Why You Should Be Mixing on Headphones

June 2, 2019

After publishing several articles on room acoustics and acoustic treatment over the past couple weeks, I’ve received messages from multiple producers voicing a handful of acoustic treatment concerns. Seemingly, the most common issue is that they’re working in a bedroom that’s unable to be modified for various reasons. If you’re in the same boat, I’m going to demonstrate why you should be mixing on headphones and how you can do so in the most effective way possible. Additionally, I’ll be covering the importance of checking your mixes on headphones, even if you have access to a sound-treated studio.

The Benefits of Mixing on Headphones

The acoustic problems that result from working in an untreated studio can hinder your ability to create mixes that translate well to various playback systems. Acoustic treatment aims to increase the number of playback systems that your mix will translate to by minimizing the adverse effects your room has on your perception of your mix.

By taking your mixing environment out of the equation, you eliminate the acoustic problems presented by your room. If your room is exceptionally acoustically problematic, it may be best to solely mix using a high-quality pair of studio headphones. Mixing with headphones isn’t without consequences because your headphones present their own challenges that need to be overcome; we’ll take a more in-depth look at these issues in the next section.

When it comes down to it, mixing on headphones isn’t a replacement for studio speakers placed in a sound-treated studio, and studio speakers aren’t a replacement for headphones; they’re different. Even if you have access to a sound-treated studio, you should still be checking your mixes on headphones.

Headphones tend to be more revealing than speakers, especially when it comes to the finer details in your mix. Tasks like applying fades and making surgical EQ decisions are sometimes more manageable with headphones.

Open-back headphones allow air to pass through their ear cups to the speaker element, which prevents pressure from building up and affecting the sound they produce. These are a good option if you usually mix songs at home in a relatively quiet environment. The AKG K702s are the headphones I primarily use for mixing while working in my home studio.

Closed-back headphones don’t allow air to pass through their ear cups, but they do a better job of blocking outside noise than open-back headphones. If you find yourself mixing while mobile, closed-back headphones are a great choice. The Audio Technica M50Xs are my favorite pair of closed-back headphones thanks to the clear sound they provide, along with how comfortable they are; I can wear them for long periods without getting irritated.

The Problems With Mixing on Headphones

When listening to your mix on a pair of speakers, both your ears hear both the left and right channels; this is referred to as acoustic ‘crosstalk.’ If you’re listening to your mix on a pair of headphones, your left ear only hears the left channel, and your right ear only hears the right channel.

Stereo imaging and panning is more challenging to make sense of on headphones than studio speakers. Even if you manage to create a stereo image that sounds good on headphones, there’s no guarantee that it will translate well to speakers. This goes both ways though, meaning if you’ve created a mix on a pair of speakers, it’s just as important to check it on a pair of headphones.

In this article by Hugh Robjohn via Sound on Sound, Robjohn states that “The timing differences associated with this acoustic ‘crosstalk’ between the two channels and each ear lie at the core of the ‘stereo illusion’. This is what allows us to perceive phantom images between the speakers, and coincident-mic and stereo-panning techniques (which employ only level differences between the two channels to convey the spatial information) rely entirely on this acoustic crosstalk to work properly.”

Robjohn goes on to say that “When listening to ordinary stereo material via headphones, this interaural timing information is missing — we have only the differences in level between the two channels to go on — and hence the stereo images become non-linear and ill-defined. In fact, most people perceive the individual sound sources to lie on a line running directly through the centre of the head, instead of being portrayed in front of us as they would be with loudspeakers. This radically different presentation is what makes judging stereo signals and panning mono ones so much more difficult on headphones.”

Towards the end of the article, Robjohn mentions that “If your room is acoustically problematic and you have poor monitors, then headphones may well be a better and more reliable approach. It is certainly possible to achieve good results by mixing using headphones alone, although it does take practice and require a good deal of familiarity with the particular headphones you use.” For those of you with rooms that you can’t apply acoustic treatment to, this is good news.

Wearing headphones for an extended period can be uncomfortable. After 4 hours with a plastic clamp bear hugging your head, you’re probably going to want to take a break. The specific headphones you use will dictate how long you can mix based on how much padding they have, and how tight they grab onto you.

Ear fatigue tends to set in rather quickly when using headphones. The louder you listen to an audio signal, the faster your ears will become fatigued. Typically, people listen to music on headphones louder than they do on speakers. It’s much more noticeable when your speakers are excessively loud than it is when your headphones are too loud. Your two options are to take more frequent breaks when mixing on headphones or to make it a point to mix quietly.

How to Deal With Headphone Problems

TB Isone by ToneBoosters is a binaural room simulator that aims to create the illusion that you’re within a sound-treated virtual room, free of standing waves and unwanted reflections. This plugin is an excellent option if you don’t have access to a sound-treated studio and need to mix on headphones. It lets to take control of the virtual room by manipulating variables like volume, distance, early reflections, diffusion, and the loudspeaker azimuth angle (0 to 45 degrees).

You can even customize the head-related transfer function (HRTF), which is a response that characterizes how an ear receives a sound from a point in space. Your head, ears, ear canal, head density, and oral cavities affect how you perceive sound. HRTF generally boosts frequencies around the 2-5 kHz range and varies substantially from person to person.

TB Isone allows you to control parameters like HRTF strength, head size, and ear size. This plugin helps introduce interaural timing difference for headphone listeners but still falls slightly short of the stereo image created by a real set of studio speakers in a sound-treated environment.

Headphones color the sound of your mix in unique ways that can be counterproductive to your main goal: ensuring quality playback on the highest number of speaker systems and within the most significant number of listening environments possible. Quality playback simply means that the mix deviates from your perception of it as minimally as possible when played back through various speaker systems.

Software like Sonarworks’ Reference 4 can remove unwanted coloration from studio speakers and headphones, which dramatically increases your ability to create mixes that translate well to other systems. I’ve thought about this for quite some time, and I think it’s safe to say that out of all the third-party software I’ve purchased, Reference 4 has had the most significant overall impact on my ability to create quality mixes. It’s the difference between being able to trust your ears and not being able to trust your ears.

As much as it’s crucial to get a mix to sound good on a pair of speakers, it’s equally as important to make sure that your mix sounds good to people listening on headphones. You don’t have to mix your entire song using headphones to do this, but throughout your mixing process, toss on your headphones and listen to your mix. Pay particular attention to what happens to the clarity and position of elements placed throughout your stereo field. You don’t have to give up a good speaker mix for a good headphone mix; it’s possible to achieve both.

If you don’t have access to a sound-treated studio, you may be better off creating entire mixes using headphones. Even if you do have access to a sound-treated studio, it’s still important to check your mixes on a pair of headphones. Checking your mix on open-back and closed-back headphones allows you to get a sense of how a large number of your listeners will perceive the stereo image of your music without crosstalk. Software like TB Isone and Reference 4 can substantially improve the quality of mixes produced on headphones, so there’s still hope if applying acoustic treatment to your studio isn’t currently an option.

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Charles is a Mixing and Mastering Engineer at Black Ghost Audio. After graduating from the University of Manitoba with an English degree, Charles continued his education at Icon Collective, a music production school based out of Los Angeles, CA. He is the founder of Black Ghost Audio, an audio engineering company that creates educational content for music producers. You can send him a work inquiry at charles@blackghostaudio.com.