We've spoken a lot about mixing and mastering on headphones in the past. It's a hot topic and one on which many producers and engineers are divided. There are those who get on just fine mixing on headphones while others just don’t trust mixing on headphones compared to studio monitors. Regardless of your position there’s no denying that headphones play a huge role in our studio lives. For those who do mix predominantly on headphones, what plug-ins can you use to improve your overall headphone referencing experience?
In this article we explore several innovative monitoring plug-ins with technologies that claim to help us mix more confidently with headphones by providing a more natural listening environment similar to that of mixing with monitors in a room, but which is best?
Waves NX - Virtual Mix Room
Waves NX is a virtual mix room plug-in that tracks the movement of our heads in realtime which in turn conveys the impression of a real room within a headphone’s soundstage. This mimics how our head movements alter our listening experiences when moving our heads around the sweet spot within a physical monitor setup.
The NX software requires a webcam to track head movements. Depending on the lighting in the studio this basic setup can at times be a little hit and miss. An optional Bluetooth device is recommended for better results as it takes the experience much further by providing a much more responsive sound. The NX Bluetooth Headtracker is a relatively inexpensive battery powered device that clips on top of any set 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 out of the studio to the consumer.
We’ve tested NX in a mix session. The experience was pleasant enough though it took a little time to forget about what it’s doing. When your ears are focused solely on the job of mixing instead of what the NX the system is doing then the experience of the virtual mix room is immersive and very studio monitor-like.
The NX software also has a surround trick up its sleeve called 3D audio. As if by magic NX can enable users to mix in surround sound on a stereo set of headphones which makes NX a perfect fit for surround sound mixers on the go.
Waves Abbey Road 3 - Virtual Mix Room
Waves Abbey Road Studio 3 builds on the NX virtual mix room head tracking technology by recreating what is considered by many to be one of the best mix rooms in the world: Abbey Road Studio 3.
With Abbey Road Studio 3 you sit in the sweet spot of Studio 3, move your head around with the NX tracker and enjoy the tone and ambience of Studio 3 in all its virtual glory in your headphones. You even have the ability to switch between the different monitors in Studio 3 and rotate your view around the space. The Abbey Road Studio 3 plug-in also delivers full 7.1 and 5.1 surround sound, modelled after the studio’s original surround setup.
Toneboosters Isone - Virtual Mix Room
Isone is another mix room emulator plug-in providing similar features to Waves NX without head tracking making this a static mix room emulation. Isone is AU and VST only which is a bit of a drag for Pro Tools users but you can get around this by using PatchWork by Blue Cat Audio to host the VST in Pro Tools.
Isone is a straightforward enough plug-in to use, however we found it to be a little troublesome to tune to taste. You may find it slightly challenging to decide what blend of settings sound the most natural to your ears. Thankfully there are some useful presets included to get started with.
Sonarworks Reference 4 - Headphone Calibration
Regular visitors of the blog know that many of us on The Production Expert Team love Sonarworks Reference 4’s Speaker Calibration software, but did you know it’s equally as good as a headphone monitoring solution?
What makes Sonarworks Headphone Calibration plug-in different from the other plug-ins in this list is that it isn’t emulating a mix room experience or virtual monitor setup. Instead, it serves to correct the physical frequency response imperfections in a wide range of popular studio headphones. If you feel your headphones sound a bit too coloured then Reference 4 is the tool to flatten them out. Sonarworks offer two points of entry into headphone calibration:
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 headphone models and correct the frequency response imperfections resulting in a flat, phase corrected headphone monitor experience. The average calibration only takes you 80% of the way there, there is a second better sounding option that Sonarworks offer…
To get that extra 20% out of Reference 4's Headphone Calibration plug-in magic you will need to venture into Sonarworks individual calibration service by either purchasing a set of headphones direct from the Sonarworks store which includes an individual calibration file unique to that exact set of headphones your buying 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 frequency response and phase imperfections in a much more broader manner but still with good results. We’ve tested both and prefer the individual calibration as it really does take your headphones to new heights
112dB Redline Monitor
This plug-in is designed to make your headphone listening experience more natural. It allows you to feed a bit of the left side driver to the right side driver along with a bit of delay to simulate how things should sound when mixing with a pair of studio monitors. This plug-in won’t replace mixing on studio monitors but it could be a good reference point if you don't have the ability to check your mix with speakers. - Read the full article here
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 in 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 while maintaining the natural tone and EQ curve of your headphones.
New Audio Technology Spatial Sound Card
The Spatial Sound Card by New Audio Technology doesn't fairly compare to the previous plug-ins in this article but we thought it was well worth mentioning as it has been around for awhile and is quite popular with post mixers.
Goodhertz CanOpener Studio
Goodhertz CanOpener Studio is another one of those virtual monitoring plug-ins that makes your headphones behave in ways similar to studio monitors. CanOpener Studio boasts a crossfeed algorithm that enables you to recreate the experience of listening to high-end speakers in a finely tuned room on a set of cans. CanOpener includes a set of cool monitoring controls that make this a useful plug-in for tracking as well as mixing to help you correct or enhance your monitoring environment.
How many times do you read statements such as “don’t mix on headphones” or “mixing on headphones is wrong” in comment sections of blogs talking about headphone mixing? As we said at the start of this article, the industry is divided when it comes to this topic but that doesn’t excuse those sort of comments that warn people away from mixing on headphones. “Don’t mix on headphones”, this negative, discouraging and quite frankly childish. The fact of the matter is that many of us do mix on headphones with great success. There are many producers out there that don't have the choice to mix on anything but headphones while there’s a good number of professionals who do have great monitoring at their disposal but prefer reaching for their favourite set of cans. It’s horses for course, whatever works you is what’s going to help you get your mixes done.
The plug-ins we’ve explored in this article prove that mixing on headphones is not only a popular way to work but also a necessary means for many.
Do you mix on headphones?
If you do then have you considered using a headphone monitoring plug-in?
Do you use any of the plug-ins in this list? If so, what are your experiences of these?