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Mixing On Headphones
Sun 7 Sep 2014

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Sound On Sound : Est. 1985


In this article:
Commercial Mixes
Hints And Tips
Spatial Anomalies
Choosing Headphones
For Mixing
Judging Bass End
Simulating The
Loudspeaker Experience
With Crossfeed Plug-ins
It's All In The Details







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Mixing On Headphones
Successful Mixing Without Loudspeakers

Published in SOS January 2007

Technique : Recording / Mixing

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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.
On headphones, you hear only the left channel in your left ear and the right in
your right ear. Any hard-panned sounds will be heard through one ear, which
sounds very unnatural. In fact, it can cause headaches and induce nausea over
prolonged periods. When sounds panned to the middle are played through
loudspeakers they are heard 'in front', but the same sounds on headphones
appear to be emanating from inside your head. You can get used to the skewed
spatial response, and you can even enjoy its intimacy, but the one-ear
phenomenon remains unpleasant for some.

If you want to avoid
unpleasant one-ear
headphone sounds in
your mixes, just back
off slightly on those
extreme pan settings.
Here, for instance,
using Cubase 4 as an
example, the pan
setting for channel 1
will sound odd on
headphones, while
that of channel 2
(highlighted) should
sound fine.

Some headphone amps, accessories and plug-ins (see the box on page 82 for
examples of the latter) provide optional 'crossfeed' that mixes a little of the lefthand channel into the right and vice versa, to mimic the natural behaviour of our
ears. This technique is sometimes known as acoustic simulation. Since our heads
and ears absorb and reflect sounds at higher frequencies, the crossfeed signals
are generally rolled off by a few dBs above about 2kHz. Crossfeed can make
hard-panned sounds appear to come from similar points in space as they would
on a pair of frontal loudspeakers, and I recommend it for listening to albums that otherwise seem 'unlistenable' on
headphones. This includes lots of stereo albums released before high-quality headphones were popular, such as Beatles and
early Pink Floyd LPs, and many releases from the '60s and '70s.
There is actually a small selection of high-quality orchestral, sound-effects and virtual-reality recordings available that are
specifically intended for headphone listening. These 'binaural' recordings are made using a dummy head fitted with ear mics,
such as Neumann's KU100, and can be far more realistic than loudspeaker stereo. They accurately capture how we hear
sounds through our own two ears, so when you're listening to a binaural recording on headphones, you can locate sounds
coming from behind as well as in front, and even above and below your head. However, this positional information is lost
when played back through loudspeakers and, for this reason, binaural recording remains a specialist interest.
Hints And Tips
For mixes that sound good through speakers and headphones, it's sometimes quicker and easier to start a mix on loudspeakers and then
tweak it for headphone listeners than the other way round.
Don't be tempted to keep edging up headphone levels, or you'll end up with a headache, listening fatigue, and eventually hearing damage. Try
instead to take regular short breaks, which should keep your decision-making processes fresh.
If you're using circumaural headphones, try experimenting with how you position them on your head. I've found that wearing my Sennheiser
HD650s slightly lower (by extending the headband) and slightly forward on my ears gives noticeably sharper imaging.

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. In general, it's not a problem with most classical recordings, since they are invariably captured with relatively distant
coincident mic pairs or spaced mic arrays. Even if additional close-up mics are used for solo performers, these are primarily
used to alter solo/accompaniment balance, and are rarely, if ever, panned to extremes.
It is with rock and electronic music, using multiple, panned mono and stereo sources that we need to be particularly careful.
One obvious cure is simply to pull back extreme L/R panned instrument settings slightly. I find L90 and R90 suitable positions
for this on a Cubase pan control, which has a ±100 calibration. Despite abandoning the final 10 percent in each direction,
you'll scarcely hear the difference through most loudspeakers, yet it makes a world of difference for headphones. Don't be


you can find some superb 'phones for less than the price of a pair of entry-level monitor speakers. you just need a little practice to get used to the fact that they will sound further apart here than on speakers. This will let you achieve even wider loudspeaker mixes. set totally wet (no direct sound) at a fairly low level. When positioning your other instruments in the stereo headphone field. However. Judging Bass End Having resolved spatial issues. Open-backed designs have grilles that expose the drivers to the outside world. you get increased isolation plus perfect fit and a very consistent bass response. yet remaining comfortable over long periods is Sony's MDR7509 (www. to help them 'sit' better when heard on headphones without the usual room acoustics to 'glue' them into the mix. where your 'phones offer much greater clarity. though. you don't get the physical full-body feelings that you do from the bass that emerges from loudspeakers. don't rule out headphone mixing until you've tried some quality 'phones! http://www. 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. too little in the next octave between 80Hz and Deciding how much bass sounds 'right' on headphones is a perennial problem because. with too much bass at 80Hz and below and. and can easily take over a mix. Even when I'm mixing on speakers. half or full pan in each direction. giving these designs a more natural and 'airy' sound when mixing. this isolation can also result in sweaty ears. while avoiding headphone unpleasantness. 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. Some musicians. have tried vibration transducers in their seats. 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).7/9/2014 Mixing On Headphones tempted to pull them in much more than this. This can sound odd enough through loudspeakers. Unlike most speaker manufacturers. most synth sounds can still provide plenty of stereo effect without swamping the mix. as each of these models can sound slightly different depending what you plug them into. the Grado RS2 (www. but I've never found this to be a paradoxically. I generally switch to headphones to make such width adjustments. 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. The cure for both problems is a stereo-narrowing plug-in (see this month's PC Musician feature for Mac/PC examples). if you've experienced bass mix problems in the past. Sony have recently discontinued this model (though a few dealers may still have them in stock). while the supra-aural type sit on top of the ears. might suit for exposing ever-more minute details. quarter. and you generally get what you pay for. 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). while even at 30 percent of normal width. and panned hard to the opposite extreme. Many musicians have a set of pan-control starting points that they always use with loudspeakers. 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). if you want to keep extreme pan positions. While this can make the experience more realistic. which in turn reduces resonant cavity effects and inherently provides some cross-feed between the ears. this isn't worth the extra fiddle over simple pan tweaks. you can send your extreme-panned sounds to a have the cleanest sound around.sensaphonics. one closed-back model that manages the trick of sounding really natural and providing extended bass. If (and only if) you get an effective seal. since they cover the outer ear. but sensibly provide little isolation so you can hear that car coming up behind you when bass levels provide the main obstacle for mixing on headphones. so don't compromise unless your budget is really tight. and both are available in open and closed varieties. canal 'phones (or 'in-ear monitors') sit inside the ear canal and are supplied with a selection of differently shaped 'seals' to suit different ears. such as central. If you need isolation. yet they sound 'bloated' when heard over speakers. even at levels as low as this. For this purpose. but with custom-moulded in-ear monitors. because you can hear everything so much more clearly. Recording/Mixing Books Recording Techniques Join in today's discussions: » Newbie question: How to use a passive DI box to remove static noise caused by ground loop? » Headroom for near field monitors: Where is all this speaker buzz coming from? » Recording choir with backing track playing out loud?! » 88 key controller SOS Mix Rescue articles Consider adding a tiny amount of reverb to up-front exposed sounds. and some are more suitable for mixing than others.soundonsound. most portable CD and MP3 players are shipped with 'ear buds' (US) or earphones (UK) that clip into the outer ear. Having said since I immediately heard 'real' bass that sounded much closer to what you hear through loudspeakers. such as Sensaphonics' Aura Bass Shaker (www. In my experience. At higher frequencies above 1kHz they generally exhibit a gentle roll-off (perhaps 5dB down at 20kHz). Standard canal 'phones can therefore be a little hit and miss for judging the bass end of mixes. to restrict their width and allow more space for everything else. particularly drummers working with electronic instead of acoustic kits. you get both a good bass response and effective isolation from the outside world. each make and model of headphone sounds different. though. If you want to create headphone mixes that translate well to to replace the physical aspect. so you can easily misjudge it. while others say that AKG's K701s (www. Finally. although you hear bass through your ears. However. they are of little use for performers during tracking because their sound will spill into your mic recordings. and you can use exactly the same guideline positions as headphone mix starting points (just relaxing the full pan settings slightly) until you adapt to the different width. for mixing. There are quite a few different types of headphone available. particularly when effect-laden.htm 2/4 . making closed cans less suitable for long mixing sessions. but on headphones it becomes bizarre (though it may be an effect you want!). Traditional headphones or 'cans' are more correctly termed circum-aural devices. to compensate for the fact that the drivers are right against your ear. With stereo are very highly regarded in audio circles for their incredibly detailed yet neutral sound and for their bass extension. Sennheiser's HD650s (www. using high quality headphones models like Sennheiser's HD650 and AKG's K 701 (shown here) will help you judge bass and spatial detail more easily. which I've not had the pleasure of testing. Your choice of headphone amplification may sway you one way or another.gradolabs. and they're also better for mixing if you're in a noisy environment and want to block out the world. 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. my headphone mixing decisions became far easier after buying a pair of higher-quality Sennheiser HD650 'phones. making it significantly easier to judge bass levels. Regularly comparing your in-progress mix with commercial tracks of a similar genre always helps. However. try to refrain from spreading their individual sounds all the way across the stereo image. So. which also features a neat folding design that's handy for location recording. However. such as drum kits. Nevertheless.akg-acoustics. but the bass end on many cheaper headphone models doesn't sound like the bass you'd hear from loudspeakers. closed-back headphones are far more suitable. to which you send a small amount of your hard-panned right and left tracks respectively (-20dB is normally sufficient). to compensate for the fact that you don't 'feel' the bass frequencies through your body as you do with loudspeakers. As with mono sounds. As a result. replacing it with the MDR7509 HD.sennheiser. I still wouldn't like to make mixing decisions using such techniques. Stereo synth preset sounds are often extremely wide by default. These generally offer pretty average audio quality. Choosing Headphones For Mixing DAW Tips from SOS 100s of great articles! Cubase Digital Performer Live Logic Pro Tools Reaper Reason Sonar Just as with loudspeakers. For those who consider the sound of HD650s slightly laid-back (I don't).

but on headphones they can sometimes make audio actually sound narrower than it did without the effect. and the result is a rich patina of low-level detail. Simulating The Loudspeaker Experience With Crossfeed Plug-ins If you want to try simulating the loudspeaker experience on headphones. Similarly. After all.ohl. However. Conversely. this level of detail does make reverb levels more difficult to judge. For seems perfect for experimentation. some engineers and producers take their favourite 'phones with them when mixing in unfamiliar venues. There's also a five-band EQ section to compensate for any small rise in bass levels due to the summing used (a low-shelf EQ starting at 500Hz and rolling off to about -2dB should be about right). but do take care to keep them within safe limits. it's better to work on your own mixes without crossfeed. Moreover. I've successfully revisited mixes late at night entirely on 'phones after hearing them elsewhere through loudspeakers. 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. headphone-specific 3D placement effects may dilute the speaker experience. these mix a little of the left-hand channel into the right and vice versa. but mixed in occasionally at very low levels. turning headphone mixes to whisper-low levels is a handy way to check that nothing 'sticks out' of your mix. The before-and-after examples using commercial music are quite impressive. open-backed models designed for monitoring will require lower crossfeed settings than the closed-back ones more commonly used for recording) and different listeners. It's just so much easier and more fun to add such effects when you're working on headphones. distortion and so on. using heavy compression. This comes with a help file that does a good job in explaining how all the different controls work.waves. although I find it adds a harsh tonality. As a result it can be easy to underestimate the amount of reverb required for a loudspeaker mix. and keep referring to commercial mixes for comparison. tiny amounts of distortion and so on. offering a host of parameters. if you have exposed up-front solo instruments or vocals that work fine 'dry' through speakers. To mimic this behaviour and make headphone listening more natural. and the other the time delay that corresponds to the width of your head. There are no 'best' settings. You could also experiment with more extreme effects. and you should find that it doesn't push the sound further away when listening on loudspeakers. and how to adjust them to reposition extreme panned sounds to approximate 'front speaker' positions. Don't be tempted to hype the bass end if you're using lightweight 'phones (keep referencing similar material to check). I've found Crossover EQ an extremely useful tool for listening on headphones to existing recordings. Some balance and level issues can be trickier with headphones. I found it quite effective and neutral in operation. and can therefore position sounds more as they would appear through loudspeakers. they may still benefit from a tiny dab of wide room or hall reverb. For instance. as well as various test signals to help you optimise the you may still find that when you go back and check your mix on speakers. so they sound good to all headphone listeners. 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. 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. having a few pairs of cheap earphones around can help as well.midnightwalrus. most musicians shouldn't find making decisions about EQ or compression any more difficult than through loudspeakers. People have been designing and implementing such 'crossfeed' circuits for decades. the freeware Canz3D plug-in (www. they are so effective with loudspeakers that I wouldn't abandon them completely. as you can hear so far into the mix that even a tiny amount of reverb is fairly audible. On the other hand. 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). Fed up with having your head turned inside out while listening to your album collection on headphones? Some time spent tweaking this freeware Crossfeed EQ plug-in for your ears and headphones will result in far more natural results. if they sound amazing on 'phones it may still be worth it. it's quite possible to do the majority of your mixing on headphones as long as you can check occasionally through loudspeakers. such imbalances become much more obvious. 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. and you really need to judge each case on its merits. which provides two sliders: one controlling the amount of so they can hear the sound of the recording without that of the room. when listening on headphones. many potential purchasers may be auditioning your on-line tracks on headphones in the first place! http://www. so when creating a mix that will be played on headphones you may need to add some final touches to your reverb treatments.7/9/2014 Mixing On Headphones Another approach (sometimes the only foolproof one) is to periodically check your mix through speakers. including uncorrelated pink noise to test for changes in tonal quality with and without crossfeed. QSound's 'beyond the speaker' plug-in effects are extremely effective at making spot effects jump out or ambient washes extend into the room. 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. Wavelab's Externalizer provides a single fader that progressively moves the virtual speakers both forward and apart.soundonsound. if only for a few seconds at a time. which give the impression of bass even when the fundamental frequencies are almost absent. Sometimes the room sound can be the final 'glue' that holds some aspects of the mix together. If you are not used to working at this level of detail. background hisses. as they will need adjusting to suit both different headphones (for instance. You'll adjust with practice. where it needs to be heard over the additional room acoustics. but they are far easier to judge with headphones because you can hear the result of every tiny parameter change. the most effective approach is to slightly blend the left/right channels only at lower frequencies. Once you know how a mix sounds on loudspeakers you can also make comparative adjustments when back on your 'phones. frequency shaping and delays to simulate a 3D environment. Just as when you use good monitor speakers in a well treated control room. Some applications are already bundled with plug-ins that reproduce such effects. as well as enhancing them for both playback systems. Overall. For instance. Nevertheless. occasional auto-pan effects to create mix It makes headphones good for spotting unwanted clicks. The most effective PC plug-in I discovered during my research was the freeware Crossfeed EQ (www. since headphones eliminate the contribution of the studio/listening room to the but until then just remember to add a little more reverb on headphones than initially feels right. 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. Whatever you decide to use. Some examples include almost subliminal tempo-related echoes that add low-level interest. However. However. If this makes your music more attractive to the vast number of iPod users out there then all the better — remember. including crossfeed. Another advantage to the clarity of headphone playback is that you can use it to add nuances and fairy dust to your mixes. you may even find it easier to notice the tell-tale effects of over-compression. transient enhancement.htm 3/4 .com/sos/jan07/articles/mixingheadphones. These subtle little details improve the loudspeaker experience as well. and remember that just as you can listen to your mixes through ghetto-blasters and in the car to check that they translate well. incidental percussion and ambient effects. 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. and you don't want to add obvious reverb or ambience effects to them. For instance. too. In fact. such as distortion or pumping. Even adding reverb at levels about 40dB lower than the direct signal can help sounds 'sit' better in headphones. With a decent set of 'phones. and also during the mixing process to quickly check how a mix is likely to sound spatially through loudspeakers.html). it's tempting to whack up headphone listening levels beyond that of speakers because you can.

United Kingdom. masterclasses Readers Classifieds Submit New Adverts View My Adverts SOS Directory Information All contents copyright © SOS Publications Group and/or its licensors. more muscular bass end. tutorials. but there's some evidence to suggest that this can result in a boost of several dBs at bass frequencies with some 'phones.gracedesign. If your soldering skills are up to Great care has been taken to ensure accuracy in the preparation of this article but neither Sound On Sound Limited nor the publishers can be held responsible for its contents. is expressly forbidden without the prior written consent of the Publishers. Trafalgar the £750 Benchmark DAC1. Many hi-fi amps include a headphone socket that is simply wired to the main speaker outputs via a large series resistor. headphone outputs on portable CD and MP3 players are designed for long battery life rather than sound quality. The contents of this article are subject to worldwide copyright protection and reproduction in whole or part. Significantly better audio quality can often be obtained by connecting your line-level signals to a dedicated headphone amp.soundonsound. although many use cheap integrated circuits.gspaudio.htm 4/4 . whether mechanical or making them sound bloated and bass-heavy. Because of their low impedance range (usually between 32(omega) and 600(omega)). Web site designed & maintained by PB Associates | SOS | Relative Media http://www. Cambridge. interviews. Bar Hill. Company number: 3015516 VAT number: GB 638 5307 26 Web Edition Buy PDF articles Magazine Feedback News Search Podcasts New Search Forum Search Search Tips Competitions Articles Subscribe Subscribe Now Web Subscription FAQs Home Reviews Technique Sound Advice People Glossary Help + Support Forum My SOS Today's Hot Topics Forum Channel List Forum Search My Forum Home My Forum Settings My Private Messages Forum Rules & Etiquette Change Password Change My Email Change My Address My Subscription My eNewsletters My Downloads SOS TV About SOS Contact SOS Staff Advertising Controlled Circulation Licensing Enquiries Magazine On-sale Dates SOS Logos & Graphics SOS Site Analytics Privacy Policy Watch exhibition videos. Sound On Sound Ltd is registered in England and Wales. Even MP3 players can sound surprisingly good! Sadly. you can't plug headphones into line-level outputs.and high-range with improved stereo imaging. such as the Benchmark DAC1 or the Grace M902 (pictured). sometimes with exotic circuit elements such as valves. although an international standard recommends that headphones should expect a 120(omega) source impedance (regardless of the headphones' own impedance).com). You can even buy the HPA2 audiophile-grade headphone amp. this is often ignored by headphone and headphone-amp manufacturers. a tighter. there are also plenty of DIY designs available (see http://tangentsoft. 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 amps. and even better (if you can afford it) is the £1400 Grace M902 (www. and often distort the bass if you turn the level up. CB23 8SQ. 1985-2014. The views expressed are those of the contributors and not necessarily those of the publishers. All rights reserved. Some of the better amplifiers for headphone monitoring include Graham Slee's Monitor Class Intro model at £333 (www. so you can connect them directly to any S/PDIF output to provide superlative audio quality for both your speakers and headphones. The dedicated headphone sockets found on many CD players can sound slightly better. and you may damage these outputs if you try. so you may experience less bass from your 'phones when fed from a low-impedance source. found in Benchmark's DAC1.7/9/2014 Mixing On Headphones Headphone Amplification To get the best from your 'phones you need to consider amplification.benchmarkmedia. and a more delicate mid. Published in SOS January 2007 Home | Search | News | Current Issue | Tablet Mag | Articles | Forum | Subscribe | Shop | Readers Ads Advertise | Information | Privacy Policy | Support | Login Help Current Magazine Email: Contact SOS Telephone: +44 (0)1954 789888 Fax: +44 (0)1954 789895 Registered Office: Media House. 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. which provides higher output levels with lower distortion. Meanwhile. as a ready-assembled circuit board to incorporate into your own case ( and more from a high-impedance source. Commercial headphone amps range from the budget utilitarian through to the