We've spoken about mixing music on headphones quite a lot on Pro Tools Expert as it's a hot topic. In this article, I delve a little deeper into this subject by exploring a selection of plug-ins that claim to improve our headphone mixing experiences.
In this article, I list a handful of headphone monitor plug-ins. These plug-ins all have unique feature sets & technologies, but they all claim to help us mix with headphones more organically. All the plug-ins in this shootout also claim to provide a more "natural" headphone experience... but which one is best? Do we even need headphone monitoring plug-ins? Well, those questions will be answered later... but for now... let's take a look at the headphone monitor plug-ins in this shootout.
James Ivey was the first Pro Tools Expert team member to be formally introduced to Waves NX at NAMM 2016. Waves NX is a virtual mix room emulator plug-in that has the ability to track our head movements in realtime. The technology in NX captures our physical head movements that in turn dictates the sonics within the headphone soundstage. This feature mimics how our head movements alter our listening experiences when moving around the sweet spot in physical monitor setups when mixing.
I will admit, my initial reaction to this technology wasn't very encouraging. The reason for my non-enthused reaction was because I could not imagine putting a process into my headphone monitoring chain that could potentially distract me from mixing, especially as my head would move around. In the past when using headphones I have never felt that I needed an ability to hear a set of virtual monitors in a virtual room, so I really wasn't that interested in trying the demo of NX.
That said though, I have played with NX and will admit that my opinion on the system has changed. The NX Software has to be used with a webcam as this is how the system tracks our head movements. This basic setup I feel is a little hit and miss as the lighting in the studio needs to be just right for the tracking to work well. There is a Bluetooth device that takes the experience further and provides a much smoother process. The NX Bluetooth Headtracker is a relatively inexpensive battery powered device that clips on top of any head of headphones. This pairs with the computer easily and syncs with the NX software. The Bluetooth device works in harmony with the webcam and the results are pretty amazing. The Bluetooth Headtracker also works with the free mobile Waves app bringing the NX process to the consumer. After using NX in a mix session I can report that the experience was pleasant. It took a little time to forget about the process but when I did I certainly enjoyed the organic results.
The NX software also has a surround trick up its sleeve Waves call 3D audio, yes, NX enables users to mix in surround sound on stereo headphones. I'm not a multichannel mixer but I've read several glowing reviews on this features. If you have tried NX in "surround" then we would love to hear your thoughts below in the comments.
Nx Software: $99
Nx Bluetooth Headtracker: $79
Free Trial: 14 days
Isone By Toneboosters
Isone is the second room emulator plug-in in this shootout. It offers some similar features to Waves NX without the head tracking technology. Isone then is a static approach to mix room emulation. Sadly for Pro Tools users, Isone is AU and VST only but I got around this by using PatchWork by Blue Cat Audio to host the VST in Pro Tools.
Isone is a straight forward plug-in to use, however I have found it to be troublesome to tune to my taste. The problem I have with it is that I find it hard to decide what mixture of settings sound the most natural. Thankfully there are some useful presets included but I still struggle to fine tune this plug-in to be a suitable "final reference" for my headphone mixing.
Cost: € 19.95
Trial Period: Limited Time Free Trial
Reference 3 Headphone Calibration Plug-in By Sonarworks
Regular visitors of the blog will know I am a Reference 3 user with both the Speaker Calibration and Headphone Calibration plug-ins being used a lot in my workflow. Watch the video review above to hear what I think about The Sonarworks Headphone Calibration Plug-in as my feelings about this product haven't changed one bit, I still think it is amazing.
What makes Sonarworks Headphone Calibration Plug-in different from the other plug-ins in this shootout is that it doesn't try to emulate mix rooms or virtual monitor setups (Well it does have a monitor simulate feature however I don't feel this is a prominent capability). Instead, it serves to correct the physical EQ imperfections in headphones. Sonarworks offer two points of entry.
This is the most affordable entry into the Sonarworks headphone calibration plug-in workflow. If you have a set of headphones on the Sonarworks list of supported headphones for average calibrations then you can get the plug-in, load the average calibration file and you are ready to go. Sonarworks measure popular brands and models of headphones and correct the EQ imperfections resulting in a flat, phase corrected headphone monitor experience. However, in my opinion the average calibration file only takes you 80% of the way there.
To get that extra 20% out of Reference 3's Headphone Calibration Plug-in magic you will need to venture into Sonarworks Individual Calibration services by either purchasing a set of headphones from the Sonarworks store (includes an individual calibration file unique to that exact set of headphones) or by sending them your own personal set of headphones by mail for them to measure. From this measurement Sonarworks produce an individual calibration file unique to your favourite set of headphones to use in the headphone plug-in.
The sonic differences between the Average and Individual calibration files are very noticeable. The individual process corrects both the left and right channels of the headphones precisely. The Average calibration corrects the EQ and phase imperfections in a much more broader manner but still with amazing results. I prefer the individual calibration as it really does make me feel as though the headphones have been lifted off my ears.
Cost: € 99 euros (Average Calibration)
Free Trial: 21 Days (Average Calibration)
Redline Monitor by 112dB
Pro Tools Expert team member Adam Vassée shared this neat little plug-in recently with us all. Adam states:
This plug-in is designed to make your listening experience more natural. It allows you to feed a bit of the left side driver to the right side driver with a bit of delay to simulate how things should sound when mixing with a pair of speakers. I believe that there are a tons of these kind of plug-ins on the market, but I have just tried the Redline monitor and it works fine. I am not saying that this plug-in can replace a pair of monitor speakers but it could be great if you don't have the ability to check your mix with speakers at that moment. - Read the full article here
This is a simple and affordable plug-in that does the least augmentation to the sound of a mix in headphones compared to the results I have heard from the other products featured in this list.
The Redline Monitor plug-in by 112dB only adjusts volume levels so that the headphones feel and stereo image sound less wide and proud on your head. The other products on this list include a mixture of complex features such as EQ, phase correction, room ambience emulation, head tracking and so on but the Redline Monitor plug-in just keeps it simple by offering just gentle stereo image narrowing whilst maintaining the natural tone and EQ curve of headphones.
Free Trail: 60 days
Spatial Sound Card By New Audio Technology
Now I know The Spatial Sound Card by New Audio Technology doesn't fairly compare to the previous 4 plug-ins in this shootout but I thought it was well worth mentioning as it has been around for awhile and is popular with post mixers. Mike Thornton took a close look at this a few years ago that you can view below.
Cost: € 69 - € 169
Trial Period: Limited Free Trial Period
I have read a lot of negative comments posted on articles that talk about mixing on headphones. Such comments, in my opinion, are usually throw-away lines such as "Don't mix on headphones" or "mixing on headphones is wrong". The fact of the matter is many of us do mix on headphones. Many users don't have a choice and a good number of professionals prefer reaching for their favourite set of cans rather than using monitors.
So to answer my question I asked at the start of this article "Do we even need headphone monitoring plug-ins?" Of course we do, and it's amazing to see that a good cross section of brands are developing plug-ins such as the products listed in this article here to help us get better results when mixing music on headphones. To answer the other question "Which one is best?" Well... I'm sure you've worked that out by now.
- Do you mix on headphones?
- If you do then have you considered using a headphone monitoring plug-in?
- If you use a plug-in from this list how do you use it in your headphone mixing workflow?