4 Tips to Create Better Masters Using Headphones

Learn how mastering in a virtual studio, using a headphone EQ, auditioning your masters using earbuds, and more will help improve your music.
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Headphones are the secret weapon of many mastering engineers. In combination with a pair of studio monitors in an acoustically treated studio, headphones will allow you to optimize your masters for an assortment of playback systems.

We’ll be taking a look at the importance of mastering in a virtual studio, using a headphone EQ, auditioning your masters using earbuds, and checking your masters in mono.

The Importance of Mastering on Headphones

Contrary to popular belief, mastering on studio monitors isn’t necessarily “better” than mastering on headphones. Bearing this in mind, mastering on headphones isn’t necessarily “better” than mastering on studio monitors either. You need to check your work on both studio monitors and headphones to get the best sense of how your listeners will perceive your music.

There are a few critical ways in which studio monitors and headphones differ from one another. When your right studio monitor produces a sound wave, the wavefront first hits your right ear, and then your left ear; there’s a small time delay between these two events. A similar process occurs when your left speakers produces sound. If you’re using headphones, your right ear only hears the right channel, and your left ear only hears the left channel.

The tiny time delay between a wavefront hitting your right ear and left ear when mastering on a pair of studio monitors is known as acoustic crosstalk, and helps your brain determine where elements are panned within the stereo field. You’re still able to perceive stereo width using headphones, but your brain relies purely on level differences between the left and right channel to do so.

When listening to a song on headphones, you’ll notice that elements in your mix tend to sound as though they're positioned on a line running through your head, as opposed to in front of you; this is yet another result of the absence of acoustic crosstalk. So, how are you meant to overcome this issue?

You can’t turn an apple into an orange. Your studio monitor mix and your headphone mix are different animals, and provide two very different listening experiences. They don’t need to sound the same, but they should each be of an acceptable quality in their own regard. You can learn more about the benefits and flaws of mixing on headphones here.

I recommend creating your masters using studio monitors and checking them periodically throughout the process on headphones.

1. Master in a Virtual Studio If You Don’t Have Acoustic Treatment

It’s easy to say “master on studio monitors,” but not everyone has the budget for a quality pair of studio monitors, or more importantly, professional acoustic treatment. Quality acoustic treatment can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $3500+ for a small studio, so it’s not exactly a light expense. If you're interested in taking on the task of acoustic treatment yourself, you can learn more about acoustically treating your home studio here.

Mastering on a pair of studio monitors in an untreated room can be more detrimental to your project than solely using headphones. One of the great things about working with headphones is that they take your room out of the equation. Thanks to recent advancements in technology, it’s now possible to replicate acoustic crosstalk using headphones.

If you don’t have access to a professionally sound treated studio, Abbey Road Studio 3 provides a solution. Powered by Waves’ Nx immersive audio technology, Abbey Road Studio 3 emulates one of the iconic mixing rooms at Abbey Road Studio.

Nx tracks your head movement and pans your mix as you turn your head; this is somewhat of an oversimplification of what’s happening, but the result is that it feels like you’re truly sitting in a professional studio.

When you open up Abbey Road Studio 3, input the circumference of your head and your ear to ear distance, select the headphone EQ profile that matches your headphone model, enable head tracking, and then select whether you’d like to use the near, mid, or far studio monitors.

Toggle throughout the different studio monitors while you’re working to understand how the mastering decisions you make will translate to different types of playback systems.

2. Use a Headphone EQ

Typically, you should check your master on a variety of headphones. Headphones uniquely color the sound they produce; some more than others. Colorful headphones are less than ideal for mixing and mastering purposes because they’re deceiving.

For example, if your headphones are low-end heavy, you’ll naturally mix your bass too quiet as a means of compensation. On your colorful headphones, the bass will sound perfectly balanced with the rest of your mix, but on a more neutral, or low-end deficient playback system, there will be an obvious lack of bass.

By checking your masters on multiple different headphones, you’ll get a sense of how your song will sound on different playback devices. The glaring issue here is that you may have just one or two pairs of headphones; one open-back and one closed-back. Learn more about the difference between open-back and closed-back headphones here.

I briefly mentioned headphone EQ in the previous section, but it deserves some more attention. A headphone EQ, like the one found in Abbey Road Studio 3, will apply an EQ compensation curve to the music you’re listening to; say goodbye to sound coloration.

A headphone EQ will provide you with a relatively “flat” representation of your music, which ensures minimal deviation from your perception of your master regardless of the playback system you listen to your tunes on.

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3. Check Your Masters on Consumer Earbuds

You spend hours mastering your tracks to perfection through high-quality equipment, but the reality is that most people listening to your music will be listening to it through low-quality consumer earbuds and speakers. Instead of neglecting the majority of your audience, consider catering to their listening situations.

When you craft an excellent master using high-quality studio monitors and headphones, you don’t need to sacrifice the quality of your master so that it plays back well on consumer devices, but there are a few things in particular that you want to make sure are translating well.

Low-end that sounds powerful on your full range monitors may be completely inaudible on consumer speakers. Bass that lacks upper harmonic content typically doesn’t come through very well on speakers that lack low-end; if your track contains a funky bassline that is the backbone of the song, this is a serious issue.

The following song called “Boogie” by Brock Hampton contains a bass that is clearly audible on consumer earbuds, as well as rich and powerful on studio headphones.

This particular bass uses heavy distortion to cut through the midrange of the mix. It’s not the low-end that you’re hearing, but rather, the upper harmonic content that allows your brain to perceive a phantom fundamental frequency, below the frequency response of your consumer speakers.

Try distorting your bass yourself with a plugin like FabFilter’s Saturn by turning up the drive knob. For a more subtle effect, use a tape saturator like Softube Tape. Turn up the amount level until you’ve achieved the desired level of saturation, and then toggle between different color types to dial in the sound you’re looking for.

4. Check Your Masters in Mono

Much like how your masters sound different on studio monitors in comparison to how they sound on headphones, they also sound different when summed to mono. Plenty of consumer devices and large venues use mono playback systems, which places importance on mono compatibility.

Slapping a utility on your master channel to audition your track in mono is easy enough, but what are you meant to listen for? Two issues you may experience include a loss of energy in specific frequency ranges, or complete phase cancelation resulting in missing track elements; the latter issue being much less common, and typically the result of phase inverted stereo mixing techniques.

Many mono compatibility issues can be fixed while mastering, depending on the severity of the problem. With your track summed to mono, apply the FabFilter Pro-Q 3 to your master channel and apply EQ boosts/cuts where necessary to balance the frequency response or your mix.

Bypass the utility you’ve applied to put your track back into stereo, and re-assess how your mix sounds. You want to strike a balance between a mix that sounds balanced in stereo and mono. Again, make sure to perform this process using a pair of studio monitors, and a pair of headphones with EQ compensation applied in Abbey Road Studio 3.

Regardless of if you’re working in an ideal studio space, mastering music using headphones will allow you to produce masters that translate well to an assortment of playback systems more effectively. Make sure to master in a virtual studio if you don’t have access to a professionally sound treated studio, use a headphone EQ, check your mix on consumer earbuds, and ensure mono compatibility by checking your mix in mono.

Once you've identified an issue through one of the various monitoring solutions that I've mentioned, you need to be able to correct it. In the following video, I demonstrate how to reduce harsh resonance, shape transients, and increase loudness with my top three secret mastering plugins.

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