Music is shaped by the space it is made in. This is why audio professionals work in treated rooms with flat monitoring. It offers them the greatest chance to make something that sounds good no matter where it’s played.
You may have already had the unfortunate experience of producing and mixing a song with headphones then playing it for a friend on monitors and realizing how off it sounds. Somehow, what sounded powerful and dynamic on headphones is now thin and one-dimensional. No fun.
Mixing with headphones entirely to produce and mix is not ideal. Compared with the environment described above, there is a much higher chance of introducing audio errors and not realizing it. That being said, we also know that having a proper studio is a luxury and not possible for many people yet.
Whatever your reason is for using only headphones—a lack of space, angry neighbours, a tight budget, or some combination of all three—there are still ways to make certain your music translates to other listening environments.
It goes without saying that if you produce and mix exclusively with headphones you should have a good pair designed specifically for these activities, in that they provide a neutral, or flat frequency response. What this means is that the entire frequency spectrum is reproduced as equally as possible so you can make informed decisions about EQ, signal levels, and dynamics.
Most listening headphones have a tendency to warm up music with overrepresented low-end, making it very hard to properly evaluate a mix. Should I cut the bass? Or boost highs to compete?
There are many headphone purchase guides available online and I strongly suggest you spend some time researching a model and frequency response that suits your needs before pulling out your wallet.
Some of the best choices for mixing with headphones:
- AKG 702
- Audio Technica ATH-M50x
- Audio Technica ATH-AD900X
- Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro Studio Headphones
- Focal Spirit Professional Headphones
- Sennheiser HD 650 Headphones
For those who do have a monitoring setup (if you’ve made it this far), consider getting a pair of headphones as a point of reference. Many bedroom studios have less-than-ideal acoustics and headphones provide a reliable solution by cutting out room reflections and ambient noise.
Jeff Ellis, who mixed Frank Ocean’s first album Channel ORANGE uses multiple suboptimal monitors and headphones—representative of the playback systems used by listeners—to reference his work. Getting familiar with how your music sounds in multiple listening environments will train your ears to better identify and resolve audio issues.
Additionally, listening to a variety of well-mixed music with your headphones will give you a better idea of what “high quality” sounds like with them.