It’s OK to 'Phone It In

Why and how to use headphones when mixing.

Headphones. We’ve all got them, whether it’s several pairs in the studio drawer, a set forever plugged into your board, or even just some earbuds dangling off your iPod. But should you use them for mixing? While there will always be arguments for and against it, they sure can get you pretty far along in the process—provided you take a few small things into consideration.

Gauge the Flatness
The most important thing to consider when mixing with headphones is how flat their EQ response is. For example, Apple lists a frequency response of 5Hz–21kHz for its In-Ear Headphones. But does that mean you’ll hear the bass, mids, and highs evenly? Actually, no. Because if you look at the frequency-response chart, there’s a dip just below 1 kHz and a notch down around 8 kHz, then a sharp drop-off after 10 kHz.

The funny thing is, I actually like Apple’s earbuds and often reference mixes through them. It’s quite useful to hear your mix the same way countless listeners will. Sure, they’re not a $500 pair of amazing ’phones, but to me they represent the common denominator of headphones.

Do Some Critical Listening
Once you’ve checked out your headphones’ frequency response, you’ll need to listen to music you know very well on them. It’s important to take the time to get a feel for them and identify any deficiencies they may have. If you listen to mixes you know are great and they sound bassy in the new ’phones, then you obviously know you have a bass-heavy set. That means when you’re mixing your material, you may need to slightly under-mix the bass. The same applies for mids and highs. If your cans are dull on the top, you’ll need to make your mix a little brighter than usual. Again, you’ll have to work with what’s in your ears and in your head.

I happen to use two different sets of Ultrasone closed-back headphones in my studio. The Pro 750s (shown at left) have a titanium driver, wide bottom, and very balanced mid and top. The Pro 900s have a slight top-end boost, which I bear in mind when mixing. Both pairs are very comfortable to work with for long periods, and I know their characteristics very well.

It’s All in the Deets
Overall, my ’phones are great for super detail work—meaning the application of fine EQ, reverb, and delays—as well as any delicate panning and level balances. I will, of course, always refer to my studio monitors for a final mix, but I purposely mix on monitors that are not that detailed. This because I like to take into consideration what everyday listeners will hear. I have my Ultrasones sitting on the console next to me, and I constantly flip them on and off. Just remember to mute them when they’re not in use so you’re not fooled by any of the bleed.

Engineer/mixer Gary Tole (Bon Jovi, Nile Rodgers, Eric Clapton) also uses headphones daily for his studio work. “In the last couple of years I have come to depend more on a set of Grados for mixing,” he says. “Being a freelance engineer, I move from place to place and find myself needing a good, consistent reference point. I find the Grados provide that. With most consumers using earbuds to listen nowadays, I find I have to use headphones in the mix to make sure that it’s relative to how other people are listening to my mixes. I did always reference to headphones, but these days I depend on them more than ever. I find them to be very revealing as far as balance and overall sonic footprint goes. I wouldn’t mix without referencing a good pair of headphones these days.”

Open-tuning guitar master Sam Broussard (Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys) happens to use several pairs of headphones in his home studio, including a $20 pair of Koss UR29s and a set of Grados. “A few years back, I got some Grado RS2s,” said Broussard. “I was working on some [Linda] Ronstadt stuff with engineer Gary Paczosa, and he made my low-tuned Gibson acoustic sound so good that I went out and bought the mics (a matched pair of Neumann KM 54s) as well as the headphones he used. The Grados are pricy, audiophile home-system stuff. Also, they’re not completely closed can, so they’re unsuitable for recording quieter acoustic stuff, thus the Koss set—which is great for when I have to be quiet while editing or other stuff. However, for mixing, I can only get close—which isn’t bad.”

If you choose to mix with headphones, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good pair. But make sure you take the time to get to know them so you can compensate for their inherent strengths and weaknesses. Reference them with your monitors, and between the two you should be good to go.

Rich Tozzoli
Rich is a Grammy-nominated engineer and mixer who has worked with artists ranging from Al DiMeola to David Bowie. A lifelong guitarist, he’s also the author of Pro Tools Surround Sound Mixing and composes for the likes of Fox NFL, Discovery Channel, Nickelodeon, and HBO.

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