I remember I first started mixing when I was in college. Yeah, those days were amazing (if we completely eliminate the fact that I was broke and struggling to pass classes). But you learn a lot when you’re broke and ‘living on the edge’. I for one learned plenty about mixing with headphones vs. monitors.
If you were to ask me which one sounded the best, I’d say you can achieve a pretty decent sound using both. But when I first started, I obviously used headphones because of its affordability. This guide should help you decide which of the two is best for you.
Mixing With Headphones
As I mentioned earlier, I started mixing with these babies. Back then in college, I didn’t have much of a budget to buy the latest gear. Despite it being a compromise, I will admit that using headphones adds a bit of color to your sound. My pal Mike enjoys mixing on headphones hence, this is something which might vary according to personal interests too. Anyway, to make things easier, I’ve compiled a list of the pros and cons for each scenario.
Pros of Mixing with Headphones
Doesn’t Break the Bank
If you’re serious about audio mixing, then be prepared to splurge. In fact, most of the equipment you’ve been dreaming about buying for your studio can be pretty costly. Fortunately, using headphones should significantly help you out in saving a couple of bucks. Sure, it might not exactly sound high-end, but it’s more than plenty to get started with.
Say Goodbye to Acoustic Noise
When you’re recording at a home studio, loud noises made by your roommates can often be disturbing. Plus, your neighbors too can complain about the extra noise (talking about noise, here’s how to reduce echo in a room for recording if you were interested).
Now here’s where using headphones comes in. It gives you the privacy to do what you love in an isolated environment. As for me, I always enjoyed the personal touch that comes from using headphones. I feel it aids the creative process and prevents you from getting distracted.
Listen to Every Node
Another thing I love about using headphones is that it provides me the ability to listen to each node. I am a bit finicky when it comes to mixing hence I enjoy being able to hear every click and pop that you might otherwise miss using studio monitors. If you enjoy this kind of precision and attention to detail, you’re bound to love working with headphones.
Another great advantage of using headphones is that you can mix practically everywhere you go thanks to its portability.
When I was in college, I enjoyed mixing where ever I’d go. If you’re like me and enjoy getting things done on the go, you will certainly appreciate the portability of headphones. This is obviously not possible with monitor speakers since it’s not something you can carry everywhere you go.
Cons of Mixing with Headphones
Well, there are pros and cons for everything. Here are a couple of cons that you should also familiarize yourself with:
Now here’s what you don’t want to hear: wearing headphones can distress your ears. Take it from someone who knows their stuff. Ear fatigue is real and can be quite painful, to say the least. Above all, this can hinder your performance, leading to dynamic sensitivity since our ears are not accustomed to imbalanced frequency.
Greater Chances of Discrepancies
If you’ve been mixing for a while, you’re probably aware that headphones are designed to reduce or boost frequencies, thus improving sound quality. Sadly, it’s quite a possibility that the music will only sound great to you and not translate the same way on the speakers. This is be pretty disappointing when you finally listen to a mix on your mobile phone, stereo or laptops.
But if using headphones is the only way you want to go, I would highly recommend you use top-notch quality gear.
Not Enough Clarity
Another critical problem with mixing with headphones is that you might have to over-compensate for unusual sub-bass frequencies. For instance, I have noticed that a lot of young artists produce mixes that are either too loud or simply sound off or low-end. The reason for this is because headphones lack a subwoofer that would produce low frequencies. To over-compensate for this, you might find yourself increasing bass volume instead to get that extra “oomph” sound.
Mixing with Monitors
If I’m being completely honest, I use both headphones and monitors for my mixes. It’s simply better that way since I get the best of both worlds. Producing a track can be easily done using headphones but I use the monitors to get the real feel of the mix, ensuring it sounds right. Sure, it’s twice the work moving back and forth between the two but it’s definitely worth it if you want to be a pro.
Plus, the best thing about using monitors is that it doesn’t exaggerate or over pronounce details of your mix. If you’re using both headphones and monitors, I suggest you increase the wet levels of the plugins. This might result in better translation over speakers and who doesn’t want that?
Pros of Mixing with Monitors
Now if you’re serious about producing high-level mixes, you will have to invest in monitors somewhere in the future. Here are some advantages of using monitor speakers:
There are a lot of sonic components that need to be analyzed when you’re mixing. This can get complicated if you lack the right equipment or aren’t able to hear the fine details of the track. Monitors allow you to rectify and perfect all components of your mixes simply because of its better output.
The right equipment makes it easier to correct pitch and get rid of excess reflections and resonances. And unfortunately, you might not be able to detect these imperfections when only using headphones.
Monitors allow you to get down to the nitty-gritty bits that you wouldn’t want to overlook. Your experience can be further enhanced if you select the best monitoring equipment.
Same Sonic Experience
Unlike headphones where the sounds and frequency may feel different, using monitors allows you to experience the real thing. This guarantees that you’re able to listen to the final product of the track whether you decide to listen to it on your car radio afterwards. Consistency is important when it comes to mixing which is why you wouldn’t want any discrepancies. Either way, using monitors is a good idea to eliminate any hiccups.
Less Ear Fatigue
Wearing headphones for a couple of hours can hurt your ears and can also affect your hearing ability in the long run. Using monitors significantly reduces the chances of ear fatigue which means you can work for longer periods of life. So if you want to invest more in mixing, using monitor speakers should be the best way to go. Though, you still might want to consider buying headphones to get a better listen while you’re working.
Cons of Using Monitors for Mixes
Though monitors are highly recommended by professionals and of course, myself, it does over a few disadvantages. Here are a couple of cons you should know about:
Loud and Intrusive
There’s no way I could have used monitor speakers when I was sharing a place with my roommate. Monitors are loud and if anything, it might upset your neighbors. Even if the entire neighborhood is polite enough not to interrupt your music session, you still won’t be able to practice during late hours. However, this should be much of a problem if you have sound-proof walls or have fashioned yourself a home studio.
On the other hand, if you’re just getting started, it’s probably the best idea to use headphones or both.
Difficulty Managing Low Frequency
This is a common problem when using monitors for mixing as treating low frequency responses may be challenging. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that the performance and frequency response of the monitor is largely dependent on its placement. Plus, the room’s shape and mode will also alter the sound quality of the track. Nevertheless, your experience and expertise will also count here.
Dependent on Room Acoustics
It’s worth noting that the output of the monitor is largely dependent on room acoustics. This is unlike when you’re working with headphones since you benefit from an isolated environment. Overall, this also depends on your skillset and overall expertise.
Verdict: Mixing with Headphones vs. Monitors
Despite the cons of mixing using monitors, I have to say, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Keep in mind that each piece of equipment offers a unique set of advantages that sets it apart. So while monitors may be great for one occasion, headphones might work great for something else.
Based on sound capabilities, monitors certainly do win the race. However, this doesn’t rule out the fact that headphones are great for entry-level sound producers.
What do you think works best for mixing? Tell me about it in the comment section below.
Further reading: best laptops for music production.