Headphone Mixing Tips

Mixing in headphones can really stink. Today, let's talk about WHY and some of the ways we can try and fix it.

Hey, if you're new here, my name is James and I help sound techs make stuff sound better. So whether you're mixing for your band on Saturday or your church on Sunday, you're in the right place.

The Many Challenges to Mixing in Headphones

There is a whole list of obstacles you face when you're mixing in headphones. And if you've ever made a mix in headphones, thought it sounded awesome, and then went to listen to it someplace else, you may have stumbled upon some of these problems.

The first challenge is that headphones have their own tone. There are two different types of headphones in general. There are open-back headphones and there are closed-back headphones. Open-back headphones don't isolate the sound, either from those around you, or the outside sounds that are coming in as well. The advantage is that they can be less colored than closed-back headphones. So you get better frequency response, but you don't get as much isolation. Closed-back headphones can isolate a little bit more, but they can tend to sound a little bit more boxy.

Another thing that's hard about mixing in headphones is that they're actually tuned to sound a certain way. Some are hyped up with a lot of bass (I see you, Beatz). And other ones are really bright to make it feel like it sounds better, but it doesn't always sound natural. And whenever we're in a listening environment and creating a mix, our mix will be the reciprocal of what our listening environment is. So if our headphones have a whole lot of low end, our mix is going to be a little bit thin. Or if they've got too much top end, our mix is going to end up dull, and we don't want that. We just want natural-sounding headphones that help us make the best mix decisions, not necessarily to be hyped up for enjoying when we're listening to rap music. And that's what we want when we're mixing music. We want headphones that translate from system to system, and ones that are kind of a middle-of-the-road between bright and dark, bassy and thin. We don't want them to be too much in either direction.

One more challenge you can face with headphones is that you hear every detail. Wait, shouldn’t that be a good thing? Not necessarily. Hearing every detail can make you think you need to push up your reverb super far, but when you go to listen on other systems, things can feel really washed out and far away. Even when every detail felt so good in your headphones! The other downside is that all that detail means that we can clearly hear things that might actually be buried in the mix. So in the headphones, we can hear that little guitar part, but it goes away when we listen on speakers or on our phone.

Another difference between headphones and studio monitors is that we're isolated from the acoustic space. And it's possible that actually is your goal. Maybe your acoustic space sounds bad, and because of that, you're not getting an accurate representation from your studio monitors. You may think headphones are going to fix the problem, but you might just be trading in those problems for different problems - like not hearing enough reflections. Which, in turn, might cause you to add too much reverb (like we talked about a minute ago).

An issue that also comes up with mixing in headphones is the stereo width. Stereo width is an attempt to use two speakers to create a binaural sound field. But wait, I just used a nerdy word. What does binaural sound field mean? Well, the combination of our ears, physiology, and our brains (which are big, timing supercomputers) tells us where a sound is coming from. There are basically three or four ways, depending on how nerdy you get, that we can tell what direction a sound is coming from. Either there's a timing difference between when it arrives at one ear and when it arrives at the other ear, or there's a frequency or level difference between when it arrives at one ear versus the other ear. When you mix in headphones and you pan something all the way to the right side, you're only hearing it in that ear and all the frequencies are only on that side. Whereas if you were mixing on a pair of studio monitors, the lower frequencies coming from that right side would also be reaching the left side, but just a little bit later.

Another factor that might change the way that you hear in headphones compared to somebody else is that your actual physiology, or the shape of your outer ear and your ear canal, play a part in how you localize and hear the difference of tones in different sounds. What that means for your mix is that you'll tend to pan stuff a little bit further toward the middle and not make room for the vocals down the center by panning things hard left and right. Because of this issue, it can be really hard to get the vocal pocket, or the balance between the band and the vocal, just right. Now, the vocal pocket is not a trivial thing, and even many pro mix engineers will send multiple mixes to the mastering engineer with the vocal kind of where they think is the good spot, and a vocal up and a vocal down mix. These options can help when they're compressing in the mastering process to make sure that that vocal is locked to the band just right.

One more big problem that can happen is that when we start mixing in reverb, we can actually drown something and all that luscious, smooth reverb, but it ends up sounding weird when we're listening on speakers. And pro tip: the diffusion control on your reverb is handy for making reverb feel a little bit more choppy or rough. That may sound weird in headphones, but it’s much better when you're farther away from the speakers. So keep that one in mind next time you're mixing, and play with that diffusion knob and see if you can hear the difference.

How to Overcome the Pitfalls and Still Make a Great Mix in Headphones

So how are we going to overcome these problems if you're forced to mix in headphones or headphones or the only option that you have?

The first tip that I have for you is to mix in mono. Now, this feels weird because you want to make a stereo mix and you want it to be wide, right? Well, you can get all your balance by placing instruments on the left side and the right side, making sure that there's equal weight there. You can make sure that your toms and your overheads have a nice stereo image, getting there with headphones.

But in mono, you really are forced to make sure that the vocal is just barely out in front and not covered up. And then in stereo, you can expect the vocal to pop back in the mix a little bit and be in that vocal pocket. One tip that I picked up from mixing vocals is to make it so that in mono the vocals are just out in front of the mix, and in stereo, the vocals are just tucked back in the mix. That's how you know you've got the right level of proportion with vocals-to-band.

Another tip is that gain structure and experience can really help you dial in the level of your effects. If you keep your effects send master at 0 dB, and the channel sent to that aux send is at 0 dB, putting the return fader at -12 dB is a good starting place for a natural-sounding reverb. For delays, -18 dB is a good starting place to keep it subtle, especially with spatial-type delays that are mimicking early reflections. Remember, your reverb needs to be on a post-fader AUX send. So the reverb levels change as your input level changes. For other short delays or even longer musical delays, you can go up or down from that, but I usually like to start around -18 for a lot of my short and spatial delays.

Another tool that really helps me out a lot is the Waves Nx Virtual Studio Collection. These take the tones and the ambiance of high-end recording studios and simulate it coming in through your headphones. They also include headphone EQ. So if you love your Beatz by Dre, but the hyped-up low end is causing your mixes to get thin, it compensates for that and puts it in a target EQ curve for how your headphones would sound and kind of flattens them out. They're not precisely flat, there's actually a tonal curve that you're aiming for that takes into account the fact that you've got speakers right next to your ear canals and not sounds coming straight from in front of you. Having the early reflections from the room and hearing the low end of one side in the other ear really helps us feel like we're actually in a space and not just isolated in a pair of headphones.

Mix For Feel

The room resonances and reflections that we're hearing also help us not dial in too much reverb and they help our effects stay in the realistic ballpark. Because as much as you can know what you should do with effects levels, you really just want to feel it right. And that's the goal with music. We're trying to mix for a feeling. We're trying to communicate that. And if we have to think about it, we're not going to mix as well as if we're just feeling it.

Using Waves Nx Virtual Studio Collection to Your Advantage

So let me show you what these plugins do and how I might mix differently with them and without them. I've set up this mix the way that I might if I didn't already know that I needed more width from headphones. So the two instruments we're going to take a look at are the electric guitar and the piano. And the electric guitar is down the middle and the piano is stereo, so it's panned hard left and right. Let's just listen to a brief section to you can kind of hear what this sounds like.

Remember earlier how I said that your physiology actually changes the way that you hear binaurally? Well, Waves accounted for that as well. So you can measure the circumference of your head and measure the distance from ear to ear back behind your head. And they'll calculate what the reflections should sound like to give you a more realistic picture of what it would be like for you in that room.

So with it on, we're hearing more of what would be considered the crosstalk, or the way that the lower frequencies, below about 1K, are going to actually wrap around my head and come to the other ear, or they're not going to do that on the other side.

So instead of making everything feel like it's way over to the side, it's moved it forward. So then I can make panning decisions to spread stuff out a little bit better. Let's take a look at a section of the song that's got some background vocals and see what we can do to make those have a little bit wider stereo spread. And this one's a freebie because it's not necessarily about mixing in headphones, but it's about getting wider mixes in general.

A lot of times when I'm mixing in a digital audio workstation, I'm actually mixing a live broadcast. So I have the program feed that needs to go out right away, but I need to put this Nx plugin on a different path. For StudioOne and Harrison Mix Bus, they actually have a separate bus that you can put plugins on that doesn't affect the main output. So you can insert this plugin without affecting your main mix going out to the broadcast. Waves has five different studio emulations that you can choose from. So if you want to demo them and see which one helps your mixes translate the best, you can do that. If you're like me and you work from home, sometimes you have to live in headphones to avoid the noise of everybody else that's at your home. But if you want to use Nx plugins for that, I figured out a way to do it with my console and Live Professor. So let's check it out.

So there you go! If you're mixing in headphones, I hope these tips were helpful for you. If you liked this blog post, check out some of my other posts on mixing tips HERE. And remember: it's all about the low end, avoid the sound tech solo and nobody leaves humming the kick drum.

AudioTechnica ATH M50x Headphones: https://amzn.to/3yP9iWO

Watch a live-streamed musical about guitar pedals that I mixed on headphones in mono HERE. 

P.S. This blog post contains affiliate links, so if you buy after clicking through, it generates a small commission for me at no additional charge for you. It's just a way you can help support what we do at Attaway Audio :)

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