Mixing with headphones

Maybe you’re on the road, maybe you can’t get into a studio, maybe you’re just making a rough mix for someone. If you absolutely must mix with headphones, here are some tips to help avoid the biggest mistakes people make.

Keep it dry

Headphones don’t contribute much acoustic information to the sound you’re hearing because they’re so close to your ears.  Everything sounds very close. You’ll be tempted to make things sound deeper, wider, and more lush than you should with headphones because of the flatness of the soundstage.

The best advice is to keep it dry because you have no frame of reference.  A dry mix is far more likely to sound good on speakers when mixed with headphones than one with a lot of delay and reverb.  Otherwise you’ll run the risk of a washed out sound devoid of impact when you add the acoustics of an actual listening environment and distance from speakers.

Keep it Simple

Fancy effects such as flanging, phasing, and their ilk will sound very different with speakers because their positioning will contribute natural phase shifts.  If you start messing with phase in your headphone mix you have no way of knowing what will happen when you add speaker distance into the equation.  Again, play it safe and keep things simple.

Use the whole stereo image

While this is true when mixing with speakers, it’s especially true with headphones. Headphones are two points of sound which typically generate three major lobes: left, center, and right.

These lobes will be loudest and things will sound especially huge when panned into these positions. Remember that you have all the space in-between those lobes to use and that headphones will probably sound most impressive with things panned  hard.  Be aware of that and avoid the temptation to make everything live there.

Use multiple references

The same rules that apply to mixing with speakers apply to headphones: the more references you have the better.  In addition to your standard headphones, check on something very different.  Don’t forget consumer-grade headphones like plain white iPod earbuds!  If it sounds great on all of these, you’re more likely to have a solid mix.

If there’s any way you can mix on real studio monitors, do it. Otherwise follow these tips and you just might be able to pull of a slammin mix with your headphones.