Which is the better tool while recording -- headphones or monitors? When it comes to home studio recording, there are certainly a few hard and fast rules that we can all agree on but just like with music creation, music production sometimes excels when these rules are thrown out the window in favor of more daring, creative approaches. But with that said, one thing always remains the same; if you can’t mix your tracks properly, they’re going to sound off, even terrible, no matter how solid they were in the first place.
Everyone out there has listened to music from both a pair of headphones and a speaker system and although there are many differences between the two, what many don’t actually realize is that these variations are usually due to how our brains perceive audio and less to do with the devices themselves. When it comes to actual, real-world sounds, our brain processes the two audio flows from our left and right ear and analyses the variations in timing and frequency in order to come up with the direction of a sound source. In fact, binaural recordings exploit this in order to create very realistic directional sound.
First off, with headphones, your ears take in the audio at exactly the same time which results in sound that seems to be coming from inside your head, instead of in front of you. Because of this, reverbs and delays will sound far wider and deeper and any panned instruments will seem more widely spaced than normal. Meanwhile, with monitors, the natural room acoustics smooth out more aggressive sound waves and adds some nice ambience, although listening through headphones allows you to experience the raw sound – with out any of the added flair of the natural room reverb, resulting in audio elements (suck as vocals or a drum kit) coming across as more aggressive and bright.
Getting back to binaural recordings, this effect will usually give the impression of a more clinical and precise sound over headphones than on monitors will. This is exactly the reason why some mixes meant for a dancefloor, more specifically, a club’s sound system, can sometimes sound sterile with headphones. However, that’s not to say this is necessarily a bad thing. With cans, you’ll often hear minute details in tracks that you could have missed with normal monitors. This becomes especially useful when trying to combat errors in tricky vocal timings or pitch issues.
If you happen to work with a lot of sampling or audio restoration, headphones become even more useful as they are a lot better for finding unwanted distortion, clipping and clicks compared to monitors. In fact, you can use headphones to check for any erroneous artifacts when time-stretching, as well as zeroing in on the start and end of samples that might need a bit of short fade-ins/outs added to stop them clicking.
So far it seems as though cans are the way to go but be warned – if you only ever use headphones for mixing, you can easily misjudge your mixes and fall to common mistakes. One such widespread mistake made when mixing with headphones includes making the stereo field too narrow. Another is not adding enough reverb on vocals or synth parts, resulting in an overly dry sound. This is why judging how much of any effect to use should really be decided only after listening through both monitors and headphones.
A professionally produced track should be able to sound great on everything from a high end sound system to the speakers from your laptop. And with that said – just because you can mix on headphones doesn’t always mean that you should. A sensible set of near-field speakers is always a better option for long-term mixing, although it’s definitely possible to mix a track mainly on headphones and then check it on a set of speakers only during the final stages – there are just a few things you’re going to have to remember. One such thing, panning, reverb and delay effects will be far more obvious on headphones than over speakers, meaning you will most likely need to increase the wet levels of your plugins or widen the panning so that your effects translate more precisely over speakers.
Some of the subtler tracks in your mix – such as vocal harmonies and background synth lines – will most likely have to be turned up a bit in order to make them clearly audible when played through speakers. It’s also all too common to miscalculate the levels of drum kits and percussion elements when mixing with headphones only. For example, the kick and snare drums will usually need to be turned down while more discrete elements such as hi-hats and shakers turned up so that they can be heard better along with the other parts.
Another thing to keep in mind when mixing with headphones is that they enable you to hear greater changes in dynamics than you would be able to pick up on monitors. This means that you may also need to add a bit of extra compression to the vocals and guitars in order to keep the dynamics more consistent. One of the most difficult aspects about mixing on headphones is that it can be very difficult to perceive the stereo width of a track when it’s being blasted straight into your ears. Meanwhile on a set of monitors, each ear can distinguish the output of the left and right channels, albeit in different proportions.
Simply imagine a standard studio environment with left and right speakers and listening while right in front of them; your right ear will hear more of the sound coming from the right speaker than the left. With that said, your right ear will also hear sound coming from the left speaker, but in a slightly lower volume and with a bit of delay. Conversely, when you listen to a track on headphones, the right and left channels are sent straight into the corresponding ear without any mixing of the two sounds.
In order to recreate monitor mixing on headphones, you would need to take advantage of some crossfeed. You probably already heard the term in relation to channel/console/tape-emulation plugins that allow signal bleed between channels. When it comes to emulating the sound of speakers on headphones, the concept is essentially the same but with more of the signal shared between the left and right channels.
A basic crossfeed effect can be emulated in just about any DAW. Feeding the left/right channels into each other essentially makes the signal mono, reducing the stereo width, so all you have to do is use a simple stereo imager/width plugin and reduce the width. This is the same as reducing the Side level in a mid/side plugin. This kind of crossfeed is very crude and is really more of a mono compatibility test - it doesn't emulate the time delay between the left and right speakers' outputs reaching your ears, for one thing.
For that, you'll need to delay the left/right channels and pan them to opposite sides. Depending on your delay time and the audio you're working with, you may find that some audible comb filtering pops up as a result of adding the delay. You can adjust the crossfeed track's volume and delay times to compensate for this, but some artifacts will be inevitable, just like listening to speakers in a real room.
There are a number of other tiny factors that come into play when listening to monitors, including the room acoustics changing the harmonic content and introducing reflections. It's next to impossible to emulate these effectively using home-made techniques, but a few developers have created software and hardware to try and model a range of real-life listening scenarios for those mixing just on headphones. They usually include controls for adjusting the distance between the 'speakers' and the 'listener', and between the two speakers themselves. You may also find controls for speaker angle and the frequency characteristics of the emulated 'room'. Some software even goes as far as to try and mimic the sound of particular speaker drivers and cabinets. The value of these can vary wildly, so I would suggest you try demo versions first to see which ones sound good.
If you've been mixing on headphones for a while and are used to the sound, then running your mixes through these emulators can sound weird at first. The mix becomes much narrower and will seem to lose some top-end frequencies but it’s not much of a problem – you'll get used to the sound pretty quickly.
And one last golden rule; if you’re even in doubt about what you’re hearing on a mix, try out a few reference tracks on your DAW and simulate crossfeed on those to compare. But don’t forget to always be sure to bypass the crossfeed emulation when you’re bouncing your tracks down – it will definitely sound very strange on monitors!