Can You Create a Great Mix with Headphones?

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Keep the headphones handy.

Keep the headphones handy.
Photo by Merene.

Are you mixing with headphones?  If not, you should be.  If you are, you shouldn’t be.  Confused?  Good.  There’s a right time and a wrong time for using headphones.

When NOT to use headphones

All of the time.

I get it, headphones provide sound isolation and therefore make for easier mixing.  The musicians can be heard without the distraction of other people talking in the room.  How do we listen to a lot of our music?  We listen through headphones.

The problem with sound isolation is it disregards the acoustic properties of the room.  I’ve mixed in two similarly-sized rooms and one room has a lot of reverb while the other has almost none.  Bottom line, what sounds good in the headphones can sound…umm…is there a Christian way of saying “crappy?”

When you CAN use headphones

When necessary.

Mix the music without headphones and then listen for problem areas.

Consider the example of a band with two acoustic guitars.  One guitar sounds great but the other sounds odd.  It’s hard identifying the problem area, even after a few EQ tweaks, so grab the headphones.

Listen to the odd-sounding guitar in the headphones.  This can be done using the channel-level control typically labeled PFL, Cue or (Han) Solo.  Hearing only the guitar, it’s easier to identify and correct the problem area.  After making the EQ changes, take off the headphones and listen to the new house mix.  Make sure this new mix sounds right.  If it still sounds wrong, re-visit the guitar changes.

I’ll use headphones for a problem area, then remove them and listen to the house mix.  If I still have a problem with that channel, I’ll make mix changes without the headphones as I’ve already identified the problem area.  Maybe I need to carve out frequency space in another channel.  It depends.

Summary

Live audio mixing is not studio mixing.  What is heard through the headphones is only a part of the sound in the room.  Use headphones for hyper-focusing on a problem area.  Also, use them for subtle mix refinement – but that’s another article.

You CAN create a great mix with headphones, as long as you use them at the right time.

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Comments

  1. Brian Davies says

    Thanks for your comments, I do use beyer dt 100 headphones which gives a flat response,
    after last night , one of my top speakers which are 15 s has gone very tiny sounding not
    much bass at all and a bit quieter, whereas the other one is very punchy with bass,
    any ideas.
    regards
    brian

  2. Brian Davies says

    I am a sound engineer but losing my top end hearing, is it possible to mix live bands
    thru headphones, I have to watch tv with headphones because have trouble picking
    up what people are saying.
    regards
    brian

    • says

      Brian, if you can create a mix knowing how to offset what you hear so it sounds right, then keep going. But if what you hear isn’t even close to what you should be able to hear, then no.

  3. Paul says

    That was a great article. I also learned to set the sound first before rushing to headphones because headphones at times can be deceptive. The only thing that gives me problem now is sometimes it takes too long to know which PFL knob is controlling the others.
    Which headphone should I go for,the one with mic or without mic?

  4. MICHAEL DAVID MILLER says

    A friend of mine heard Robert Scovill talk about mixing while with Rush at a Detroit Student Section of the A.E.S. about 20 years ago. One of the takeaways he told me about was Robert’s use of headphones in his setup process. He said that using good headphones allows the engineer the ability to hear just the incoming signal. Pre or post eq depends on the console) He said that if it didn’t sound good at this point, going back to the source to take corrective measures would be a good starting point.

    I’ve used them to listen to a submix to isolate a smaller group, and then smooth things out. You still have to listen live to the result, though.

    Since live mixing is about the combination of acoustical stage sound blended with the PA mains, yuh gotsta take the cans off to mix the show.

    • says

      Great point. It’s a process I used this past week on a small tom mic. During the line check, I found the small tom mic sounded way off. During the practice, I popped on the headphones and focused on that small tom.

  5. BobW says

    Agree with the overall premise. Almost always have the headphones around my neck, ready to pop on or listen with one ear to: check what is in the “track” channel (Hans Solo it) to hear if it adds something I am not getting from the band OR listen to one of our two electric guitars or acoustic guitars or keyboard to differentiate who is doing what so I can pick it out in the mix and adjust the right channel.

    And of course, with different vocalists week to week and we currently have an analog board (soon to be a Yamaha CL5), we still need to solo and tweak EQ/gain at rehearsal – headphones 100% on during that time.

    Finally, while our system is mono, we pan the channels for the recording and if I listen to the main mix with headphones, the panning helps me differentiate between instruments and vocals better. So a check once in awhile with headphones if the main mix sounds OK but I want to make it better.

  6. Pawel says

    I agree 100% with the main point that you primarily should be listening to house mix. But only 2 weeks ago I was forced to invest in a pair of headphones that I’ve just started using for live mixing. (I had been using other headphones for all other monitoring tasks). I know it sounds like heresy, but let me explain my situation. Our ‘worship group’ consists of usually 4 vocals plus upright piano. I’ve managed to get mixer in a good spot – just behind main seating area and about 2 meters from the back wall. But it happens sometimes that when congregation is singing there’re same people singing just behind sound guy. And then setting correct levels is close to impossible. One day I asked someone not to sing while behind sound operator, but next Sunday there was someone else singing into my ear. My initial observations confirm that mixing with headphones was a good move, as the sound has improved. (Actually I’m not using them all the time). Headphones I bought are AKG K271 mkii, – they have acceptable isolation and sound very clear and precise in vocal range. Lows are a little shy, but I could hear some booming while person was talking, that I didn’t notice listening to house mix. While choosing headphones I wanted them to have good isolation, flat frequency response – without LF and HF boost, and coiled cable. K271 has one more feature that works for me: auto mute when they not on my head.

  7. Joe B. says

    I can’t think of a reasonable way to dial in a vocal compressor without some cans. Listening for (and actually HEARING) the very beginning of the transients and when the compressor engages is just not reasonable without some headphones IMHO.

    With that, all of the reasons listed to pull them off are legit…house mix, etc.

  8. Simon says

    Great post with good tips. Apart from what you touch on here, I use the headphones to listen to the monitor mixes. In church we use 4 monitor mixes + IEM for the drummer, and it helps a lot to be able to solo a monitor when someone asks me to turn up or down something during sound check.

  9. says

    Larry, as for recording/broadcast, you are absolutely right. I’ve heard stories of the sound booth in a different part of the building. That’s just wrong. Log that one under “sound tech horror stories.”

  10. says

    I vote no. You can trouble shoot a channel that is destroying your mix, but the house mix cannot be divined in headphones.
    At one time, a long time ago, our church had the mixer in an isolated room. Same thing. You CANNOT mix for a room unless you are there hearing what is happening.
    Now if were talking about a mix for recording or broadcast, now that’s a different story.

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