Should You Mix On Headphones Or Monitors?

2014 Mar 07, 2014

One question that comes up a lot for home studio owners is whether or not mixing on headphones is acceptable. I’ll be the first to say that if all you have is headphones, then by all means don’t let that stop you from mixing. Remember, it’s not what you use, but what you do with it that matters.

But all things being equal, if you can afford to spend a couple hundred bucks on a pair of monitors, do it. Here’s why.


Via David Blaikie Flickr

Everything Sounds Awesome On Headphones

One thing I’ve found over the years is that just about everything can sound awesome on headphones. Maybe it’s the fact that with headphones you notice every detail. Perhaps it’s the exaggerated stereo field. Or it might simply be the fact that sound is being blasted straight into your ears.
But just because you can get a mix to sound great on headphones doesn’t mean it will translate well onto speakers. That’s what is so frustrating. A great mix on headphones can easily fall apart on monitors or a car stereo or your laptop speakers. I’m not saying a great headphone mix will sound bad on speakers, but rather it can be a bit misleading.

Get It To Sound Good On Monitors First

Ironically the opposite isn’t generally the case. In my experience, if you can get your mix to sound good on monitor speakers, 9 times out of 10 that same mix will translate really well on headphones. I repeat, when a mix is coming together nicely on your studio monitors chances are really good that it’ll sound fantastic on headphones as well.

Why is this the case? I couldn’t tell you. I’m not that smart. But what I take away from this phenomenon is a simple hack: starting your mix on monitors will in essence get your mix to translate better than starting your mix on headphones. If you start on headphones, chances are high you will have to go back and make significant mix tweaks when listening on speakers, thus doubling your work.

Monitors And Headphones Go Hand In Hand

Now you’d think I’m against using headphones at all from the way this article is going, but that’s simply not true. You always want to spend part of your time mixing in headphones. Headphones give you a much closer “look” at any issues with the mix: pops, clicks, mouth noises, etc. They also help you to better gauge your reverb and delay trails.

And then the obvious truth is that many people will be listening to your music on headphones so you better be sure your mixes translate well to that medium. I do this with my nice studio headphones as well as cheap iPod earbuds regularly.

So I see the two devices as going hand in hand. You start your mix, and do the bulk of your balancing, EQ, and compression work on monitors. Then you transition over to headphones to fine tune things and listen for anything noticeable distracting. Then you come back to your monitors to finish the thing out.

What If You Can’t Make A Lot Of Noise?

One thing that many of you might be struggling with is the simple fact that the only time you can mix in your studio is late at night when your family, kids, and neighbors are sleeping. That’s probably a big reason why you are mixing on headphones, even if you own monitors.

I would still recommend you mix on monitors first. Just simply turn them down. Way down if you have to. Ironically mixing on speakers at low volumes is one of the best mixing hacks around! You’ll get a more balanced and translatable mix that way. Then do some tweaking on headphones. I think you’ll be pleased with the results!

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