How to use headphones for mixing and mastering

Picture this situation:

You’ve worked with a mix or master in your studio until it sounded great. The bass is slamming and the whole mix sparkles.

Then you take it to a friend to listen, and it sounds nothing like it did in the studio. The bass is a boomy mess and it’s as if someone has thrown a blanket over the speakers.

What happened?!?

Translation

Maybe you recognize this situation or have experienced something similar. This is a sure sign that the monitoring in the studio doesn’t translate well. A great monitoring system will let you create mixes and masters that you can listen to everywhere without being surprised by some aspects that you hadn’t noticed before. And for a monitoring system that has good translation and is suitable for mastering, there are some things that we need.

  • We need a full frequency response. We need to be able to hear what’s going on from the lowest frequencies, to the highest.
  • We need a flat frequency response. The material should be presented neutrally without having some frequencies louder or quieter than others.
  • We need a correct stereo representation. We should be able to judge the stereo width of the master, and have a proper balance between the things in the center and the things on the sides.
  • We need a wide dynamic range. Loud stuff should sound loud, and quiet stuff should sound quiet, without anything getting lost or flattened.
  • We want low distortion. We should be able to hear the music cleanly without additional coloration from the monitoring system.

Ok, let’s break this down a bit. Dynamic range and low distortion is mostly a matter of speaker quality. Some are better, and some are worse. There’s usually a correlation between price and performance.

Then there’s the full and flat frequency response. We want to hear from preferably 20 Hz, but at least from 30 Hz and up. This usually means big full range speakers, or smaller speakers with subwoofers.

Room acoustics

The speakers will need to be set up inside a room. The room will influence what the listener hears to a very large extent. This is where the elaborate and impressive room designs come from. To manage reflections, resonances, bass build-up, sound isolation, and many other things. All of these things need to be adressed if we want a full and flat frequency response as well as a good stereo image.

Photo by Oleg Ivanov on Unsplash

But the truth is, most smaller control rooms have compromises made in these areas. We’re talking 10 dB dips and peaks in the low end, or more. Far from flat. The good thing is that the human brain is amazing, and we can learn how a room sounds and work around many obstacles. But make no mistake, there are huge differences in cost and effort between an ok-ish and an amazing control room. Maybe you have your studio in a smaller space, maybe at home in the basement or in your bedroom. Maybe you don’t have the possibilities to go all in with a fully treated control room. Then it will be almost impossible to get a great monitoring setup using speakers, especially when it comes to the low-end. And we need full control over the low-end when we’re mastering. It’s important while mixing, but absolutely necessary while mastering.

An alternative to speakers

Luckily for us, there are no laws stating that speakers must be used when mastering music. Using speakers is merely a convention that traditionally has produced the best and most consistent results. For various reasons, making decisions while listening to a proper speaker setup will give results that translates the best.

But this can be achieved using headphones as well. As it turns out, good headphones excel at presenting a full and flat frequency response with a wide dynamic range and low distortion. This is something many rooms and speakers struggle with. It is a complicated and usually very expensive process to build a room with a low-end as full and flat as what you get out of the box with headphones like Audeze LCD-X. Headphones of that caliber are not inexpensive, but it’s still extremely cheap compared to the cost of a room and speakers with similar performance. Note that the links to products in this article are not affiliate links. We have included them for your convenience.

On the even less expensive side of things, there are headphones like the Sennheiser HD600 or 650, which are both great headphones, not only for their price, but as headphones in general. With some tricks that we’ll get into in soon, these can sound more than good enough to enable you to produce amazing results.

So, what’s the catch? Why are we being taught that speakers are superior to headphones?

Stereo representation

The area where speakers have traditionally excelled is stereo representation. The stereo standard is based upon the classic 60 degrees setup. That is, you draw a triangle between the speakers and the listener, and make sure that each side has equal length. Then we’ll have the standard 60 degrees stereo setup.

This is how things have been done for decades. And it works. Mixes and masters done in this setup simply translate the best. You can create stuff that sounds great on speakers, both stereo and mono, as well as in headphones. The same can not be said for mixes or masters created in headphones, as the stereo representation in those is quite different. Unless we do something about that, which we’ll get to in a moment.

The main difference between listening in speakers versus listening in headphones, is that when listening to a speaker setup, both your ears will hear both the speakers. The sound from the left speaker will reach both your left and your right ear, although the right ear will hear a slightly delayed and filtered version.

In headphones, your right ear will only hear the right element, and the left ear only the left element. And this is where the differences in stereo representation come from.

Listening to speakers will present a soundstage that is spread out in front of you. Mono sources that are panned fully to the left, will appear to be coming from the left speaker. Mono sources panned to the center, will appear to be coming from a point in between the two speakers in front of you. This is called the phantom center, as there is no actual speaker in the center even though it sounds like the sound is coming from one. Pan the mono source to another place in the stereofield, and you will perceive it as coming from the corresponding place between the speakers.

In headphones the situation is radically different. A mono source panned fully to the left will be heard only by your left ear, producing an unnatural and unpleasant effect. In nature, we simply won’t hear many sounds through only one ear, so our brains doesn’t really know what to make of it. A mono source panned to the center will appear to come from an undefined place within your head. And moving the source around will continue to place the sound at various undefined spots within your head.

In headphones we get an ultra-wide, unnatural, internalized representation of the stereo image. Listening to a well-balanced stereo mix is usually very pleasant in headphones. It gives us a different but equally interesting and enjoyable presentation of the music, compared to listening in speakers. But actually producing the music, and making decisions about the sound? Nope, very hard to do.

The practical solution: Cross feed

If we can listen to headphones, while somehow tricking the brain into believing that we’re listening to speakers, then the brain can interpret and give meaning to the sound we’re listening to. Luckily, we don’t need to get too deep into the theory about how this is done. People have thought hard about this and produced some great sounding solutions for creating a speaker-like experience using headphones.

Our favourite is a plugin called CanOpener Studio from GoodHertz. Using this plugin produces a beautiful external presentation of a great monitoring system. Things are placed exactly where they should be in the stereo image, and the results translate very well. 

There are other solutions as well, for example Waves NX or ToneBoosters Isone. These produce great results as well. Try them out to hear which one gives you the best result. We’ve found that CanOpener will add the least coloring to the sound compared to the other alternatives, but your ears might hear things differently.

Headphone calibration

We also use a correction software called Reference from SonarWorks, that evens out the kinks in the frequency response of the HD600:s we use. It works really well.

Your headphones may or may not benefit from correction. But in contrast to using EQ for room correction, there are no real drawbacks to using EQ to calibrate the frequency response from headphones if done properly. So give it a try. Another option is Morphit from ToneBoosters. You can also use any EQ plugin to create your own correction curve using your ears if you want full control.

The cross-feed and correction plugins can be placed in different places in your setup. In Reaper you can place them in the Monitoring FX section, which will only affect what you hear, and won’t end up in any renders or exports. If your DAW of choice doesn’t have a dedicated monitor effect chain, you can also place these plugins last in your processing chain on the master channel. Just make sure to bypass them before rendering anything.

Conclusion and caveats

So, is this a method that we would recommend for serious work? Yes! We’d go out on a limb and say that using headphones in this way beats any 2-way, near-field speaker setup in a less-than-ideal room when it comes to translation. And that is what can be found in many home studios. Is it the best solution there is for monitoring? No, but it’s certainly good enough to get the work done. If you have the resources to build and equip a professional control room for mastering, that would most likely be the better option. But the headphones solution punches way above it’s weight when it comes to translation. An acoustically treated room with speakers that have equal or better translation would cost many times more.

Does this work with any headphones? Yes and no. Any headphones will benefit from cross feed and EQ correction if you want to use them for mixing or mastering, but for the best results you need good headphones. Sennheiser HD600 / 580 / 650 are all great models with amazing performance for the price. In the pricier segment there are models like Focal Elear / Clear, or the Audeze LCD-series. In general, we have found that we get the best results with open backlarge diaphragmover ear headphones of high quality, but that’s not to say that there are no other ways to do this.

Yeah ok, but what about feeling the bass in your chest, surely that’s missing from this solution? Yes, it is missing. You will only get the sound reaching your ears, and none of the physical sensation in the rest of the body that you would get from listening to a speaker system at loud levels. What we have found out though, is that this part of the equation isn’t really neccessary in order to make correct decisions about the sound. Our ears and brain will get all the info that it needs from headphones alone. The physical experience of speakers playing loudly in a room is surely nice, but it’s not in any way critical for getting the job done.

What about a headphone amplifier and DAC? You will certainly benefit from having a good DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and a good amplifier, but these are not as critical as the headphones themselves. If you have a proper audio interface with a headphone out, and you are not using the built-in headphone jack on your laptop, then you’re good to go. You will probably want to upgrade this part eventually, but there’s no rush to get into that rabbit hole if you’re just starting out.

So whatever headphones and equipment you have at the moment, go ahead and start using cross feed right now and try mixing or mastering. You’ll find that working with headphones becomes so much easier, and it might even beat your current speaker setup when it comes to translation!


Free bonus!

When using this great monitoring system, you might also want to dive deeper into the world of mastering. Download our guide to the different frequency areas and what you can find there, and you’ll have a great overview of one of the most important parts of mastering.

It’s called “The Mastering Frequency Cheat Sheet” and it’s completely free!

Click here to download!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *