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Pros and Cons of Mixing on Headphones

28 Mar 2017

Interview kind: text · Reading time: 8 minutes

The world of the Digital Audio Workstations has seen some major improvements during the last decade. This has allowed to “squeeze” some of the most sophisticated softwares into a laptop that can be easily carried around in your rucksack.
It’s hard for you to bring a pair of your reference loudspeakers with you on the train, so that’s why headphones have become a reliable tool for most engineers that work “on the road”.
But what we’re talking about here is using headphones as part of your studio equipment along with your giant reference loudspeakers.
There are many different opinions regarding this subject, so let’s try to understand the pros and the cons of mixing your music with professional headphones.
Shadowing Effect
The main difference that occurs when you switch from monitors to headphones is the total separation between the left and the right channel. When you’re listening to something on a pair of speakers, both ears receive a certain amount of information from the left channel as well as the right. 
Our head acts like an absorbing panel and creates a “shadowing effect” on the sound sources, creating phase and tone interferences between the two channels. So even the hard panned elements can be heard by both ears and the reflections of the walls, together with the natural reverb of the environment you’re in, make everything sounds perfectly natural.
But if your try listening to something from the ‘60s and ‘70s (Beatles, Pink Floyd and the early Bowie’s, just to name a few) on your headphones, it’s weird to hear the drums beating your right ear while the vocals are shouting in your left. 
This happens because these stereophonic solutions were made to be appreciated on a pair of loudspeaker.
On the other side, there are many records that have been made with the binaural recording technique, achieved through a dummy head with two microphones (usually Neumann KU-81 and KU-100) placed as if they were human ears.
This simulates what we (humans) are used to hear naturally, including the shadowing effect. These recordings can be specially appreciated on headphones, because they perfectly reproduce this 3D stereo effect. The Binaural Pearl Jam album is a clear example of this technique.
Related to the “shadowing effect” we’ve just explained is the panning issue. Hard panned instruments can sound really cool on headphones, but you risk loosing the focus of your mix when you listen to it on loudspeakers.
Even perceiving the mono and centered elements can become an issue, since even the slightest pan difference can be heard.
Remember that your mix will always sound narrower on monitors than on headphones due to the cross-feed between the left and right channel. Try “pulling in” the extremely hard panned elements (maybe from 100% to 90%) in your headphone mix and try and see how that translates on other devices.
Synth pads can create a huge stereo effect, especially when listened on headphones. Sometimes panning them slightly to the center (slightly, not mono) can give more focus to your mix while keeping that same space. 
Try adding some reverb or delay to the hard panned instruments and pan this effect on the opposite side of the hard panned instruments. For example, if you’ve panned a guitar hard right, try panning the reverb return bus on the left. This will create a more natural soundscape for the listener, even if you can just hear it in the mix.
Reverb is maybe one of the most difficult effects to deal with when you’re mixing your music on headphones. We’re naturally used to hearing sounds in an acoustically “live” environment, with variable frequency responses and natural reverb times.
Sounds in headphones are naturally “dead”, so adding some slight reverb to your headphone mix can help you get a spacial sensation similar to working on monitors.
It often happens that once you listen to the mix on a pair of speakers, you’ll realize the amount of reverb that’s missing. Even a subtle hall reverb on the vocals can make them sit perfectly in the mix, even if you can’t properly hear it.
Once your mix “works” and sounds good, headphones can be used to add and adjust all sorts of ambient effects and parameter automations that can make your mix more interesting. 
Remember: your music should translate on every possible device, so some of these effects could be more appreciated by other headphone listeners.
Keep in mind that wearing headphones means having the drivers directly next your ears. Being mixing an immersive and long process, make sure you take regular breaks so you don’t stress your ears to much.
The chart below can help you out with this (all credits to B&H).
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Low End
Another element you miss out when working with headphones is the body feeling that you get from bass. Low frequencies generate a higher amount of pressure that translates into that well known “punch” you get from the subwoofers.
Frequencies below 80Hz are difficult to judge on headphones, so there’s the risk of overloading your mix with bass end, while loosing focus on the 80Hz - 160Hz area, where headphones offer greater clarity. This obviously doesn’t always happen if you rely on some higher quality gear.
The same biggest piece of advice is to listen to some mastered reference tracks to get an idea of the amount of low end your mix requires and regularly switch between a pair of headphones and a pair of decent monitors (that can reproduce that low-end you’re looking for).
Headphone vs loudspeakers isn’t a real deal, since every engineer has developed the best mixing workflow throughout his own experience. A pair of crappy headphones won’t do the job, just like a crappy pair of speakers. 
There’s no use in arguing that “you can’t mix with headphones” if your alternative monitoring system are your laptop built-in speakers. That’s why gear is probably the first thing you should think about. 
Headphones can provide more focus on details and are useful to work on certain elements that require more attention (compression and automation), along with being a reference tool that isn't affected by the environment you're using it in.
Loudspeakers are (and have always been) the main monitoring system, but that doesn’t mean they have to be the ONLY monitoring system used for mixing: regularly switching with a pair of headphones that you know very well can help you translate the final mix onto different devices. 
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