Unpopular Opinion. Beginners Should Be Mixing Through Headphones.

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I said it. I stand by it. People will scoff at it, despite countless examples of respected engineers mixing amazing sounding records this way. Heck, people are even mastering hit records through headphones.

But you don’t hear people talk about it as much because people still buy into the lie that it’s impossible. Instead, they defer back to the tried and true method of using monitors in a good sounding room. Tried and true methods are what they are for a reason, and it’s definitely worth it to treat a space and use monitors…if you can.

But what if you’re a beginner with no mentor to help you develop your ear? Or what if you don’t have the space, or resources, for such an intensive endeavor? Even if you’re making your own acoustic treatment to save money, you’re investing time and some money into building treatment for a room that likely wasn’t designed with acoustics in mind.

The Problem With Monitors For Beginners

There are many who are just starting out who are trying to improve their craft, are on shoestring budgets, and who have no acoustic treatment. Often these people are working at a spare desk in their home, and don’t have a space that they can dedicate just to setting up a properly tuned monitoring system. The spare corner of the dining room may have to do, so forget about centering your monitors on the wall and spacing them the right distance from the wall and/or each other. You don’t have the space, so that advice is not going to help you.

My home studio, Conifer Colorado, 2010.

If you’re mixing in an untreated room, and your ears haven’t developed, you’re mixing blind. Period. I know from experience. My room was untreated back in 2010, and my development as an engineer stagnated. I had only just found a mentor to help me train my ears. Until then, it was an uphill battle. There are pros who do successfully mix in untreated rooms. Their ears have developed. They didn’t learn blindfolded. They understand what resonances sound like, as well as nulls, and they understand how much the room is adding to the sense of space they are attempting to dial in. They have the skills to compensate for these issues because they’ve spent time developing their ears.

The other issue is that it’s very hard and expensive to tune a monitoring environment for critical listening. If you’ve placed your desk properly, placed your monitors 67.5″ apart from cone to cone, moved the monitors away from the walls, angled them properly, and calibrated your playback level, you then have to figure out what spots need treatment in your room. So you grab a mirror and start hanging absorbers. Then you hang a cloud, maybe some diffusors. Don’t forget bass traps. And just to be sure, once you’ve taken things as far as you can through trial and error, be sure to calibrate your room using Arc 2.5 to finalize things out.

Ah…Now things are accurate. It only cost you time and money building and installing your own treatment, money for monitors and monitor stands, a dedicated room, time meticulously fine tuning where everything is placed, and the time and money spent to finalize it with Arc 2.5. (FWIW, Arc 2.5 is very good at what it does. I’ve used it extensively. It’s worth it if you have the space to set up a properly placed monitoring environment. But it’s only advised if you’ve treated the room first. So it’s more of a finalizer than a magic bullet.)

But if you don’t know what you’re listening for in the first place, or haven’t developed your ears, you’re going to have a very hard time knowing when things are right.

Quieter monitoring levels WON’T reduce room issues.

Some will say that you can mitigate the problems in your room by merely turning down your monitors. The thought is that reduced volume levels will reduce the time needed for the sound waves to dissipate. This is a myth, even though it sounds correct. The response of the room is linear, and you’re not going to change it by changing the volume of your monitors.

However, reducing the volume will have an impact on how you perceive the bass and treble. This is a consequence of how we hear certain frequencies at certain volumes, and not a consequence of the acoustics being less impacted by the room. Mixes done at monitoring levels that were too quiet can have bass and treble that is too high. This is because the mixer wasn’t hearing these ranges accurately, so they compensated by bringing those ranges up.

Mixing quietly is a great technique that professionals should use, because it changes the perception of the mix and focuses the midrange into the ears. It’s a great thing to do as part of your mixing strategy. But it’s a bad idea to do it as a way of compensating for your room. It won’t work, and you’re further skewing how you hear the bass and treble.

Think of it this way. A 300 Hz sine wave is 3.8 feet long. It takes almost 4 feet for a 300 Hz tone to cycle up and down one time. That’s above the fundamental of most drums, guitars, bass, and some vocals. In order to prevent a 300 Hz tone from bouncing back at you using only playback volume, the monitors would be so quiet they’re inaudible. Otherwise, if you can hear it, it’s loud enough for the whole room to be swamped with it. This is one reason why the low midrange is such a troublesome spot when treating a room for critical listening purposes.

Mixing On Headphones

Let’s face it. If you’re not already working in an amazing sounding room that has been tuned and calibrated, there are likely budgetary reasons for this. Insisting that a beginner should suck it up and just buy the right treatment and monitors and get a dedicated space for setting all of this up properly is unrealistic at best. On the flip side of this, headphones completely remove the room issues from the equation. You won’t hear any room reflections, making reverbs easier to hear. They don’t require a large investment of time and space and money to set up accurately. It’s VASTLY cheaper to get a great pair of headphones than it is to get a properly treated acoustically correct space to work in.

My recommendation is a good set of OLLO S4‘s. $320 new. Below this paragraph, you’ll see my review and unboxing video for them. I’ve been mixing and mastering through them since October when that video was shot, and my Tannoy’s are collecting dust after a decade. But I mixed and mastered for 2 years before that using AKG K240 MK2’s through calibration software when I was unable to mix through my Tannoys. In either scenario, I get a mixing and mastering set up that I can trust for only a few hundred bucks. I don’t have to worry about how one room might differ from another room in various studios. I don’t have to worry about what lies my room might be telling me, spending time and money stressing about tuning the room, etc. I can just put them on and get to work.

For more info on how to successfully mix with headphones, check out my previous article from a couple of years ago titled “5 Steps To Mixing With Headphones“.