ll need to take a break.

How long the break should be is totally up to you, but 10-15 minutes should be enough.

Then you can go for another 30 minutes max before taking your 2nd break. After your 2nd break then you start decreasing the time and start mixing for about 20 minutes before taking another break.

That should help you avoid ear fatigue, and making bad decisions. So, never underestimate the power of taking breaks.

Use Reference Songs

Another great way to reset your ears is to use reference songs.

It’s always a wise decision to listen to music before mixing, preferably music that’s similar to the music that you’re going to mix.

You can do this on your way to the studio or right before getting started on a mix.

I would also like to advise you to choose reference songs that are in the same key as the music that you’re currently working on. That will help you with making good EQ decisions.

Remember that the goal is never to get your mix to sound exactly like the reference song(s), but to be close enough.

If you go for the reference sound then you run the risk of messing up the emotion and feel of the mix since every song sounds different and uses different instruments, recording techniques, etc.

This is why I prefer to use a lot of different songs so that I can be able to hear how other engineers treat different kinds of sounds.

The problem with using one reference song is that if that song is too bright and your mix is not, you'll end up trying to get your mix to be bright even though your mix doesn't need that. But if you use multiple references then you're able to compare between many songs and avoid making poor decisions.

You'll also be able to give your mix a balance and feel it deserves without being fooled by one reference song.

Another good way to refresh your ears is to keep switching between the reference and your song during the mixing stage, especially when you're stuck or not sure about something.

Just don’t get lost in trying to make your mix to sound exactly like the reference.

Test Your Mix on Different Monitoring Systems

Once you’re happy with how the mix sounds when compared to other professional mixes then you’ll need to test the mix on as many sound devices as possible.

What I recommend is to have the reference songs with you when testing the mix on different devices.

Listen to how other professional mixes sound then play your mix, compare results, take down notes, and then make any necessary adjustments.

Do this in a car, home theater system, phone, laptop, desktop, airpods, etc. till you’re happy with the results.

Plugins for Mixing With Headphones

Fortunately these days there are plugins that you can use to make sure that you get the best results possible.

One of these plugins is created to give you the same 3-dimensional depth and the panoramic stereo image that you would hear from speakers that are in an acoustically treated room.

That’ll give you confidence when mixing by giving you a better representation of how your headphone mixes will translate on speakers.

I have to warn you though, these plugins are not 100% accurate, the technology is still new so you’ll still need to test your mix on different monitoring systems to make sure that everything is on point.

Reference 4 Headphone Edition

Reference 4 Headphone Edition

The Sonarworks Reference plugin is mostly known for measuring room acoustics, it calibrates your studio monitors, so you can trust that every mix you produce will translate well in different devices.

Reference 4 Headphone Edition is created for everyone who relies on headphones for monitoring. The calibration makes headphones fit for even the most demanding applications, like mastering, with only a few button clicks.

Every time I use headphones when producing or mixing I always have this plugin engaged because it helps me make better decisions.

The plugin supports a lot of different headphones, but I still recommend you to check if your headphones are supported before getting it.

The great thing is that you can contact them to include a certain pair of headphones if it’s not already supported. Talk about a company that’s serious about helping musicians achieve great results.

For this one, you have to keep it engaged throughout the mixing process.

Download Sonarwords Reference: https://audiospectra.net/p856

REFERENCE

REFERENCE 2 Plugin

Another plugin that I would recommend is called REFERENCE by Mastering the Mix.

This one is not specifically designed for headphones but it will make it easier for you to compare your mix with several reference tracks instead of loading a lot of various songs in your DAW.

It comes with great tools and insights to help you get closer than ever to the sound of your favorite music.

Since headphones make it hard to make good panning decisions, this plugin helps you see whether your mix is sounding too narrow or wider than it should be. This solves the biggest stereo image issue with headphones, which I mentioned earlier.

That is the main reason I’m recommending it, but it comes with other powerful tools such as checking compression against other songs, frequency balance, loudness, and more.

Download REFERENCE: https://audiospectra.net/reference

Abbey Road Studio 3

Abbey Road Studio 3

This is one of those plugins that got some bad reviews simply because people didn’t understand the purpose of the plugin, which just shows how important it is to read the manual.

The goal of the plugin is to bring the Pro acoustic environment of the legendary Abbey Road Studio 3 control room to your headphones so that you can have a better reference for your mixes and productions wherever you are (even when you’re on the road).

Here’s where people got it wrong, you don’t mix into this plugin, instead you have to switch it off when mixing then switch it back on when you’re monitoring. Think of it as a reference monitoring system like a car test, phone test, etc.

So, this plugin helps you get an idea of how your mix would sound if you were inside Abbey Road Studio 3. It allows you to test your mix on 3 different state-of-the-art near-field, mid-field, and far-field speakers.

Contemporary mixes and remixes of the Beatles and Pink Floyd. Modern classics by Radiohead, Amy Winehouse, and Kanye West. #1 chart-toppers by Frank Ocean, Lady Gaga, and Florence + the Machine. All were made and perfected at Abbey Road Studio 3.

So, who in their right mind wouldn’t want to test their mix in a studio that has such great history?

Download Abbey Road Studio 3: https://audiospectra.net/yseu

There are other plugins out there but I’ve never tested them, these are the plugins I use all the time and recommend.

Even if I’m mixing music with speakers, I’ll still plug in the headphones and use these plugins to reference the mix to make sure that the song translates well in as many sound devices as possible.

Which Headphones are Good for Mixing?

As promised above, here’s a list (not in any particular order) of studio monitor headphones that I recommend.

Ordinary vs Studio Monitor Headphones

Before we jump in, let’s first clarify the difference between ordinary and pro studio headphones.

Ordinary headphones & DJ headphones have a sound that is a bit exaggerated – or ‘colored’. They have a punchier sound, more upfront bass, and a boost in the high frequencies. That is why they also work well in loud environments, like when you’re DJ-ing in a club, for instance.

Professional studio monitor headphones have what’s known as a flat sound or natural accurate response across the whole frequency spectrum. This makes them great for audio production and engineering because you can hear the sound accurately – without any exaggerated frequencies.

AKG K702

AKG Pro Audio K702

If you’re after a wide, airy sound stage that’s not too bright compared to other headphones then you should get the AKG K702.

You also have to know that it’s an open-back headphone, so it’s not a good purchase if you want to stay quiet.

There’s also the issue with the right ear-cup that some people have reported online. I would suggest you to handle them with care because the material used to construct the headphone is not that strong.

Although they’re one of those fragile pieces of gear, they kick butt when it comes to sound quality.

If you have a good headphone amp, the amp will help them shine. They sound neutral, they are non-fatiguing (comfortable), and they have an awesome wide soundstage.

These are great headphones to have in your arsenal.

Click HERE to check the latest price

Audio Technica ATH-M50x

Audio Technica ATH-M50x

One of the most asked questions in audio engineering communities these days is whether the ATH-M50x is still worth purchasing.

The answer is a big resounding YES.

These are well built and steady enough to take a general day to day punishment. They still offer excellent value for money.

The ATH-M50x has exceptional clarity and they sound flat, which is great for mixing. They sound great no matter where you plug them (phone, desktop, mac/pc, etc.).

These are a good pick if you want privacy because they block exterior sound pretty well. The instrumental sounds detailed, the vocals are clear, and they produce great depth.

Amazing value, and highly recommended!

Click HERE to check the latest price

Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro Studio Headphones

beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO

The biggest confusion when it comes to Beyerdynamic headphones is what “Ohm” to purchase.

The answer is always simple, 250 ohm and 80 ohm will require a headphone amp while the 32 ohm version can play on any device without the need for an amp. This is the biggest question I had before I made the purchase.

The DT 770 gives you comfort for long sessions, the acclaimed Beyer velour pads feel GREAT. You get great sound cancellation, prominent lows, crisp highs, and detailed midrange.

The lack of detachable cables is unfortunate, but definitely an amazing value for your investment.

Click HERE to check the latest price

Sennheiser HD 650 Headphones

Sennheiser HD 650

This is another great sounding open-back headphone that delivers Pro quality sound. Very comfortable, cloth-covered ear pads, and it has roomy ear holes.

You will experience truly unique natural sound. The frequency response has above-average consistency. These headphones have near-perfect consistency in delivering deep bass, detailed midrange, and good sounding highs.

Unfortunately, like most open-back headphones, they won't be suitable for more casual uses. There’s no noise isolation so they’ll leak a lot (what you would expect though) and it’s not the most durable headphones out there.

Since it’s 300 ohm it will be best to get a headphone amp for them.

Overall, you get great value for the money, awesome sound out of the box without harsh high frequencies or boosted lows.

Click HERE to check the latest price

Wrap

If you’re reading this part of the post, then I really hope that you found great value and got all your questions answered.

By now, you should know that it’s possible to get top quality mixes using headphones. You know what it takes, the right tools you’ll need, and the best headphones for the job.

Now it’s your turn to engage, leave a comment below to share your thoughts about this post, and feel free to leave a question, I’m always here to help.