When it comes to mixing music, you want to be using the best tools for the job. However, there are sometimes different ideas concerning what the best is. For example, some people will swear by a certain DAW, while others deride it. When it comes to creating optimal tunes, though, which should you be using, headphones or monitors, and why?
There is a clear distinction between music mixed using headphones versus monitors, and the general consensus is that if you must choose, then a studio with monitors is what you ought to go with. This does not mean, though, that you should never use headphones while mixing. There are benefits to both.
You may already have a personal preference between the two options, but have you ever considered the flip side of the coin? Although most music producers or artists will argue that monitors are the definitive go-to, it’s to be noted that there are pros and cons to using both monitors and headphones. So without further ado, let us jump in and examine some key points to chew on.
Mixing With Headphones vs Monitors
The human auditory system works by taking the sound from your left and right ear and then combining that information to inform you from whence a sound is coming. This is why the placement of speakers in any situation, be it in the studio, at your desktop at home, or even when experiencing surround sound in a movie theatre, is important.
When it comes to headphones, the audio feed is synchronized, and due to the close proximity to your ears, the sound may be perceived as being generated from within one’s head rather than from a particular direction. If certain instruments are panned in the track, they will seem to be spaced further apart as opposed to monitors. Reverb and general effects will also sound deeper and be felt more strongly.
When listening via monitors, the room’s natural reverb, and if you are in a studio, the dampening will smooth out certain sound waves and add a specific ambiance to the listening experience. It would be best if you considered this when you are using monitors. If you are using headphones, you will not experience any room acoustics.
What you primarily need to be aware of is what purpose your mix is being made for. If it is for a film score, you most definitely want to be using 5.1 surround sound, as this is how the audience will hear the audio. However, if you are making a track to upload onto iTunes or SoundCloud, your listeners will likely be using headphones or earphones to enjoy the music. If you are a DJ mixing live, you will use both the audio coming from the speakers and a good set of noise-canceling headphones.
So when it comes to the way you mix, you need to consider what the final means of playing is likely to be. There are also some points to note when mixing; in general, it is advisable to utilize both monitors and headphones, even if the final product is not destined for cans. This is because, with headphones, you can pick up on finer details, which you might miss when mixing using monitors. Points such as timing, pitch, clicks, and potential clipping or distortion of vocals and the various instruments involved must be considered.
Which Are Better? Headphones Or Monitors?
The truth of the matter is that you can mix on either or even use them in conjunction with one another. There are pros and cons to both of these tools, and one of the considerations is what type of equipment and resources you have available to you. There is such a variety of both headphones and monitors on the market and choosing the right fit for you is important.
You may notice that when mixing on headphones that a certain frequency may sound more punchy than others, so you can compensate for that by dialing it down, but then if you transfer your listening to monitors, suddenly there may be a lack in that range.
When it comes to choosing between headphones and monitors, the latter will always be advisable. However, with that being said, it is most certainly possible to mix a track using headphones. It would be sensible, though, to do the final stages of work using monitors if you have mixed on headphones.
If you decide to opt for this mixing method, it is a good idea to consider the finer details of your mix. Certain effects, such as panning, reverb, and delays, will be far more prominent when listening to them over cans than via monitors, so you will need to accommodate for these potential issues.
Is It Wrong To Mix On Headphones Only?
It is not that it is incorrect or bad to mix using headphones, it is simply not advisable, but that does not denote that people don’t mix with cans and that you shouldn’t abandon the idea altogether. Headphones can be particularly useful especially when you need to work on the go and do not have access to a studio setup.
The biggest reason why the pros would say that it can be problematic to mix solely on headphones is because you are more likely to misjudge certain components of your mix. When mixing on headphones, you may feel that the stereo field is quite ample; however, it will sound too narrow once listened to on speakers. Also due to room acoustics and other potential factors, your reverb and synth components may come across as too dry and possibly even completely ineffective.
Once you finally bounce your track at the end of the day, you want it to sound exceptional on any listening device, whether that be high-end speakers, headphones, or cheaper earphones. So, because you can mix on headphones, it does not necessarily mean that one ought to. That is why it is a good idea to mix utilizing both headphones and monitors so that you can find the sweet spot you are looking for in your track.
It is also sometimes easy to under or overestimate the levels of desired percussion ingredients when only using cans. This may result in your kicks and snare drums needing to be turned down when you transfer to listening on monitors and the likes of your hi-hats and shakers needing to be ramped up to accommodate for differentiation.
One aspect where headphone mixing is an advantage, as mentioned previously, is helping fine-tune and iron out certain kinks that you may otherwise not pick up on when listening via monitors. The various dynamics of your track will likely be more prominently heard when using headphones, so as we have seen, it is a great idea to use your headphones and monitors as complementary tools, instead of in isolation.
Should You Get Monitors Or Headphones First?
This will come down to an array of factors, such as your budget, where you mix and your personal preferences. Although the general consensus is that it is better to mix on monitors and cans in conjunction with one another, sometimes we need to choose between which ones we invest in first.
There are two primary things to consider other than the above-mentioned items when deciding on your tool for mixing. The first is stereo imaging, and this looks at how and where the sound sits when we hear it either via phones or monitors.
With stereo monitors the field sounds far less than it does when listening through cans. This is because instead of the audio coming from in front of us or (when panned) slightly more so from either side, with headphones the sound is directed precisely into each ear, giving the illusion of a more robust sound, which when played on speakers, may not sound as wholesome and full.
Next, we have to consider crossfeed, which is something which we could go into more complex detail about, but for our purpose, simply knowing what it is and what its relevance is, will certainly suffice. This auditory phenomenon occurs when listening to audio tracks with a monitor setup or even just a basic left and right speaker setup.
Your left ear will pick up the sound emitted from the left speaker and the right from the right. This is when crossfeed comes into play; your left ear will also pick up on what is played through the right monitor, and the same goes for your right ear with regards to the left monitor. Think of this as unavoidable spill and the way that our ears have simply adapted to the reception of sound.
When you mix with headphones, crossfeed is usually nonexistent, and this is due to the left and right channels feeding directly into their correlating ears. There is thus no blending of the sound and our mix may sound strange when using headphones. However, there are ways to compensate for this predicament. So, if you do not have the space to set up monitors and work comfortably with them, then headphones would be a good first choice.
How To Combat The Lack Of Crossfeed With Headphones.
We have established that when using headphones, bleeding will not occur and thus we’ll have no crossfeed. What if all we have are headphones or are just not in a situation where using studio monitors is an option?
We can emulate this phenomenon of crossfeed into our headphones. This will be achieved by the use of plug-ins which will allow the signal from the one channel to bleed over into the other and vice versa. The concept is then the same as if you were listening to monitors, the only difference is that there will now be more signal sharing between either channel with your headphones.
Another alternative you may wish to consider in counteracting the deficiency of crossfeed is acquiring a pair of open-back headphones, as opposed to closed-back ones. Open-back headphones allow small amounts of sound to spill out and you then garner the ‘natural listening’ you would experience with monitors.
These examples will not replace the fullness that studio monitors allow for, but if headphones are your only option, then they will certainly help to alleviate the problem to a certain degree.
Things To Bear In Mind If You Plan On Using Monitors.
The issues which one is faced with when mixing with headphones are typically rather easy to combat, and although monitors are generally agreed upon to be better, there are certain particulars which you must take into consideration.
First off, the price of high-end studio monitors will far surpass the price of even the best of headphones and therefore, you definitely need to keep your budget in mind when making your choice to use monitors over headphones.
The next and probably most crucial aspect which requires serious consideration is your space or studio where you will be mixing. The room needs to have proper acoustic treatment, and this will also add to your existing expenses. It is not feasible or realistic to have high-quality monitors if your environment is not adequate.
If you have monitors within a setting where the surrounding walls are not treated, you will not reap an honest sample of your mix. Although there are DIY ways in which you can attempt to treat a space, it is a much better idea to have this done professionally.
Finally, before you make the purchase of your monitors for your now treated studio, there is one final point that you must factor in, and that is realistically identifying what size monitors are ideal for the space you have. You do not want to have a large subwoofer driver in a small room where you will end up drowning in low-end frequencies, so be careful when picking out your monitors and realize that you may have to settle for something smaller if your studio cannot accommodate anything much bigger.
At the crux of the matter, most people tend to favor the use of monitors over headphones when it comes to mixing. However, that does not mean that one can’t or shouldn’t mix with the use of headphones. It is just highly unlikely that one will mix solely with cans. Instead, what one should be doing to really optimize the final product is to utilize both tools at your disposal. So, in short, it isn’t fair to really say that one is better than another; rather, we should consider that using them in tandem will give us what we are truly looking for.
So, if you have a pair of good-quality headphones, you are going to be able to pick up on and really finesse the smaller details. With some of the best speakers around, there are things you will not be able to note. Edit points are also much easier to hear when making use of headphones, so something that sounds pristine on speakers may be lacking when you play it on cans.
On the flip side, when we use headphones, the stereo imaging and panning of the sound may seem optimal, but then we listen to the track on monitors, and we are left with something that sounds horribly unimpressive and bland.
The final word on “Which is right for you?” is that you should be using both monitors (in a well-treated room) and then making final tweaks and fine-tuning whilst scrutinizing the mix on headphones. Also, the more skilled you are at mixing and the greater experience you have will show you what needs to be accommodated for when utilizing one or the other, or both.