Our friends at Sonarworks are back with another guest post. In this article Barry M Rivman asks the age old question... Can we mix effectively on headphones? Barry talks about how headphones overcome problems with room acoustics and monitors.
Headphones Take An Untreated Room Out Of The Equation
In can be challenging to to achieve professional sounding mixes as a small home studio owner for many reasons. The most obvious challenge being inaccurate budget monitors or problematic room acoustics. Even professional mixers with access to the best equipment experience problems of this nature. When 11-time Grammy winner Mick Guzauski left his Barking Doctor studio in New York for L.A. he set up a temporary mixing studio in a spare bedroom. According to Mick, he got the mid and treble responses of the room under control with a set of ASC Tube Traps (cost of around $14,000), and he expected to invest more to get the bass response under control as well.
Most home studio owners are never going to invest that kind of money into that level of studio acoustics. The good news is that you home studio guys don't need to. Room limitations can be overcome fairly easily and inexpensively by switching to headphones for mixing. Headphones provide an isolated listening environment which removes the room resonances and comb filtering effects that often compromise the ability for us to make proper tonal and spatial mix judgments when mixing with a set of monitors.
Ported budget monitors are another problem that plague small studio owners. Ports are designed to compensate for lack of bass projected by small woofers. Budget monitors tend to cut corners to keep prices down. Bass reflex ports can create unwanted resonances that combine with direct sound. These resonances extend into, and thicken the low midrange prompting us to cut low mids in the mix. The result is a mix that struggles to translate, sounding thin and without punch. Conversely, some headphones can thin out midrange that can cause the opposite problem: mixing mids too heavy.
Headphones Provide Better Detail
Headphones can make it easier for us to hear subtleties and nuances more clearly. This is why mixers like to use headphones when checking fine details such as small edits, quick audio dropouts, unnatural crossfades and automation.
Clipping in stereo files tends to occur at the outer edges of the stereo field. The clipping sound stands out much more clearly on headphones as headphones provide us with the ability to hear the entire 180° stereo field as opposed to a more limited 60° field of monitors.
Headphones With Flat Frequency Responses Help Mix Decisions
A problem with headphones that needs to be addressed is frequency response as opposed to that of studio monitors. Speakers, when properly designed, provide a flatter frequency response than headphones, which as well all know is crucial to making proper mix decisions. Additionally, you can hear the entire frequency spectrum at once in monitors particularly a full bass range which can make an mix process that little bit faster.
To overcome the limits of small transducers in headphone ear cups the frequency response of most commercial headphones tend to be exaggerated in the bass with varied performance throughout the rest of the spectrum. This non-linear response makes such headphones difficult to use for effective mixing. Studio headphones are flatter in frequency response and therefore much better suited for mixing, however they are not without problems. As you can see in the illustration below, the frequency response of 10 popular professional studio headphones varies up to 10dB at different points along the spectrum which will also adversely affect mix decisions. Fortunately a headphone calibration plug-in, such as Sonarworks Reference 3 can flatten the frequency response of any headphone making them perfectly viable mixing tools.
If you are using a set of budget monitors in an room with poor acoustics then switching to headphone mixing maybe a solution that can benefit you and your mixes. Headphones will take unforgiving room acoustics out of the equation giving you a flatter frequency response across the audible spectrum (providing of course that you are using your headphones with Sonarworks Reference 3 Headphone Calibration Plug-in).
What Do You Think?
This article shares one very valid reason for mixing on headphones. Do you feel as though we can mix effectively on headphones compared to mixing on monitors?