Living in a studio flat in central London back in 2005, it was impossible for me to play music through speaker monitors without being a nuisance to the neighbours. In addition, the acoustics of the room were problematic. This room needed a few grands worth of acoustic treatment throwing at it.
I was starting out as a London music producer. Fellow producers and engineers informed me all too often that it wasn’t possible to mix on headphones. The truth is I didn’t have much choice. In fact, I ended up producing and mixing on headphones for a good few years.
I did my research and decided that a decent pair of headphones was a good workaround. After much deliberation, I opted to spend a couple of hundred pounds on some AKG K701’s. I learnt how other songs sounded on them and used this as a reference point. How could it fail?
The problem is that it’s all too easy to miscalculate the levels on a headphone only mix. Right out of the gate, headphones typically have a unique way of colouring the sound they reproduce, and every pair is an entirely different beast. This colouration affects the way we perceive frequencies, ultimately changing the way we mix.
It’s also very difficult to judge the stereo width of a track when the music is being pumped directly into your ears.
Crossfeed is another issue. When we listen to music through monitors, the left ear perceives the left speaker, the the right ear the right monitor. A split second later, each ear hears the opposite speaker at a slightly lower volume. With headphones, crossfeed doesn’t exist. The right ear hears the right channel, and the left ear hears the left, with no natural blending of the two. Our brain notices material is missing and we have a tendency to dislike what we hear.
Whilst workarounds such as open back headphones and crossfeed plugins exist to help with the issue, they don’t fix the problem completely.
Mixing on monitors and referencing on headphones is probably the ideal combination...
Whichever way you look at it, using headphones is a lot harder in some respects to achieve the same kind of quality and transferability that comes more naturally on good monitor speakers in a reasonably good acoustically treated room.
The tracks I produced and mixed on headphones never translated too well on monitors. I was always disappointed. The low end wasn’t right. The levels were out. Reverb and delay was an issue - the tracks were either too wet or too dry. In general, mixing on monitors is preferable. That doesn’t mean that good work hasn’t been done on headphones, but it isn’t overly common.
The Ideal Scenario?
Headphones can provide finer detail than monitors can, useful for making tweaks rather than sweeping eq boosts or cuts. Mixing on monitors and referencing on headphones is probably the ideal combination. With that said, 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.
Jonathan Essex Music | Music Producer London