Producing beats on headphones is nothing special. It seems everyone with a mobile device does it. Be it a laptop, a tablet or a phone. Wherever you are, just plug in your headphones and produce music with your favorite app. No one would say that producing with headphones would be a bad idea. As long as you are inspired and have fun, everything is fine.
However, things look different when it comes to mixing, because this is when you have to listen critically. You have to work on a system that tells you the “truth”, so that in the end your mix sounds good on any system at any location. Be it on the speakers of a phone, a boom box, a car or a club. Your mix must sound good on any speaker in any room. Can this be done on headphones? Let’s explore the pros and cons of mixing with headphones in this article.
Your Mixes Have To Translate
When your mixes don’t translate, you are in trouble. You put in hours doing a mix until you feel it’s dope. It sounds good, it has vibe and it moves your heart and body.
But as soon as you listen to it on your best friends boom box, damn, nothing seems to fit. The music sounds like a bloody mess. And you would have to go back, redo the mix, without exactly knowing what you are doing, because now you don’t trust your listening system anymore – be it speakers or headphones. And even worse, you have lost the trust in your own judgments.
So what you need is a sound system that lets you create mixes that translate.
Having said that, as long as your mixes translate, everything is fine. I have a friend, who created stunning mixes with two hifi speakers standing randomly left and right from him on the floor. Not something you would learn in audio engineering school. On top of that the tweeter of one of my friends speakers was missing.
He just didn’t care about professional monitors, sitting in the sweet spot of an even stereo triangle and blah, blah, blah… And why should he? His mixes sounded awesome.
But what is the problem with headphones?
There is no problem at all with headphones, as long as your mixes translate. The same is true for speakers, but we are here to discuss mixing with headphones. And headphones even have several advantages over speakers. But they also have some disadvantages. So let’s get these out of the way first.
CON – Listening On Headphones Can Be Fatiguing
This is more or less true, depending on your headphones’ sound and how comfortable they are. But I have worked with several models and I always found listening on headphones over a longer period of time a lot more fatiguing than with speakers. I’m talking about critical, focused listening not listening for leisure.
One reason might be the fact, that with headphones our ears are very close to the sound source, which is pretty unnatural. Nothing in a natural environment comes as close to our ears as headphones do. Except for someone whispering in your ear. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t want someone whispering in my ears for several hours!
Another reason might be that, depending on the type of headphones, they create some kind of pressure either in, on or around your ears. Which is okay for a shorter period of time, but gets uncomfortable over time.
There is one more reason, why mixing on headphones can be more fatiguing, compared to mixing on speakers. This one has less to do with comfort but how the music is presented to us.
CON – With Headphones The Sound Stage Is Inside Our Head
When we listen to stereo speakers, sitting in the sweet spot, the instruments are distributed not only left to right but also front to back, just like the music was played on a stage in front of us. With headphones everything stays inside our head. The instruments are distributed left to right between our ears and there is no sense of front to back distance.
When listening for leisure there is no problem with that. Millions of people enjoy listening to music on headphones. But when you mix, it gets a lot harder to place instruments front to back. And guessing and not knowing what you do slows you down and is very fatiguing.
The great news are that there is a solution to that problem, which works great for me. A plugin that emulates the studio acoustics of a legendary studio. More on that at the end of the article.
But first let’s get the third disadvantage of mixing with headphones out of the way.
CON – Our Bodies Can’t Feel The Music Through Headphones
The music may have great emotional impact on us through headphones. A fat low end can get us all excited even on headphones. But there is just no way that our bodies can feel the music. And this takes away fun from mixing.
But there is also a lot of reasons why mixing with headphones is a good thing. Let’s have a closer look.
PRO – Headphones Are Mobile
You can take your headphones wherever you want and they will always deliver the same sound, regardless where you are. You can mix on the go, in a hotel room, in a foreign studio, doesn’t matter. They will always sound the same.
PRO – Headphones Are Cheaper Than Speakers
Of course there are expensive headphones that are more expensive than a lot of speakers. But cheap headphones cost less than cheap speakers and the same goes for middle and top class headphones and speakers. The headphones will always be the cheaper alternative. For the price of budget speakers, you can get really good headphones.
PRO – With Headphones You Can Forget About Bad Room Acoustics
Most small and home studios have problems with room acoustics. Especially the low end is hard to even out in smaller rooms, so chances are you hear too much or not enough bass, resulting in false mix decisions. You’ll push that bass too much or not enough without knowing it. Because it sounds right in your room but unfortunately not in other rooms on other speakers.
With headphones, you can forget about bad room acoustics. They just don’t play any role at all. Therefore, many producers double check their low end on headphones.
PRO – Headphones Keep You From Trouble With Neighbors
In some (maybe most?) neighborhoods you just cannot listen to loud music in the middle of the night. This will result in trouble with the neighbors. So when you want or have to mix deep in the night headphones are the solution.
This also works vice versa. Headphones also help when your neighbors are loud and you want to critically listen to that rattling in the snare. So headphones work in both directions. They shut your music off from the outside world and the outside world from your music.
PRO – Headphones Take Up No Space
You don’t have to think about where to place your headphones, make space on your desk or buy expensive monitor stands. You also don’t have to move furniture to make space for your headphones. For speakers, you have to. And depending on how small you room is, this can be a serious problem. With headphones that problem just doesn’t exist.
PRO – Headphones Have More Low End
This is only half true, because there are speakers and subs that go down veeery low. But most smaller speakers that we use in home and project studios and even affordable subs don’t go as low as a decent pair of headphones.
So that’s a whole lot of good reasons why mixing with headphones might be a good idea!
As you can see I could find more Pros than Cons for mixing with headphones. Anyway, what counts are that your mixes translate well to any other sound system. Your music should sound good on a phone, a big stereo, in the car, in the club…on every tiny or gigantic sound system in the world.
As long as that is the case you can and should mix on any system that you like and trust.
Mixing on headphones brings some disadvantages, which only really become problems, when they make the mixing process unenjoyable and don’t lead to mixes that translate.
If the latter is the case, one solution could be other headphones with a more linear frequency response. But before you invest in new cans you should try a demo of Sonarworks Sound ID Reference for Headphones. This is a plugin that flattens the frequency response of headphones. With 280 headphone models to choose from, chances are that yours is included. Works great with my Sennheiser HD-25, which are awesome headphones but not linear at all:-) You can find the link below.
Plugins That Help Me When I Mix With Headphones
Two plugins that help me when I mix or produce with headphones:
First the just mentioned Sonarworks Sound ID Reference for Headphones, which flattens the frequency response of 280 headphone models. Depending on your headphones, this can make a huge difference.
Second Waves Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin which emulates the speakers and room acoustics of Abbey Road Studio 3, which is a legendary large console studio with three pairs of speakers. I don’t know if they use 3D audio, but after a short while of letting the brain to get used to getting fooled, it really feels like listening on speakers. A lot more fun that having the sound sit between your ears!
If you are interested in learning more about the plugin, you can read my full review of Waves Abbey Road Studio 3 here:
I’m using both plugins in conjunction when working with headphones.
There are fully functional demos for both plugins and highly recommend you give them a try! You can get them via the following links:
Enjoy and stay creative:-)