How to mix on headphones
Updated: Mar 18, 2021
This has got to be one of the most common discussions about mixing.
Most beginners are convinced that you cannot make a proper mix unless you use monitor speakers; and that belief is carried even by some people who's been at it for a while.
I guess it's because if you think that you can't do something, you are usually right.
So, let me be crystal clear: there are zero problems in creating very good mixes on headphones.
Anybody who tells you otherwise is simply projecting his/her own ignorance on the rest of the world. And if you think so yourself, take your pride away and think again.
But: it is a skill. A skill just like, say, mic placement, critical listening, balancing, gain staging etc. Nobody's born with it. To acquire it you need to learn it first, and practice after.
Today it tends to be an important skill as well. Since many home recording rooms aren't good and there's aren't studios around, using headphones is often the only way for many people to get good mixes.
So: you can mix on headphones- and if you have a crappy sounding room, probably you should.
I usually leave it at that, because there's just too much to say.
However, I noticed that I couldn't find anywhere a place to send people who want to know what to learn and what to practice.
Hence this post. Which is about what do you need to know to make a great mix on headphones, and how you practice it.
Let's get started.
Show me the money
First of all, the bad news: there is money involved.
That's because the first thing you need, in order to be able to mix on headphones, is good headphones.
Specifically, good for mixing.
Just like monitors, headphones are a physical design: materials, quality of design, consistency of manufacturing and so on matter. Good headphones cannot be super-cheap. And, guess what!, they are not.
And, since we are at it: the cost is not due to someone famous having put their name on them (stop looking at your Beats by Dr. Dre: they may be fun to listen to, but they suck for mixing!). Actually, if there is someone's famous name attached to a given headphone model, you can almost guarantee that they aren't optimal. That's because part of the money that should have gone to the design and construction is likely going to the name guy. So filter these out.
For the rest, headphones good for mixing means the same as with monitors:
as un-hyped as possible (i.e. no bass boost, mids boost, highs boost),
full range (so you can hear all that's going on)
accurate in reproduction of details (so that you can hear what's going on well)
good volume range without distortion (this depends on your headphone amplifier, more on that later)
they keep their characteristics across all their volume range (you will be monitoring at low volume, so it's important that you don't need to blast the cans to make them sound good).
Due to their physics, open-back headphones (google it!) tend to be the ones with the most "natural" frequency response and presentation. However, open back headphones also tend to leak sound.
Which means that if you do recording as well as mixing, you will need two sets of headphones - one for recording (usually closed back, as isolating as possible not to leak sound to your lovely vocals or acoustic guitar recording), and one for mixing (open back and leaky).
In short: to mix on headphones, you should get good open-back cans. Told you there was money involved.
Note that I'm not saying "the best you can afford".
I'm saying "good".
There's no point in using unsuitable headphones, it would be like skimping on the foundation of your house, or the brakes or tires of your car. It does not end well.
No need of a mortgage
The good news is that, unlike monitors, good, usable headphones do not have astronomical prices.
A great mixing monitor can be fifty times more expensive than a mediocre, consumer level one, and even the merely "good" ones are easily ten times more expensive.
Whereas models like the AKG 701/702, Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro or Sennheiser HD 600 are certainly more expensive than your earbuds, but they are not crazy money expensive. They are tools, and tools that are at the foundation of everything else.
So save up!
(PS: Google "best open back headphones for mixing" to find models which are current when you read this post... the ones above are world's favorite and they have been around for a while, but you never know).
Good or great?
As a note - obviously you can go from good to great also with headphones, and there are better models than the above... which cost five or ten times more. But the difference is in time saved in referencing and checking, not in possibility of making a commercial-level mix.
Great headphones will get you there a little bit faster than "merely" good ones.
Whereas bad (or wrong) headphones won't get you there at all.
I have my cans, now what?
Let's now have a look at what actually means to mix on headphones, and how it is different than mixing on monitors.
First of all, it's important to understand that (just like monitors) no headphone has a perfectly flat frequency response. That means that, no matter which model you pick up and how much money you spend, in order to mix on them you will need to learn how that model sounds.
To do just that, what want to do is to pick out some good mix, possibly music you are very familiar with, and start listening to it on the headphones.
The idea is that by repeatedly listening to well mixed tracks on that specific model, slowly but surely your brain will build a mental "reference" model on how things are supposed to sound.
While It's fine to "just" listen for fun, just like you normally would - you can speed up the process a lot by doing sessions of critical listening - i.e. looking at specific things in the music.
By itself, this is the same way you would get used to monitors and room in a regular mixing environment.
One thing is to check how and if the frequency response of the headphones alters the balance perception in any meaningful way. Even among "flat" models, certain models are a bit more midrangey, other present bass frequencies differently etc.
how is the perception of bass? Listen to kick and bass. You know, hopefully, how you like them in your normal playback system. How's their balance? Do you hear the "click" of the kick (if any) as you usually do? Do you hear the "boom"? Is it louder or quieter than what you expect when compared to the bass?
how are the mids? If there's vocal lines, how much do the vocals cut thru, say, dense guitars or keyboards? Or how is that piano midrange stacking against... well, everything else?
what about the highs? How do these cymbals hit come out? Is the vocal on top of them or at the same level (here depends on the genre, of course)? What instrument or part is more present and feels nearer to you?
Good headphones will not alter the balance too much, but since when you're mixing you will be agonizing on half-decibel changes of the relative levels of two tracks, it's good to know what is due to the headphones (or the monitors) and not.
Timbre and depth
Another analytical element is to learn what "color" your chosen model imparts on existing material. "Color" as in frequency response - boosting or cutting frequencies.
Headphones and monitors aren't flat and they all bring variations to mixed/mastered music. With good headphones, these variations are reasonably small, but since when mixing we go very detailed in stuff like a half decibel variation in level, it's worth getting used to them.
When it comes to the actual sounds, is there something different to what you are used to? Is the bass purring or growling less or more than you'd expect?
Are the vocals "floating" on top of the rest the way they should, or too much or too little (again, compare mentally what you expect as you know the song)
How's the ambience level? Vocal reverb, general ambience, how much of it do you hear? Does it sound the same as you're used to, or more or less?
How is the positions of the instruments? How you expect them? Are you surprised that they are more (or less) "left" or "right" than you would expect?
Take notes on each of these aspects, and review them before another session with a different song, and check out what is consistent across them. After a while you'll start to see patterns, and these patters are what you want to keep in mind when mixing - compensating for them.
The general idea is that, when you're making your mixing moves, you will want to get things in the same ballpark as you've seen they should be.
For example, if you note that to your ears the headphones are a little bass-heavy, you will want to make your mixes so that they sound a little bass-heavy to you.
If you want to go the full Monty, use a band-isolating EQ (for example FabFilter Q) and listen to various tracks at sub bass (20-100Hz), bass (100-300Hz), low midrange (300-1KHz), mid- and high- midrange (about 1-3KHz and 3-5Khz) and then low-highs and highs (5-10K, 10KHz-20KHz).
Take notes, and try to separate what's the timbre you hear from the band you're listening to.
That's because good mixes often employ "tricks" to keep the balance perception on less than full range systems (phone or computer speakers for example).
This is often used for bass line and kicks - many playback systems cannot really reproduce sub-bass or even bass, so during mixing we add higher harmonics in the low/midrange, counting on the fact that the listener brain will "fill in" the gaps and hear bass where there is none.
The consequence is that if your specific headphone is emphasizing the band where these higher harmonics are, you may end up thinking that the cans are a little bass-heavy, while they are (for example) midrange-heavy.
This is the same as monitors, by the way - and you usually learn about this when your mix doesn't seem be able to get the same bass perception on any device as commercial mixes.
Don't overdo it, however. Listening to frequency bands alone is as fun as watching paint dry, and it's just one tool to get a general idea. Plus of course not all mixes use the same trick.
The idea is to get a clear, analytical idea on how music you know well sounds on the headphones so that you can replicate that in your mixes.
In conclusion, if you want (or have) to mix on headphones, it's essential that you get to know them extremely well - both in intuitive terms ("feels right") and in analytical, critical listening terms (that you can articulate with words).
A good method to do so is to simply use them all the time to listen to music after aquiring them.
It's a job and it takes some time. But the payback is that you can go anywhere, put on your headphones and make that mix wherever you want.
The Three Things You Need To Look Out For
Beyond the general idea of getting to know your specific headphones very well, there's basically three areas where headphones behave very differently than monitors, and which can easily trip the unexperienced.
The first and foremost is the reverb level.
Without going into the whys, fact is that usually headphones sound much wetter than monitors.
This is something you can easily check on music you like. Take a "spacious" song with reverbs you like, play it on any stereo speaker and listen it right after on headphones. Go back and forth. You should notice how the reverbs are more prominent to perceive on the cans.
Therefore, the first rule of mixing on headphones is: you must hear your reverb (both ambience and tails) clear and well.
Otherwise your mix will be too dry.
Note that this does not mean to splat any reverb preset and be done with it. You still have to mix the reverb properly (EQ, compress, de-ess etc)... but once you have done so, keep the level a little higher than you would otherwise.
That way your mix will sound fine on monitors and wetter on cans, just like everybody is used to hear good mixes.
If you like, check your mix on any speakers you have - hifi, computer, cheap monitors - and you will find that the reverb levels should be right (note: it may not be, then you have been a little too enthusiastic and pull that reverb fader back a little).
You can use really any speaker since we aren't talking details or detailed balance, but the general response and relative level of the reverb with respect to other information in similar frequency bands.
So, just keep an eye to your reverb levels and don't assume that the reverb you hear in the headphone is gonna be the same that you would hear on moniotrs.
Two: stereo image
The second aspect to consider is that the stereo image will be very different in headphones than with monitors. Specifically, headphones sound much wider.
Just as with reverbs, it's just something you need to know.
Resist the temptation to keep your image narrow. Pick up music with good stereo spread, hear where the instruments are positioned and do not be afraid of placing just as wide when you mix on headphones.
As a side note, a very similar effect exists when you listen to a mix in a car as a driver: the left and right spakers are asymmetric with respect to your ears (unless it's McLaren F1 street car, that is!) and so you may really end up hearing the floor tom very near to you and the hi-hat very far!
It's a typical pitfall of checking a mix in a car to be tempted to go back and move things towards the centre.
So don't. When mixing on headphones, leave your panning wide and then check on any stereo speaker you have, just making sure they are well positoned with respect to your head.
Again, you can use any speaker because stereo position is not overly affected by the crappiness of a given speaker set, since it's only about the difference in time between the same sound arriving at the right and left ear. Ignore the timbre and focus on the left-right position. Just make sure the speaker are equidistant from your ears.
The final aspect to look out for is how "near" certain elements of the track are to you. With headphones, timbres with high frequency contents will seem nearer to you (with respect to monitors). That's because the drivers are very near to your ears and reflections are blocked out and do not filter the sound as they normally would do in a room.
A typical example is vocals.
In a mix, your always want to get the vocals "in your face" and get the feeling the singer is there with you in the room.
Thing is, beyond the initial balance, doing so is not about volume level: it's about the amount of hi-frequency component of whatever instrument/part you want to feel near. Since high frequencies contains less energy than lower bands, they dissipate more quickly (dissipation is a function of the square of the distance from the source to your ears), so our jungle-evolved brains continuously evaluate how much high freq there is in a sound (with respect to another) to guess their relative distance from us... in other words, depth.
It's a typical trick, for example, to leave the vocal fader where it is but employ a little hi-shelf boost to get the singer "nearer" to the listener.
(A friendly note: it goes without saying that if you try to make everything near, i.e. boost the highs on everything, nothing will be and you will end up with a unholy mess. Just sayin'.)
Now, what happens with headphones is that high frequencies, as we said, feel more prominent than with monitors no matter what. This means that everything that's got signfiicant highs will feel a little "nearer" to you.
A vocal "air" band is a classic example, but this affects everything with high frequency content, from hi-hats feeling more "ticky" and present in headphones, to cymbals feeling more prominent and near.
The risk therefore is to make a mix where your vocals are nice and upfront in the headphones... but they sound less clear and present on monitors.
The challenge is that while there's always a range of hi-frequency levels where the vocal line sounds "just right" in both headphones and monitors, there's no simple recipe to find it, as it depends on the specific timbre of the voice (or whatever), the physicality of your ears, your hearing etc.
It's a matter of trying and seeing what happens (pardon, listening).
So the final rule of mixing on headphones is to keep your hi-frequencies a little more prominent than you would with monitors.
In concrete, in order to check:
set your level on headphones. If you add a hi-shelf, add a little more than you would (not enough that it becomes grating, but as far as you can go).
bounce the mix and go listen to your mix on any speakers - even if they're not that great, they will work the midrange and give you an idea. If it's too much highs there as well, back it down a little;
and/or listen to a single mono speaker (there's where the old Auratones were very useful).
your phone will do fine as well and can be very useful to check the corner frequency of any hi-shelf you may be using, as often it has less high-frequency extension.
go back and forth between "reasonable" highs (aka "nearness") on headphones and other playback system until nothing sounds odd on any. If you don't seem to get it, try a hi-shelf and varying the corner frequency, as your headphones may be boosting also your high mids
use reference listening on both the headphones and other playback systems trying to focus on how the vocal level perception seem to change
refresh your ears very often - the high end is a killer for getting us adapted and losing any idea of what is going on sonically.
In other words, to get that balance right, you will need to check references on the headphones, monitor at a "reference" volume with both, and go back and forth between headphones and whatever speaker you have, until the vocal (or whatever) nearness feels "just right" in both.
Then go check somewhere else, rinse and repeat until things sound about right in any playback system.
This is essentially the area where the better the headphones, the faster you are in getting to a good balance.
But it's also where practice and knowing your headphones well pays the most: once you do, you will be able to turn out good mixes even merely "good" headphones without too much checking and referencing anyways.
Check what needs checking, and nothing else
A small but important note: when do in all these checks, possibly on questionable speakers or in a questionable room, it's important to resist the temptation to change the timbre (aka equalize) individual sounds beyond the elements above.
If you are using headphones for mixing, you have already decided that they are your best tool to judge timbre and balance.
If you start changing things based on crappy speakers in un untreated room which filters half of what they put out, you will be just chasing your tail.
Check for reverb levels, stereo image and depth, and leave the rest well alone - you'll be making yourself a favor.
The Importance Of Being Level
The final aspect ot consider are your listening levels - especially when switching between headphones and whatever else you are using to check.
First of all, it's good practice to mix at low, conversational level. Meaning you could have a conversation over the music without needing to shout. This is true also for headphones. Don't overdo the volume, and use only occasional excursions to higher level to see how exciting things become.
However due to Mr Fletcher and Mr. Munson (google them up), make sure you keep the same perceived volume when you switch between headphones and monitors. Basically, what you don't want is to have an abrupt, noticeable change in level between headphones and whatever else you're using to check, because that'll screw up your judgement just fine.
"Perceived volume" means that your midrange should be approximately at the same level. It doesn't need to be perfect (especially if you are using the Soundblasters) but in the ballpark.
Note that the timbres in the track will change. Ingore that - It's the reason for which you are not mixing on these speakers.Focus on the overall level instead.
A good method to do so is to switch between monitors and headphones while listening to some music in a casual manner - without any critical, analytical intent, exactly like you would do when you're chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Turn your head to the DAW screen. Read something else. Push the switch button. You will know.
But what about the headphone amplifier?
What headphone amplifier?, some of you may be asking.
Well, even if you've just started and made your first few mixes with no audio interface and using your Mac headphones out, you are using an headphones amplifier - in that case, one that's built-in in the computer and which you control via the operating system. Or, you typically have one or more headphone amps in your audio interface.
Some models of headphones come in difference impedances (like 25, 32. 80, 250 Ohm etc) and all models (just like microphones) have different sensitivity.
I don't go into what that means as there's gazillions good material on the Internet and it would be pointless to repeat.
But the gist of the matter is simple: you want to have an headphone amplifier that can drive your headphones to reasonable volume without distorting.
Or, if you already have the headphone amplifier (like in the Mac case above), you want to choose headphones whose impedance and sensitivity make them easy to drive without distortion by the amp you have.
In other words, you don't want distortion, and whether or not distortion happens is the result of impedance (of both cans and amp) and sensitivy of the headphones.
Most mixing headphones have reasonable impedance and most audio interfaces have a more than decent headphone amplifier onboard, that can drive them properly. Computer, phones etc are often less powerful and need the cans to be suitably "driveable".
A good article that goes in depth is for example at https://www.soundonsound.com/sound-advice/q-do-need-better-headphone-amp and I definitely recommend go reading it!
So, can I mix on headphones?
If you've got this far, you know why the answer is a resounding yes, and what to look out for when doing so.
Don't be worried if your first mixes will require a lot of time and back-and-forth checking. It's called practice.
If you practice and deal with the stuff I've mentioned in this post, you will be churning out hits in no time.
(an overdue note of thanks to Paul Ward who, long time ago, was the first suggesting to me that it's indeed possible to make great mixes on headphones, and whose work is perfect practical proof of the statement!)