Mixing with headphones is a practice that is getting more popular, especially among home studio owners. It’s an effective way of working if you don’t have an ideal studio environment, or if your studio monitors are not top-notch. Choosing headphones for mixing is different from choosing regular consumer headphones. Here are the five factors to consider while choosing mixing headphones:
This is one of the very important factors because it has a direct effect on your workflow. Uncomfortable headphones will make you feel irritated easily and may contribute to early fatigue. How do you recognize comfortable headphones?
There are a number of features that make some headphones more comfortable than others. One of such features is the earpads. The material used for the padding and the material used to cover the padding are important here. The padding material should be soft and plush, such that it’s easy on your ears and jaw.
The material used to cover the padding is equally important. Some materials may cause heat build-up in your ears after having them on for less than three hours. Since mixing sessions are usually long, those kinds may not be the best for you.
Another factor that affects comfort is the headband. The headband should have some padding so that you don’t feel any pain on top of your head. Some headphones are made such that the headband does not even touch your head, that’s also a good option.
Lastly, the clamping force of the headphones determines your comfort too. If a pair of headphones clamp tightly on your head, you may not feel uncomfortable at first. However, after the first few hours of use, it begins to feel heavier. This is caused by gravity. Thus, it’s best to use well-fitting cans that don’t hug your head too tightly.
Open back or closed-back?
Both open-back and closed-back headphones can be good for mixing, depending on one or two external factors. Open-back headphones have some space on the earcups that allow some sound to leak out of them while playing music. That’s really not a problem when mixing. The issue is that it also allows ambient sound to get into the earcups. If you’re not mixing in a quiet room, you would have to deal with the external sound. You may not be able to distinguish between the background noise in the vocals and the noise from your air conditioning unit.
On the other hand, closed-back headphones have better sound isolation. They perform much better at blocking out ambient sound if your room isn’t very quiet. Having said that, closed-back headphones don’t give you as much width in the soundstage. Open-back headphones sound wider. Another advantage of closed-back headphones is the roundness and fullness of the low end. Bass frequency generally sounds better on closed back headsets.
Wired or wireless
If you go to most mixing and recording studios today, you would find wired headphones. This doesn’t mean that wireless headphones can’t do a great job in mixing. There are wireless headsets that are good enough in terms of comfort and sound quality. In addition, wireless headphones give you an added level of comfort; they don’t have cables. Some headphone cables can be annoying especially when you’ve been mixing for several hours. Also, some wireless headphones come with active noise cancellation. This technology removes external ambient noise and prevents it from getting into the headphones.
If you’re not in a studio and you really need to do some mixing, this can come in handy. You can walk into a nearby cafe and block out all the noise while you do your mixing. In terms of sound quality, you’ll have to spend a lot more if you’re going for wireless headphones.
Wireless headphones that have the sound quality you’ll need for mixing are quite expensive. Also, it may be a tricky venture connecting it to your audio interface. Even with all the benefits, you may have with wireless headsets, I’ll advise that you stick to wired headphones. A $300 planar magnetic headphones will sound better than a $300 wireless headset.
When you eventually buy your mixing headphones, you need to use them for some time. This is because it takes time to get very familiar with the headphones’ sound profile. This only happens after several hours of listening to different songs and mixing them on the headphones.
After you’re 100 percent familiar with the sound, you want to use it for another long period. This makes sense since you already know the sound and even the flaws if any. The gist here is that you need headphones that will last very long. You don’t want headsets that would get damaged after you get familiar with their sound. One factor that determines durability is the headphones’ cord.
Detachable cords are simply the best. In case of any damage, you can easily change the cable and keep going. Headphones with non-detachable cords don’t have this advantage. If the cord gets damaged, you’ll need to change the whole headset. There are some non-detachable cable headsets that have very strong connections too, and it will take some serious deliberate force to even make the cord frail, let alone get damaged.
How do the headphones sound?
The headphones’ sound profile is probably the most important part of this discussion. For quality mixing, you need headphones that sound natural. While it is uncommon to find such, the headphone you get would sound as natural as possible.
What I mean by “natural sound” here is the flat response. While the headphone must cover a wide frequency range, it should produce all the frequencies with minimal coloration. The goal here is for you to hear exactly what you’re feeding the headphones. Consumer headphones can be flattering. They’re made to cover up for mixing lapses. For mixing, you don’t need those. You need headphones that tell the “truth”.
If your headphones do not give an accurate production of your sound, you’re likely to come up with a mix that will sound good on those headphones only, and sound awful in other places.
Like I said earlier, the most important factor in all of these is the headphones’ sound quality. Flat sounding headphones are the best for mixing. They can be boring at first, but it’s the best way to go. Just make sure that you pick headphones that will serve you well.