How to Mix With Headphones

Mixing with headphones is not a cheap alternative to great loudspeakers and expensive room treatment as many professionals claim. There are real uses and benefits when using headphones for your mix.

In this article we will look at the problems we face when using headphones to mix, and we'll give you a number solutions to help you get the most out of your sound.

You can create a pretty decent mix using just headphones if you know what the problems are. Once you know the problems, you can accommodate for them in the way you mix so that your mixes shine.


Why You Would Need to Use Headphones to Mix

  • You’re working late at night and don’t want to wake up your roommate.
  • Your room might have poor acoustics and not everyone can afford to do an acoustic treatment for their rooms (I know I can’t).
  • You don’t have a decent set of loudspeakers to work with.

What’s Good About Working With Headphones

Sennheiser HD 650

Here are a couple of VERY good reasons to use headphones. Even engineers that have large budgets to build their studios can’t argue with the usefulness of these concepts.

  1. Headphones can expose a lot of tiny details that you would miss when listening to your mix on loudspeakers. Headphones are excellent tools for making stereo width adjustments, finding pops, hisses and other sounds that you might not want in your mix. Headphones are also used to find problems with over compression (distortion). I tend to think of using headphones like using a microscope for cleaning up my mixes.
  2. Another reason for using headphones is that you can carry a familiar environment with you everywhere. This is especially useful when you are in a acoustically unfamiliar room that has different treatment than what you are used to. Maybe the room is very well treated. Maybe it’s not. But in every case, you can take your headphones along and always have a standard to go by.

So let’s first take a look at the problems that arise when using headphones.

The Two Main Problems When Using Headphones for Mixing

The Stereo Imaging Problem

The stereo imaging problem is a simple one to understand, but a hard one to fix. Though we'll describe the problem in this article, if you want to dive deeper into the subject, check our article: Crosstalk on Headphone Mixes

Let’s define the Stereo Imaging problem. Say you’re listening to a pair of loudspeakers that are placed in front of you and I jump in the back and pull out the connector to the speaker on the left. All the sound is now coming out of the right speaker. Your left ear can still hear what’s coming out of the right speaker, agreed? Your right ear receives the sound from the speaker quicker than the left ear does. The left ear receives the sound a fraction of a second later because there isn’t a direct speaker facing it. To get to your left ear, the sound has to reflect around the room, go around your face, etc.

This tiny delay is what helps us perceive direction. It’s how we can tell where the sound is originating.

In the case of headphones, if your left headphone went dead all of a sudden, all the sound would be going into your right ear. You wouldn’t hear anything on the left because there is no real way for the sound from your right headphone speaker to travel to the left ear.

This means that it’s very hard to perceive direction when using headphones—which is very bad for mixing. This is the stereo imaging problem.

To understand more about this, check out the article: Crosstalk on Headphone Mixes.

The Altered Frequency Response Problem

All headphones color the original sound much more than loudspeakers do. You’ll find that headphones sound much clearer in the low mid-range. This coloration will have a huge impact on your mix. You might end up mixing mid-range instruments much lower than they need to be because they sound much clearer on the headphones!

Also, some headphone manufacturers deliberately beef up the low end because headphones lack the ‘feeling’ you get from the low end. You know, that feeling deep in your stomach when you hear a pounding bass in the club.

Specific Solutions to the Two Problems

I have to be honest. There are technical solutions to overcoming these two problems, but I’m not the biggest fan of either solution. The reason for this is the solutions we have are not advanced enough for mixing or mastering situations. They are good enough, perhaps, for a listening environment, but not for professional work. Please don’t get this wrong. The solutions do help a lot. I just don’t think they overcome the problems enough for my work. Many professionals on the other hand find that these solutions work for them.

A Possible Solution to The Stereo Imaging Problem

Some headphone amp manufacturers build their amps with special circuitry that includes algorithms that deliberately delays sounds for opposite ears. This helps perceive direction and the music sounds like it’s coming from outside speakers (not like it’s in your head). Of course this helps create more natural mixes than as you would when mixing using headphones. It’s quite complex how this is achieved and each manufacturer likely has their own proprietary algorithm in the circuit. This means you have to hear each one to decide which is best for you. When listening to these amps keep in mind that the source and output has to be the same if you want a true comparison. I would walk in with my own player and headphones so I know exactly what each particular amp sounds like. It’s best to bring in your own headphones and sounds that you are familiar with. You want it to be the best match for a headphone that you’re already used to. If you don’t bring your headphones when auditioning these amps, make sure you use the same headphones when testing all the amps so you get best results by consistency.

A Possible Solution to the Altered Frequency Response Problem

If your headphones bring out a lot of clarity in the low mid-range, you should account for that while making your edits in the mix. This can take some experimentation but over time you can get pretty good since you’ll know how much color your headphones actually apply and in what frequency range. In every case, you want to test your mix on loudspeakers to make sure you have made the right edits. As you get better, you’ll find that you can get quite accurate. This is also not a 100% solution, but it works.

For the missing feeling of the low end, there are manufacturers that create ‘seat vibration transducers’ that some professionals use. The purpose of these transducers is to mechanically generate that ‘feeling’ of the low end that we don’t get from headphones. It can seem a bit weird to work on a shaking chair, but a number of people find this kind of technology quite useful.

What I Would Do if I Only Had Headphones to Mix

I have to be honest. Neither of these solutions works for me. The Stereo Imaging problem requires an amp that helps with the delay so the sound appears to come from outside (not from in your head). But the technology isn’t perfect. There are many factors involved in creating the perfect Crosstalk technology (the technology that helps with the delay and direction issue on headphones). Maybe I’m too critical but it just doesn’t do it for me. Also, I can’t really mix on a shaking chair. So, I end up doing things the old school way…

Old School Mixing

First, just knowing these two problems exist when mixing with headphones takes you a long way. When you mix using headphones, it’s very important that you understand what your specific headphones are doing to the sound. I use Sennheiser headphones (the HD 650) and I know exactly how they color the sound. So when mixing I can account for the color when I’m making edits. Though this isn’t a perfect solution, as you get to know your headphones well you can get pretty decent results over time.

There is nothing like listening to your mix on loudspeakers and if you absolutely have to mix using headphones, the best thing you can do is build the mix using headphones then take them to a loudspeaker system and listen for these two problems. That brings us to the point of this article: If you KNOW what to listen for then you can hone into the problem areas quicker.

Know What to Listen For When Mixing with Headphones.

Don’t Forget Your Audience!

Keep in mind that there will always be a certain number of people that listen to your mix on headphones! In the pursuit of perfection, most engineers forget this little, but important fact. You can build the best track and have the best mix for it, but if half of the audience of your music use headphones then you’ve only made half a good mix.

Listening to your mix on headphones is vital—so is listening to it on loudspeakers. Along the same lines, not everyone in your intended audience has awesome sound systems. You should also listen to your mix on ‘bad sound systems’ to see how it performs. You want to get the most out of your mix and make it versatile for any playback situation. If you’ve heard your mix in each of these three situations, and you’re happy with the mixing compromises you have to make, you’re ready to sell.

So the best solution is to build the mix on headphones, then take the CD to different acoustic environments. Listen to the CD in as many different environments as you can. Listen to it:

  • on good headphones
  • on bad headphones
  • in the car
  • on a good sound system
  • on a bad sound system
  • in a small room
  • in a large room
  • etc.

That’s the old school way. That's what I do. Once I’ve heard it on different systems I get a good understanding of how the mix should be tweaked to get the most out of it.

Other Advice

Before you do anything serious with a new set of headphones, listen to them. Get used to what your headphones are like. Do they make the sound brighter? Do they make the sound thinner? Do they give you a good clarity of the low end?

As I’ve mentioned, using headphones is a lot like using a microscope to clean up details in the mix. When you’re working with reverb in your mix you’ll find that a small amount of added reverb is very easily noticeable on the headphones. So it is possible to underestimate how much reverb your mix really needs.

Checking your mix on many sound systems will (yet again), help you clear up all these types of issues.

As you can see, mixing with headphones has real value. Don’t discard the importance of headphones. But, also be very aware of the two problems so that you can make the most out of your mix when you edit on headphones.