Sure, we’d all love to have a proper studio with amazing speakers and all the perfect acoustic treatment, but in reality, that's just not realistic or affordable for most people. So what are the alternatives? Headphones can be used for music production as a cheaper alternative, but there can be a lot of issues – uneven frequency responses and poor stereo imaging being two of the main problems. So what can we do to make the most of our headphones and get the best possible mix with the equipment and space we’ve got?
1 - Get the right headphones
When it comes to finding a pair of headphones for music production, there are a lot of different options at lots of different price points. Generally, what you want to be looking for is a flat frequency response that doesn’t alter the original sound.
You also generally want to stay away from the more ‘audiophile’ focused hifi headphones. These may sound great but will typically colour the sound with a frequency response that is far from flat and are designed much more for a flattering sound rather than a completely accurate one.
If you can, get down to a shop that has a number of different models for you to go and try out. A lot of this can come down to personal preference around sound signatures and comfort so it can be really tricky to buy the best pair of headphones without first hearing them.
Open-back vs closed-back headphones
Open back headphones have grilles that mean that the driver is exposed and leaks sound in and out. Closed back headphones have this sealed off so all of the sound stays inside the headphone.
These open-back Sennheiser HD-650s have a grill on the sides that lets air (and sound) in and out of the earcups.
Quality open-back headphones are best for mixing and mastering as they generally sound more ‘open’ with a wider soundstage and a better sense of space. Also, because they allow air in and out, they also stop your ears from getting too hot and are more comfortable to wear for prolonged periods of time.
If you’re also using the same set of headphones to monitor while recording, open-back design headphones won’t be a good idea as they leak out a lot of the sound. Instead, look for a pair of closed-back headphones such as the Audio Technica ATH-M50x or AIAIAI TMA-2.
There’s also a good halfway option in semi-open headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT-880 Pro which will leak some sound in and out but not as much as a fully open-back design.
Do you need a headphone amp?
A good headphone amp is really important too to get the best sound possible. The output from your computer’s headphone jack is ok, but there will be a noticeable improvement with a dedicated unit.
The headphone output on a lot of audio interfaces, especially cheaper models like the mega-popular Focusrite Scarlett series is perfectly functional but noticeably lower quality than on a higher-end interface or dedicated unit.
Upgrading to a proper headphone amp like the Rupert Neve RNHP will get a clear upgrade in the clarity and quality of the sound from your cans. This is especially important if you’re driving high-impedance headphones like the Beyerdynamic DT 770 pro 250 ohm, which need a lot of power to get up to a good volume.
2 - Know your headphones
With any system you're using to mix, be it headphones or speakers, it’s absolutely crucial to really know it inside and out.
Reference lots of different music so you know exactly what a quality mix should sound like on those headphones. One of the benefits of using headphones to mix is that you’re quite likely using the same headphones day in, day out to listen to music casually on so you’ll get a really good understanding of how they sound.
3 - Use other sources to check your tracks
Whenever you’re listening to your mixes, it’s crucial to reference them on other playback systems – and this is especially true when working with headphones.
Check your mix on your car stereo, your TV speakers, phone speakers – wherever people are likely to listen to music, you need to check that the mix translates. We want to avoid that nightmare scenario that many producers are familiar with where you get your track sounding great on one setup and then when you play it on your mate’s speakers, it suddenly sounds dreadful.
4 - Use headphone mixing plugins
To help you get the most out of your headphones, there are some high-tech digital solutions in the form of a handful of clever plugins.
Sonarworks is a piece of headphone optimisation software that will apply corrective EQ to bring your headphone’s frequency response to being much more flat. Don’t expect it to make your cheap headphones sound like a £1000 pair but it will help you get a clearer, more accurate view of what’s happening in your tracks.
Can Opener by Goodhertz helps to solve one of the major issues with headphones – a lack of crossfeed. When you hear a sound panned hard left through a pair of speakers, you’ll still hear some of the sound in your right ear and vice versa. Headphones don’t do this which can make panning decisions very difficult. This plugin feeds a little of each channel into the other to give a sense the sound is coming more from a pair of speakers than headphones.
Waves NX takes a completely different approach to getting a great headphone sound. By using binaural technology and head-tracking, you’re placed inside a virtual ‘room’ so it’s more like being in a proper studio. They’ve also got versions that emulate famous studios including Abbey Road, Germano Studios and Ocean Way Nashville.
Giving a sense of ‘ambience’ to the sound is important as it’s something that’s lacking from headphones. We can often overcompensate by adding too much reverb to a mix to make up for the sounds being too ‘in your head’ when using headphones.
5 - What volume should I mix at with headphones?
As musicians, our ears are our number one tool. That’s why it’s so important to look after your hearing. It's easy to start playing way too loud when you’re producing with headphones.
When you’re working on speakers, it’s easy to know when things are getting too loud when the walls start to shake and the neighbours start complaining. But with headphones, you can fall into the trap of constantly reaching for the volume knob to go louder and louder.
Generally, you’re much better off turning things down a touch. Not only will you be doing your ears a big favour, but you’ll likely also get a better idea of what’s going on in the track. Turn the volume to a level where you can just clearly hear everything in the mix and leave it there.
Is it better to mix on speakers or headphones?
A proper set of studio monitors in a well-treated room will always be better than using headphones because they give you a more accurate representation of the music with a better sense of the left-right balance and a more physical feeling of what’s going on in the music.
However, speakers are very sensitive to the room acoustics so if you’re working in your bedroom or some other less-than-ideal space, you really won’t be getting an accurate picture of what’s going on in the mix.
Even if you’re splashing out on a high-end pair of studio headphones from the likes of Audeze, it’s still going to cost significantly less than a set of speakers and acoustic treatment for your home studio.
Should you EQ headphones for mixing?
Headphones will all have a different frequency response and to get an accurate idea of what’s going on in the music, we want that to be as flat as possible. There are some plugins like Sonarworks that try to correct this by adding EQ and flattening out the response. If you don’t like the current profile of your headphones, and especially if they’re less studio-focused models, it could be a good idea to try some EQ out.
Why does my mix sound good on speakers but not headphones?
Getting a mix to translate well onto different playback systems is the hardest (and most important) part of the mixing process. If it just sounds good on your speakers and then falls down when you put it through headphones, chances are that there’s an issue with your room’s acoustics – for example there are room modes causing bass to be exaggerated or lessened at certain frequencies. When you try to ‘correct’ this with EQ in the mix, you're going to find uneven gaps and peaks when played on a different system that doesn’t have the issues from your room.
If you want to learn more about how to get great sounding mixes – especially how to get that all-important space – check out our video course with the amazing DLR.