Headphones are essential tools in a studio, but you can’t rely on them for everything. They are valuable in both tracking and mixing.
In the olden days of yore, the headphones found in recording studios were known colloquially as “cans”, due to their poor sound quality. Times have changed, and inexpensive headphones are everywhere.
Earbuds are a waste of time in my view, so I can’t recommend using them. They are extremely susceptible to placement in the ear, and tiny changes in position cause huge changes in perceived frequency response.
Professional-quality in-ear monitors, perhaps the gold standard of earbud designs (if I may say that without insulting them) do exist. According to some reviewers, there are models which work rather well for mixing, but they do cost a lot of money. They must also be molded to fit perfectly in your own ear for the most accurate results and to ensure the most comfortable fit. Add to that the typical problems of mixing lead vocals, lead parts and any effects too low in the mix when in-ear mixing, and that means they’re simply not a sensible choice for the vast majority of recording songwriters working at home.
As for generic earbuds, I can only advise you to forget all about earbuds if you want reliable results.
I said… FORGET THE EARBUDS!!!!!
CHOOSING AND USING HEADPHONE TYPES
To be clear, all headphones have somewhat limited uses, but what they do well, they do really, really well.
There are three types of headphones in common use in recording projects, each for different purposes.
The most natural-sounding headphones are the open type. They tend to be bass-light, relative to closed-type headphones, which is one reason they sound so airy and open. Very high quality playback can be had from open-type headphones, and it’s great to hear your own work on these babies. They are tools for listening for pleasure, and inspiring yourself with your own and other’s music. They give insights into what other folks did when they made their recordings, so make sure to listen to your favourite recordings with them in your down time.
The open type is also very useful for checking what others will hear when they too listen to your work on similar headphones.
The open-type and the semi-open type differ in the amount of sound that leaks in or out while using them. The semi-open type offers some protection from this by enclosing the ears a little more, thereby reducing audio spill in and out somewhat. They still spill… but it’s not as bad a problem.
Then there are the closed-types, which allow very, very little sound to spill in or out. This is really, really helpful in front of live microphones!
Your recordings should improve technically if you can get used to using only as loud a headphone mix as you need to be engaged and into singing. You should be loud enough to really engage your sense, which may demand rather loud playbacks in relative terms. Every extra decibel after that in your headphones is just adding to spill into the mic, and possibly risking your hearing if you work in them for too long. Keep the headphone levels sensible, and you won’t get overly-waxy ears and will enjoy your hearing for years to come.
You will definitely need a good pair of closed-back headphones most of all. You might see them called enclosed headphones now and then.
If you plan to record someone else at the same time, say a pair of singers, you’ll need an extra pair per person (and don’t forget the engineer and/or producer, especially when they are you).
Quality headphones are inexpensive nowadays, but if your budget allows only for one pair, make sure you get yourself a decent model of closed-type headphones. You will need them more than the other types, because the other types spill too much audio back into your microphone while you’re singing and the track is loud in the headphones.
It is always best to use exactly the same headphone model for everyone who needs to have headphones, including, as required, engineers and producer as well as performers. This is for a very good reason.
If you do use differing types or even just models when recording, you will have everybody hearing a different mix, often radically different. You might also affect tonal qualities of the recordings if any “spill” or “leakage” of sound from the headphones gets into open mics. Use the same model for everyone to avoid prolems and have a hope of a decent headphone mix for everyone. It is extremely important to give a good headphone mix to a performer. Mono mixes can work very well for performers, by the way, so try that approach too.
Ideally, choose a model with a volume control built-in for the performer at the headphone itself, often in the cable down by your shoulder when wearing them. There are excellent models from AKG, Beyer-Dynamic, Sennheiser, Shure, Sony, and quite a few other companies.
There are interesting models from Ultra-Sone well worth a mention, but these are a proprietary design with a unique approach, and can be very misleading for mixing purposes. These attempt to replicate the sense of sound moving in open air, as would be the case if you listened to speakers in a room rather than headphones. This is not helpful for accurate monitoring purposes, although they sound great so maybe they have a use for exciting a performer.
I do own a pair of Ultra-Sone S-Logic headphones, pictured above, but I would not use them for anything but pleasure – they certainly sound interesting and engaging, but I can’t really trust what I hear for mixing purposes. They are impractical in a studio, I feel, other than offering another window on the sound that potential listeners might hear. Just my opinion – others seem to like them in the studio, but I’m not in that club.
Finally, an admittedly tedious issue of impedance matching arises with choosing headphone models. Check the manual of your DAW interface or workstation and/or any other devices that offer you a headphone output. You will find an impedance rating for the output, and you will find this drastically affects how loud the headphones can be in use. If you mismatch impedance, you can get really quiet playbacks even at full volume, and that will be most annoying.
Make sure you check the model you intend to buy with your intended headphone output’s impedance to see they match each other and can deliver a good sound.
There are standalone headphone amplifiers, or headphone distribution boxes, also called headphone distros in some circles.
You send a stereo signal into these (your intended headphone mix) and the box lets you plug in four, six or even eight pairs of additional headphones at once, each output having it’s own tone, balance and level controls. These are really helpful, inexpensive units. Samson and Behringer both offer popular low-cost choices for the home studio. Usually, they allow for a second, alternative stereo mix to be fed to the unit so that more than one cue mix can be available for performers. Drummers and bass guitarists, for example, often play together but always need very different mixes to do their jobs well.
HEADPHONES IN RECORDING
The importance of a good headphone mix to a performer cannot be overstated. If the mix sucks, the performer will have trouble doing a good performance, and will not give you a good take. If you are the singer and the engineer, like most songwriters, then you need to spend time to make your backing mix sound good in your headphones. It really affects both the technical and aesthetic qualities of the singing, and diminishes the emotional investment in the performance. This is then conveyed to the listener, no matter how you well you mix later.
Stereo motion can be distracting in headphones to a singer, so see how mono works for you and curb the urge to use an auto-panner until you mix.
It’s very unusual to record a vocalist without using headphones, although there’s no reason why you can’t record a singer singing in front of speakers instead, with a little prep and knowhow. U2 have recorded many of Bono’s vocals in this way, without headphones, so there’s proof that knowing the physics of the situation will allow you to work without headphones at times on recording vocals, by putting the speakers out of phase with one another so they can be cancelled out, and using common sense positioning for the vocalist and the speakers and making proper use of the phase button. This is how it’s done.
HEADPHONES IN MIXING
Headphone monitoring can easily mislead you if you misuse it, but so many folks use headphones to listen that it’s wise to check how your mix translates on headphones. Obviously, the low end from headphones can seem very powerful, being extremely close to your ear. However, this is not really an honest representation, as the size of the speaker necessarily affects it’s ability to deliver low-frequency content.
The most common mistake in making mix decisions with headphones as your guide is to balance the lead vocal too low, and the same happens with lead parts and effects like delay or reverb. They are just too prominent in the headphones relative to listening over speakers in a room. If you know this, you can somewhat plan for it. Keep checking balances on your near-fields at moderate levels (near-fields are small monitor speakers designed for use at a metre or so distance) as well as listening on your headphones.
One key advantage of headphones is that they deliver the audio to your ears without exciting room modes (the areas in a room that over-amplify bass and low-mid sounds due to acoustical summing of excited wavefronts in the room). They also let you work when others don’t want to hear what you are working on, maybe because it’s late at night.
Another important advantage is that they keep outside noises (such as air and road traffic, nearby construction site activities, or even noisy computer fans) relatively much quieter than the headphone mix.
Headphones do not suffer from the influence of acoustic properties of your room as studio monitors do. This means you can listen to the audio without “room sound” impacting what you hear. This is also true of the small mono speakers I recommended in my recent blogpost on “Tools of the Trade: Some cool things to consider adding”, the Avantone Mix Cubes, successor to the venerable Auratone C5, because they too cannot excite the bass frequencies in a room in any serious way, making bass levelling decisions easier.
The issue with both small mono “cube” speakers and headphones is similar – they allow you to check bass instrument levels in the area of their first and second harmonics very clearly (overtones), but their fundamental frequencies are often too low to be reproduced.
The first few harmonics in the overtone series generated when playing these lower bass notes are the ones that remain audible on almost all types of speakers so it’s very useful to have a reliable window on them. You can reliably assess on mono Mix Cubes and the like if the bass notes can be heard evenly and clearly on little speakers.
In fact, a common technique in mixing is to add a touch of distortion to a duplicate of a bass part, mixing in the distorted version at low levels with the undistorted version until the bass sound and it’s audibility in the mix are just right on the mono small speaker. The trick is in throwing away the sub-bass and the lowest fundamental frequencies from ONLY the duplicate of the bass track (the one you add distortion to) before you add the distortion and mix the two together again. Chucking out the lows (on the copied track only) minimizes phase problems between the two tracks when recombined, and lets you balance the distortion artifacts without clouding or damaging the true lows.
This is a very effective tool for getting your bass level right at mix time. Actually, in most DAWs there is no risk of a phase problem when duplicating tracks. Adding plugins to only one of the two bass tracks can cause problems due to processing latency if you don’t have active delay compensation of some sort switched on in your DAW. Check the DAW manual if you are not sure.
Headphones will reveal things about the upper end of the bass parts but you can’t tell anything much about true lows with them, so try not to use only headphones for all of your recording work. They are often misleading, and will probably hurt your ears and your hearing in the long run, but you need them to do recording without playing the backing into the microphones during overdubs.
Summing up, you will need headphones to get an idea of what a huge number of listeners would hear in your mix. They also isolate you from the space you are working in, and that helps you hear little details like spurious clicks and pops or odd noises from effects or from fret noise on guitar and bass parts.
Get the best you can afford, and get the closed-type first. Listen a lot with them to your own recordings and your commercially recorded music collection. Get to know what they sound like.
Get enough pairs of the same closed-type model that you can manage to record all the people at once you want to. Costs can mount, but skimping is a really bad idea with headphones because they are so important to the performer’s ability to deliver an emotional and inspired performance.
That’s it for headphones! Tomorrow, I’ll be talking all about “Clicks and Virtual instruments”. Clicks are really important to use whenever possible, and virtual instruments are completely fantastic for recording songwriters so I hope to see you back here tomorrow!