Mixing on Headphones vs Monitors

Once you’ve recorded all the tracks and you’re ready to get ‘mixing’ (putting in the effects, balancing the levels, and even determining positioning (pan) for each track), it’s time to do the job right. A lot of people have questions about whether it’s best to mix using headphones or monitors.

If you want the best possible sound for your recordings, you’ll utilize both headphones and monitors. The key involves the stage in the mixing you’ll be at to determine which tool is best suited for the project.

Understanding the Key Differences

The human ear is a delicate structure, and the brain processes sound in a specific manner. There are two streams of sound waves that are being processed, assuming the listener has full hearing capacity in both ears.

People will hear in what’s commonly referred to as ‘stereo.’ This means they will hear the quality of sound slightly different in one ear compared to the other, which derives a full sound. This can be most easily understood if you think about looking at something in 3D.

Because people have two eyes, their brain is processing two completely different signals, one from the right eye and the other from the left. Even though that individual is looking at the same image, each eye is receiving slightly different signals because of the angle. Put together; it creates depth. If you close one eye, you suddenly lose that depth perception and three-dimensional characteristics. This is why regular photographs are only two-dimensional (height and width); they don’t contain the second lens to add depth.

This is essentially how hearing works as well. If one ear is covered (muted), then it becomes a mono sound. Because of this, binaural recording is what’s most commonly used (having the option to blend tracks from right to left or some level in between).

Why Use Headphones in Mixing

One of the key advantages of using headphones in mixing is to pick out some vital details that may be easily overlooked when using monitors only. For example, listening to the tracks and beginning to establish various settings using headphones will make it easier to pick up timing problems (a vocal track, for example, is off slightly in the mix) or pitch problems (the singer missed a few spots, and that now needs to be cleaned up).

When using monitors to mix, minor mistakes or complications are too easy to overlook or not pick up. So, headphones would be a good choice for initial mixing.

Key Factors When Using Headphones to Mix

It’s essential to understand that when using headphones, the sound is entering the ears at the same exact time, whereas when using monitors there will be some delay, depending on the positioning of the speakers. As a result, when panning instruments or vocal tracks (as in harmonies), there will appear to be far more space between the sound than what will come through with speakers.

Another factor to keep in mind involves adding effects, such as reverb and delay. When mixing with headphones, it will be much easier to hear even the subtlest changes in settings and these effects will appear thicker and wider as a result.

Once the final mix is generated, playing it back through headphones will sound amazing, for sure (just as it sounded while mixing with headphones), but the quality may disappoint when played through speakers. The effects will be muted, and the panning will seem less dramatic.

When to Use Monitors for Mixing

High-quality monitors are going to be the optimal choice when mixing the final cut. Headphones will help you refine and pick up the minor details that ultimately matter to the final mix, but monitors are going to provide the right balance for the master.

Because it’s incredibly easy to miscalculate the mixing levels of percussion, bass, and other key instruments using headphones, relying on monitors provides a smoother overall mix.

If you begin mixing using headphones, remember to make the appropriate adjustments because things will sound different. In fact, because monitor speakers will be spaced apart in front of you, your right ear is going to hear the sound from the right speaker first, and your left ear will hear sound from the right speaker second. This means the panning that sounded full on headphones is going to be softer and not as pronounced.

When you make the shift from headphones to monitors, remember this and don’t assume it’s just a trick of sound; it’s a genuine phenomenon.

Setting Up Monitors

High-quality monitors are key. There’s no need for large speakers, such as you might use for live stage performance. In fact, that will actually be a detriment to the final mix. Choose smaller, high-quality monitors. Set them several feet before you, usually over the mixer so you can maintain full control over the sound while listening to the playback.

Each speaker should be slightly angled. Spread them out so that the left speaker will be slightly angled toward the left ear and the right speaker will be angled slightly toward the right ear. This will produce the appropriate dynamic to have the most accurate sound during mixing.

Keep in mind that the mix will ultimately sound slightly different on large PA systems and computer speakers, for example, but in all settings, it should have the same basic quality.

The Temptation to Stick Exclusively with Headphones

Make no mistake about it; mixing with headphones can be enticing. It’s quiet, personal, and with a great pair of headphones, the sound can be amazing. However, no matter how exceptional the mix sounds over headphones, it is always going to be different once it’s played over any range of systems.

Some people can become overly accustomed to using headphones, especially for home-based recording. Laying down tracks and recording vocal tracks may be more convenient using headphones, and setting up the initial mixing is inspiring because of the quality and clarity of sound, but it’s deceptive for final mixing.

Also, having the optimal recording studio environment, including using monitors for mixing may seem inconvenient in residential areas, but it’s still the best option. Avoid the temptation of saving money and sticking with headphones or buying cheap monitors; this is only going to hamper the final mix.

A Few Pointers to Master the Mix

Be certain to set up the mixing room properly. Use adequate sound absorption materials, like carpeting, sound foam, and other materials to avoid unwanted echo and natural reverb. The mix that’s ideal will utilize only reverb and delays generated by the effects consoles, not what’s in the room.

Set up the monitors in a precise position. Wherever you’ll be sitting while mixing should be dead center between the monitors. Ideally, the monitors should be set at a proper height, usually slightly above head level, angling very slightly down. The speakers should be facing the ears of the listener for optimal sound.

Avoid the temptation to ramp up bass sounds through the mix. On smaller monitors, these may not sound booming or thunderous, and they’re not supposed to; those monitors are not bass bins. By overmixing low-frequency sounds on monitors, the final mix could become too “boomy” and even distorted, especially at louder volumes.

Be careful with chorus style effects on guitar and vocal tracks. On headphones and even some smaller studio monitors it may sound softer, less pronounced, but when played on a larger system or at a higher volume, the effect could overwhelm the track.

Finally, mix at a medium volume. Too loud and ears become fatigued quickly. Too soft and subtle nuances could become amplified on playback. Also, it’s a good idea to rest your ears. Fatigued ears have more difficulty picking up the subtleties that make for a great mix.