3 Simple Strategies For Mixing On Headphones

2014 Dec 15, 2014

Do you find yourself having to mix exclusively on headphones? Are your mixes coming out all wacky? I think I can help.

In an ideal world, you would mix primarily on a simple set of studio monitors and then simply check that mix on headphones. But sometimes headphones is all you have to work with. And I don’t for a second believe that should hold you back from getting a great mix.


Via David Blaikie Flickr

A Week Of Headphone Mixing

All last week I found myself mixing an EP on my laptop entirely with headphone (at a coffee shop no less!). I spent four straight days mixing in likely the most non-ideal circumstances – and yet I’m really liking how the mixes are turning out.

To be completely honest my mix on Day 1 was a little rough. The kick drum was way over powering, the low mids were all off, and the vocals didn’t sit where I wanted them. But after implementing these three simple strategies I’m about to share with you, the remaining days of mixing on headphones became very effective – and fun!

Strategy #1 – Work At Two Volumes

When you first sit down to fire open your mix, put on your headphones and find a comfortable overall volume. You should be able to hear things just fine, but it shouldn’t be cranked.

You want to both protect your hearing and not fool yourself into thinking your mix is better than it is.

This will be your first volume, at which you’ll do most of your mixing. Make note of it on the volume/output knob on your interface.

The key though is to not work at this volume the entire time. Why? Because your ears will get used to hearing things the way they are and get lazy. That’s why you need a second volume; specifically a lower one.

Simply grab your volume knob and turn it down till you can just make out all the instruments in the mix and it seems more like background music than anything. An even simpler method is to create your own one click dim switch inside your DAW.

The power of the quieter volume is that it is far more revealing. If you can still hear the kick, snare, and vocals at this volume then you know those instruments are in good shape. If key instruments or vocals disappear at low volumes then that’s a red flag that the mix isn’t balanced properly.

Check your mix at both volumes consistently through the day and you’ll more likely to get all your tracks to sit where they sound best.

Strategy #2 – Grab A Second Pair Of Headphones

I don’t care whether you mix on headphones or super expensive studio monitors, you must always reference your mix on a second set of speakers – even cheap ones.

The concept here is simple: each pair of headphones or monitors has its own EQ curve built in. They shape your mixes sound in their own way and your ears will become familiar with that sound – and adapt.

This is a problem if say,. like me, you have headphones that are a bit on the bright side. Mixing in those headphones tends to produce dull sounding mixes. Why? Because the mix already sounds bright enough to me (because of the bright headphones) so I don’t mix the top end correctly.

To combat this issue, all you need is a second set of phones. And these don’t have to be expensive.

For me this is my Apple Ear Pods that came free with my iPhone. They have a completely different frequency response (less top end, more hyped bottom end, rounder mid range) and they shed new light on my mix.

After mixing for an hour or so in my “good” headphones I switch over to my Ear Pods and let my ears wake up. I usually notice a few things right away that need slight tweaks. And that my friends can be the difference between an OK mix and a great mix!

Flip back and forth as often as you like, just to keep your ears awake, focused, and honest.

Strategy #3 – Live With The Mixes On Speakers For A Day

After you’ve poured your heart into these mixes on both sets of headphones at both of your volumes, don’t get overly confident and post those mixes online right away. There’s one final step to take to ensure translatability and perfect balance.

You need to listen to your mixes on normal speakers for a solid 24 hours.

That’s right, just because you mixed exclusively on headphones means you can get away without listening to your mixes on speakers before you sign off on them.

This final step will reveal a TON about the condition of your mixes. You’ll get a more realistic picture of how your mix translates to a casual listener in a casual environment (the car, the kitchen, laptop speakers, etc).

Here’s what I listen for on my speaker test: drums balance (do the kick and snare cut through and are they too loud or too quiet), vocal balance (does each word cut through), and overall impact (do the choruses hit me like I thought they did, etc).

Simply make a mental list of first impressions and go back to your headphone mix to make any final adjustments. It’s as simple as that.

It’s Worth The Trouble

These three strategies are so incredibly simple and powerful – but they do take a little bit more effort and time. Let me say this clearly: it’s worth it!

Working on headphones presents unique challenges, but they don’t have to hold you back from great mixes. But you do need to paint an accurate picture of your mix to your ears using these techniques in order to make the best decisions and mix moves for your tracks.

Have YOU used these strategies on a recent mix? How did they help? What other suggestions do you have for crafting a killer mix in headphones? Sound off below!

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