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Check Your Mixes In Headphones

6:00 am Home Recording

When we mix a song, there are basically two ways to hear what we are doing as we tweak our faders and spin our knobs: monitor speakers, or headphones. Although each has its advantages and disadvantages, there is general agreement that your mixes will come out better if your listening is done through a pair of high-quality monitor speakers in a sonically appropriate room.

Monitor speakers are designed to give a fair, “colorless” reproduction of your mixes. Over time, and with the use of techniques like listening to CDs you know well through your monitor speakers for reference and EQing the signal the speakers receive from the recorder or DAW to match your room, you will develop a sense of exactly how your mix needs to sound in the mixing studio in order to sound great in a car or a living room, or through an iPod with earbuds.

Having said this, there are reasons to mix using headphones, such as not being able to afford proper monitor speakers or needing to mix late at night when others are asleep. And naturally, you will check each candidate mix by playing it in your car and living room (and through your iPod) to see what final tweaks may be needed anyway. The final evaluation is made through “real world” sound systems, not studio monitors or studio headphones.

These days, with the popularity of portable mp3 players soaring, an awful lot of listening goes on in headphones (or lo-fi earbuds). Given this, you can make the case that it could be more appropriate to use headphones if you are mixing a song that you know will be heard mostly in headphones.

Vive La Difference

So what is the difference between monitoring your mixes through speakers as opposed to headphones? The effect of listening to any kind of music in headphones is to put you “up close,” immersing you in all of the details and layers present in the mix. In addition, the stereo stage is exaggerated, with the precise left-to-right placement of instruments and vocals easily discernible.

In contrast, speakers tend to “average out” the individual components of the mix, allowing you to hear the big picture, if you’ll pardon the expression. The details are still there (at least with good monitors), but they don’t dominate your attention the way they do in headphones. Similarly, a left-to-right stereo stage is created, but because each speaker is heard by both ears (unlike in headphones), the stereo effect is much less obvious.

Another difference is that speakers give a truer indication of the relative level between the vocals and the instruments and of the appropriate amount of reverb or other effects to apply to a given track. This means fewer remixes later due to bad sound through real-world systems. In particular, headphones rarely have a bass response flat enough to allow you to properly balance this all-important frequency range.

What To Do?

OK. My recommendation would be to use monitor speakers to set up a candidate mix, then check that mix in headphones before committing to it. Headphones are especially great for revealing two kinds of flaws in your mixes that will be hard to hear in speakers. First off, any tiny pops or clicks resulting from punch-ins or from electrical noise in the studio will be immediately noticed in headphones though they may be masked by other sounds and room reverb when heard through speakers.

In addition, headphones will reveal any “centered” signals that are in fact not quite in the center of the stereo stage. Again, much listening is done in headphones or earbuds today, and a lead vocal or snare drum that’s five or ten degrees left of center will be not only noticeable, but “wrong” and annoying.

The “off center” problem is common with stereo drum tracks, where setting the faders to exactly the same level “by eye” will produce a seemingly centered image when heard through speakers that is actually slightly off center in the headphones. It’s definitely worth a quick listen to your final mix in the headphones to make sure that it’s going to sound OK through that iPod!

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