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Mixing On Headphones

Successful Mixing Without Loudspeakers
Mixing on cans is often frowned upon, but if you know what you're doing, you can get good results with only occasional checks on monitor speakers. Martin Walker There are those who say it's impossible to mix on headphones, but that hasn't stopped plenty of professional musicians, engineers, and producers doing just that. Actually, it's rather important to make sure your mixes sound as good on 'cans' and 'earbuds' as they do through loudspeakers, but listening to some commercial material, I'm convinced that plenty of it is never checked on headphones before release. On the other hand, if you work late at night or have a studio with poor acoustics, or a family that doesn't appreciate hearing the same two bars looping round, you might have no choice but to work on headphones! What's more, headphones can expose lots of tiny details in your mixes that you might miss on speakers. So, with the right approach, getting it right in the cans can result in an even better speaker experience — it's just a matter of adapting and learning to rely on your 'phones. While it's certainly tricky to replace loudspeakers completely during the mixing process, it's quite possible to do about 90 percent of your mixing on headphones. With occasional speaker reality checks, you should be able to create finished results that sound equally impressive (although different) on both speakers and 'phones. So it makes sense to test your mixes on headphones, and to learn how to work with 'phones to create mixes that work well on speakers. Here's how.

Commercial Mixes Many commercial mixes can sound rather weird over headphones. When listening to loudspeakers, your right ear receives sounds from the left channel as well as the right, but slightly later and at a slightly reduced level. This is due to the 'shadowing' effect of the head, and in particular the external parts of the ears, which act like complex direction-dependent tone controls. You also hear additional reflections from walls, ceilings and floors. This all sounds perfectly natural, because that's how we experience every sound around us.

just back off slightly the '60s and '70s. and headphones. includes lots of stereo albums released before high. Hints And Tips For mixes that sound good through speakers and headphones. the pan setting sounds appear to come from similar points in space for channel 1 will sound odd on as they would on a pair of frontal loudspeakers. the crossfeed on those extreme pan settings. You can get those extreme used to the skewed spatial response. so when you're listening to a binaural recording on headphones.On headphones. the pan setting orchestral. on those extreme pan settings. In fact. and you can pan settings. for phenomenon remains unpleasant for some. However. while that of provide optional 'crossfeed' that mixes a little of the channel 2 (highlighted) should left-hand channel into the right and vice versa. They accurately capture how we hear sounds through our own two ears. just back off slightly reflect sounds at higher frequencies. Here. sound-effects and virtual-reality for channel 1 will sound odd on recordings available that are specifically intended headphones. you hear only the left channel in your left ear and the right in your right ear. using Cubase There is actually a small selection of high-quality 4 as an example. avoid which sounds very unnatural. but the same sounds on headphones appear to off slightly on be emanating from inside your head. for instance. but the one-ear Here. even enjoy its intimacy. such as Beatles one-ear headphone sounds in and early Pink Floyd LPs. This If you want to avoid unpleasant technique is sometimes known as acoustic one-ear headphone sounds in simulation. to sound fine. Since our heads and ears absorb and your mixes. Crossfeed can make hard-panned 4 as an example. it can cause unpleasant oneheadaches and induce nausea over prolonged ear headphone periods. it's sometimes quicker and easier to start a mix on loudspeakers and then tweak it for headphone listeners than the other way round. such as Neumann's KU100. the pan setting for Some headphone amps. sound fine. accessories and plug-ins channel 1 will sound odd on (see the box on page 82 for examples of the latter) headphones. while that of I recommend it for listening to albums that channel 2 (highlighted) should otherwise seem 'unlistenable' on headphones. and many releases from your mixes. signals are generally rolled off by a few dBs above Here. just back front'. This sound fine. . for this reason. while that of for headphone listening. When sounds panned to the middle are sounds in your played through loudspeakers they are heard 'in mixes. mimic the natural behaviour of our ears. for instance. this positional information is lost when played back through loudspeakers and. using Cubase 4 as an example. These 'binaural' recordings channel 2 (highlighted) should are made using a dummy head fitted with ear mics.If you want to avoid unpleasant quality headphones were popular. instance. binaural recording remains a specialist interest. using Cubase about 2kHz. you can locate sounds coming from behind as well as in front. Any If you want to hard-panned sounds will be heard through one ear. and can be far more realistic than loudspeaker stereo. and even above and below your head.

if you want to keep extreme pan positions. In my experience. you just need a little practice to get used to the fact that they will sound further apart here than on speakers. half or full pan in each direction. if ever. to help them 'sit' better when heard on headphones without the usual room acoustics to 'glue' them into the mix. listening fatigue. using multiple. I've found that wearing my Sennheiser HD650s slightly lower (by extending the headband) and slightly forward on my ears gives noticeably sharper imaging. it's not a problem with most classical recordings. or you'll end up with a headache. since this will compromise the loudspeaker experience (remember that stereo played through loudspeakers will always have a significantly narrower stereo image than when heard on headphones). Many musicians have a set of pan-control starting points that they always use with loudspeakers. but I've never found this to be a problem. Try instead to take regular short breaks. In general. even at levels as low as this. Spatial Anomalies We've established that one-ear mono sound is the biggest barrier to successful headphone mixes: now let's see how to avoid it. Don't be tempted to pull them in much more than this. which should keep your decision-making processes fresh. panned to extremes. It's possible to manually set up crossfeed effects using a pair of global FX sends (each with a high shelving EQ set to roll off above 2kHz and panned hard left and right). and you can use exactly the same guideline positions as Consider adding a tiny amount of reverb to up-front exposed sounds. since they are invariably captured with relatively distant coincident mic pairs or spaced mic arrays. One obvious cure is simply to pull back extreme L/R panned instrument settings slightly. and are rarely. though. these are primarily used to alter solo/accompaniment balance. and panned hard to the opposite extreme. It is with rock and electronic music. while avoiding headphone unpleasantness. This will let you achieve even wider loudspeaker mixes. Some people are convinced it's impossible to get around the different spatial impression that headphones give when trying to create an overall mix that works well on loudspeakers. this isn't worth the extra fiddle over simple pan tweaks. and eventually hearing damage.Don't be tempted to keep edging up headphone levels. yet it makes a world of difference for headphones. to which you send a small amount of your hard-panned right and left tracks respectively (-20dB is normally sufficient). . I find L90 and R90 suitable positions for this on a Cubase pan control. If you're using circumaural headphones. Even if additional close-up mics are used for solo performers. you'll scarcely hear the difference through most loudspeakers. panned mono and stereo sources that we need to be particularly careful. which has a ±100 calibration. When positioning your other instruments in the stereo headphone field. try experimenting with how you position them on your head. Despite abandoning the final 10 percent in each direction. However. set totally wet (no direct sound) at a fairly low level. though. quarter. such as central. you can send your extreme-panned sounds to a reverb.

since they cover the outer ear. each make and model of headphone sounds different. to compensate for the fact that the drivers are right against your ear. Even when I'm mixing on speakers. such as drum kits.headphone mix starting points (just relaxing the full pan settings slightly) until you adapt to the different width. because you can hear everything so much more clearly. At higher frequencies above 1kHz they generally exhibit a gentle roll-off (perhaps 5dB down at 20kHz). while even at 30 percent of normal width. Stereo synth preset sounds are often extremely wide by default. This can sound odd enough through loudspeakers. stereo drum or percussion ensembles should be restricted to a maximum width of around 90 percent to avoid unpleasant one-ear results if they contain individual panned instruments or auto-pan effects. Choosing Headphones For Mixing Just as with loudspeakers. to restrict their width and allow more space for everything else. However. I generally switch to headphones to make such width adjustments. headphone designers are not striving for a ruler-flat frequency response: most headphones exhibit a hump of up to 4dB between about 40Hz and 500Hz. The cure for both problems is a stereo-narrowing plug-in (see this month's PC Musician feature for Mac/PC examples). . you can find some superb 'phones for less than the price of a pair of entry-level monitor speakers. particularly when effect-laden. and can easily take over a mix. and you generally get what you pay for. Unlike most speaker manufacturers. but on headphones it becomes bizarre (though it may be an effect you want!). As with mono sounds. With stereo instruments. Traditional headphones or 'cans' are more correctly termed circum-aural devices. to compensate for the fact that you don't 'feel' the bass frequencies through your body as you do with loudspeakers. and both are available in open and closed varieties. try to refrain from spreading their individual sounds all the way across the stereo image. most synth sounds can still provide plenty of stereo effect without swamping the mix. and some are more suitable for mixing than others. so don't compromise unless your budget is really tight. while the supra-aural type sit on top of the ears. There are quite a few different types of headphone available.

sennheiser. For those who consider the sound of HD650s slightly laid-back (I don't). If (and only if) you get an effective quality headphones models like Sennheiser's However. that car coming up behind you when If you want to create headphone mixes that might suit for exposing ever-more minute details.akg-acoustics. which also features a neat folding design that's handy for location recording. making closed cans less help you judge bass and spatial detail more suitable for long mixing sessions.gradolabs. one closed-back model that manages the trick of sounding really natural and providing extended bass. Nevertheless. Sony have recently discontinued this model (though a few dealers may still have them in stock). while others say that AKG's K701s (www. Meanwhile. seal. most portable CD and MP3 If you want to create headphone mixes that players are shipped with 'ear buds' (US) translate well to loudspeakers. yet remaining comfortable over long periods is Sony's MDR7509 (www. as each of these models can sound slightly different depending what you plug them have the cleanest sound around. which in turn reduces resonant cavity effects and inherently provides some cross-feed between the ears.Open-backed designs have grilles that expose the drivers to the outside world. for mixing. but with custom-moulded in-ear easily. but sensibly help you judge bass and spatial detail more provide little isolation so you can hear easily. If you need isolation. they are of little use for performers during tracking because their sound will spill into your mic recordings. using high ear monitors') sit inside the ear canal quality headphones models like Sennheiser's and are supplied with a selection of HD650 and AKG's K 701 (shown here) will differently shaped 'seals' to suit different help you judge bass and spatial detail more ears. However. the Grado RS2 (www. and they're also better for If you want to create headphone mixes that mixing if you're in a noisy environment translate well to loudspeakers. using high and want to block out the world. Sennheiser's HD650s (www. For this purpose. replacing it with the MDR7509 HD. These generally offer pretty HD650 and AKG's K 701 (shown here) will average audio quality. the majority of recommended models tend to be open-backed (for comfort and cool ears over long periods) and circumaural (for the deepest and most natural bass end). you get both a good bass response and effective isolation from the outside are very highly regarded in audio circles for their incredibly detailed yet neutral sound and for their bass extension. this isolation can also result in HD650 and AKG's K 701 (shown here) will sweaty ears. closed-back headphones are far more suitable. Finally. canal 'phones (or 'intranslate well to loudspeakers. using high or earphones (UK) that clip into the quality headphones models like Sennheiser's outer ear. you get increased isolation plus perfect fit and a very consistent bass response. Standard canal 'phones can therefore be a little hit and miss for judging the bass end of mixes. which I've not had . Your choice of headphone amplification may sway you one way or another. giving these designs a more natural and 'airy' sound when mixing.

Once you know how a mix sounds on loudspeakers you can also make comparative adjustments when back on your 'phones. Having said that. As a result. with a good set of headphones you'll be able to hear so far into the details of a mix that each instrument will be clearly audible even when its level is too low. with too much bass at 80Hz and below and. you don't get the physical full-body feelings that you do from the bass that emerges from loudspeakers. Some musicians. turning headphone mixes to whisperlow levels is a handy way to check that nothing 'sticks out' of your mix.the pleasure of testing. yet they sound 'bloated' when heard over speakers. While this can make the experience more realistic. too little in the next octave between 80Hz and 160Hz. making it significantly easier to judge bass levels. I still wouldn't like to make mixing decisions using such techniques. if you've experienced bass mix problems in the past. since I immediately heard 'real' bass that sounded much closer to what you hear through loudspeakers. but the bass end on many cheaper headphone models doesn't sound like the bass you'd hear from loudspeakers. although you hear bass through your ears. if only for a few seconds at a to replace the physical aspect. Just as when you use good monitor speakers in a well treated control room. it's quite possible to end up with a mix where the bass guitar and kick drum levels seem to be the same as on your favourite CD. Deciding how much bass sounds 'right' on headphones is a perennial problem because. particularly drummers working with electronic instead of acoustic kits. Regularly comparing your in-progress mix with commercial tracks of a similar genre always helps. If you are not used to working at this level of detail. So. One trick that may help is that just as you can use the 'standing outside the studio with the door open' trick to judge speaker mix balance. where your 'phones offer much greater clarity. but do take care to keep them within safe limits. I've successfully revisited mixes late at night entirely on 'phones after hearing them elsewhere through loudspeakers. don't rule out headphone mixing until you've tried some quality 'phones! Another approach (sometimes the only foolproof one) is to periodically check your mix through speakers. bass levels provide the main obstacle for mixing on headphones. Conversely. . such as Sensaphonics' Aura Bass Shaker (www. it's tempting to whack up headphone listening levels beyond that of speakers because you can. paradoxically. so you can easily misjudge it. have tried vibration transducers in their seats. Some balance and level issues can be trickier with headphones.sensaphonics. Judging Bass End Having resolved spatial issues. my headphone mixing decisions became far easier after buying a pair of higher-quality Sennheiser HD650 'phones. such imbalances become much more obvious. you may still find that when you go back and check your mix on speakers.

many people may end up listening to your mixes on such models! They may also help you decide whether or not to compensate for the lack of low bass with bass harmonic enhancer plug-ins like Waves' Maxx Bass or Renaissance Bass (www. After all. although I find it adds a harsh tonality. People have been designing and implementing such 'crossfeed' circuits for decades. will result in far more natural including uncorrelated pink noise to test for changes seems perfect for experimentation. the most effective approach is to slightly blend the left/right channels only at lower frequencies.html). which provides two sliders: one controlling the amount of crossover. will result in far more natural This comes with a help file that does a good job in results. these mix a little of the lefthand channel into the right and vice versa.Don't be tempted to hype the bass end if you're using lightweight 'phones (keep referencing similar material to check). and can therefore position sounds more as they would appear through loudspeakers. and remember that just as you can listen to your mixes through ghetto-blasters and in the car to check that they translate well. . explaining how all the different controls work. listening to your album There's also a five-band EQ section to compensate collection on headphones? for any small rise in bass levels due to the summing Some time spent tweaking this used (a low-shelf EQ starting at 500Hz and rolling freeware Crossfeed EQ plug-in off to about -2dB should be about right). Fed up with having your head including crossfeed. and the other the time delay that corresponds to the width of your head. Wavelab's Externalizer provides a single fader that progressively moves the virtual speakers both forward and apart. as well as for your ears and headphones various test signals to help you optimise the I found it quite effective and neutral in operation. For Mac. frequency shaping and delays to turned inside out while simulate a 3D and Fed up with having your head how to adjust them to reposition extreme panned turned inside out while sounds to approximate 'front speaker' positions. which give the impression of bass even when the fundamental frequencies are almost offering a host of parameters. the freeware Canz3D plug-in (www. Simulating The Loudspeaker Experience With Crossfeed Plug-ins If you want to try simulating the loudspeaker experience on headphones. Some applications are already bundled with plug-ins that reproduce such effects. The before-and-after listening to your album examples using commercial music are quite collection on headphones? impressive. However. To mimic this behaviour and make headphone listening more natural. Some time spent tweaking this The most effective PC plug-in I discovered during freeware Crossfeed EQ plug-in my research was the freeware Crossfeed EQ for your ears and headphones (www. why not try out some crossfeed plug-ins? As discussed in the main text. VNOPhones is a simple Mac/PC freeware plug-in by SkoT of Vellocet (http://vellocet. its design doesn't compensate for the fact that your head and ears also absorb and reflect a significant proportion of frequencies above a couple of kHz. having a few pairs of cheap earphones around can help as well. For instance.

Some examples include almost subliminal tempo-related echoes that add low-level interest. transient enhancement. With a decent set of 'phones. However. You'll adjust with practice. It makes headphones good for spotting unwanted clicks. as you can hear so far into the mix that even a tiny amount of reverb is fairly audible. you may even find it easier to notice the tell-tale effects of over-compression. Whatever you decide to use. open-backed models designed for monitoring will require lower crossfeed settings than the closed-back ones more commonly used for recording) and different listeners. but until then just remember to add a little more reverb on headphones than initially feels right. as they will need adjusting to suit both different headphones (for instance. It's just . Sometimes the room sound can be the final 'glue' that holds some aspects of the mix together. For instance. tiny amounts of distortion and so on. distortion and so on. and you should find that it doesn't push the sound further away when listening on loudspeakers. when listening on headphones. since headphones eliminate the contribution of the studio/listening room to the sound. and keep referring to commercial mixes for comparison. Another advantage to the clarity of headphone playback is that you can use it to add nuances and fairy dust to your mixes. where it needs to be heard over the additional room acoustics. occasional auto-pan effects to create mix movement. These subtle little details improve the loudspeaker experience as well. this level of detail does make reverb levels more difficult to judge. In fact. You could also experiment with more extreme effects. As a result it can be easy to underestimate the amount of reverb required for a loudspeaker mix. However. such as distortion or pumping. I've found Crossover EQ an extremely useful tool for listening on headphones to existing recordings. so they sound good to all headphone listeners. and also during the mixing process to quickly check how a mix is likely to sound spatially through loudspeakers. Moreover. if you have exposed upfront solo instruments or vocals that work fine 'dry' through speakers. some engineers and producers take their favourite 'phones with them when mixing in unfamiliar venues. using heavy compression. so when creating a mix that will be played on headphones you may need to add some final touches to your reverb treatments. incidental percussion and ambient effects. try to minimise the inevitable comb-filtering effects and other subtle changes in timbre you hear with crossfeed when mixing in delayed versions with the original signal. background hisses. Even adding reverb at levels about 40dB lower than the direct signal can help sounds 'sit' better in headphones. it's better to work on your own mixes without crossfeed. but mixed in occasionally at very low tonal quality with and without crossfeed. they may still benefit from a tiny dab of wide room or hall reverb. most musicians shouldn't find making decisions about EQ or compression any more difficult than through loudspeakers. It's All In The Details The fact that listening on headphones makes it possible to hear all the tiny details that you often don't notice through speakers has many positive aspects. so they can hear the sound of the recording without that of the room. but they are far easier to judge with headphones because you can hear the result of every tiny parameter change. and you don't want to add obvious reverb or ambience effects to them. too. There are no 'best' settings.

For the ultimate headphone listening experience you could connect the digital output of your audio interface to an external DAC with built-in monitor controller and headphone amp. headphone outputs on portable CD and MP3 players are designed for long battery life rather than sound quality. but on headphones they can sometimes make audio actually sound narrower than it did without the effect. Many hi-fi amps include a headphone socket that is simply wired to the main speaker outputs via a large series resistor. The only effects that will not work on headphones are 3D placement plug-ins that are designed for use with loudspeakers (the converse applies too). and you really need to judge each case on its merits. but there's some evidence to suggest that this can result in a boost of several dBs at bass frequencies with some 'phones. QSound's 'beyond the speaker' plug-in effects are extremely effective at making spot effects jump out or ambient washes extend into the room. as well as enhancing them for both playback systems. although many use cheap integrated circuits. On the other hand. many potential purchasers may be auditioning your on-line tracks on headphones in the first place! Headphone Amplification To get the best from your 'phones you need to consider amplification. it's quite possible to do the majority of your mixing on headphones as long as you can check occasionally through loudspeakers. Overall. Meanwhile. and often distort the bass if you turn the level much easier and more fun to add such effects when you're working on headphones. and the result is a rich patina of low-level detail. For instance. Nevertheless. they are so effective with loudspeakers that I wouldn't abandon them completely. and you may damage these outputs if you try. if they sound amazing on 'phones it may still be worth it. such as the Benchmark DAC1 or the Grace M902 (pictured). For the ultimate headphone listening experience you could connect the digital output of your audio interface to an external DAC with built-in . Similarly. The dedicated headphone sockets found on many CD players can sound slightly better. If this makes your music more attractive to the vast number of iPod users out there then all the better — remember. making them sound bloated and bass-heavy. you can't plug headphones into line-level outputs. Because of their low impedance range (usually between 32(omega) and 600(omega)). headphone-specific 3D placement effects may dilute the speaker experience.

as a ready-assembled circuit board to incorporate into your own case (www. Published in SOS January 2007 .com). muscular bass end. If your soldering skills are up to scratch. Some of the better amplifiers for headphone monitoring include Graham Slee's Monitor Class Intro model at £333 (www. and even better (if you can afford it) is the £1400 Grace M902 (www. and more from a high-impedance source. such as the dedicated headphone amp. Even MP3 players can sound surprisingly good! Sadly. more Grace M902 (pictured). Both of the latter are basically low-jitter 24-bit/192kHz D-A converters that can be used as monitor controllers as well as headphone although an international standard recommends that headphones should expect a 120(omega) source impedance (regardless of the headphones' own impedance).Significantly better audio quality can often be monitor controller and obtained by connecting your line-level signals to a headphone amp. Commercial headphone amps range from the budget utilitarian through to the audiophile. there are also plenty of DIY designs available (see http://tangentsoft. and a more delicate mid. sometimes with exotic circuit elements such as valves. found in Benchmark's the £750 Benchmark DAC1. so you may experience less bass from your 'phones when fed from a low-impedance source. a high-range with improved stereo imaging. which provides higher Benchmark DAC1 or the output levels with lower distortion.gspaudio.benchmarkmedia. You can even buy the HPA2 audiophile-grade headphone amp. this is often ignored by headphone and headphone-amp manufacturers. so you can connect them directly to any S/PDIF output to provide superlative audio quality for both your speakers and headphones.