5 Tips To Be A Headphone Mixdown Superstar
Whether you are a DJ on tour, on holidays, having a coffee at your local cafe or you are working with what you have available. There will always be times when you need to mix in your headphones, monitors can’t always be with you.
There are common problems that arise, knowing what they are and how to work around them will save you time & stress.
I’ve gathered together 5 tips to be a headphone mixdown superstar and researched strategies that help when mixing in your cans.
5 TIPS FOR SUPERSTAR MIXDOWNS
- The first weapon against any problems is learning your headphones, just as you would your monitors. Listen to a ton of music on them and use them all the time to familiarise yourself with them.
- Be mindful of the detail of your mix; Panning, reverb and delay effects will be far more pronounced on headphones than over speakers. Often you will need to increase the wet levels of your plugins or widen the panning so that your effects translate more effectively over speakers.
- Some of the more subtle tracks in a mix – vocal harmonies and background synth lines, for example – will probably have to be turned up to make them clearly audible when played through loudspeakers.
- It’s too easy to miscalculate the levels of percussion elements in a headphone-only mix. Commonly the kick and snare drums will probably need turning down a touch, and more subtle elements like hi-hats and shakers need to be turned up so that they can be heard above the other parts.
- Mixing with headphones enables you to hear greater changes in dynamics than you’ll pick up through monitors, so you may also need to add extra compression to vocals and guitars in order to keep the dynamics more consistent.
One of the toughest things about mixing on headphones is that it’s very difficult to judge the stereo width of a track when it’s being pumped straight into your ears. Using a standard set of monitors, each ear hears the output of the left and right channels, but in different proportions.
Imagine a ‘normal’ studio environment with left and right speakers and a listener positioned in front of them: Your right ear will hear more of the signal from the right speaker than the left. The signal from the left speaker will also be heard by the right ear, but at a slightly lower volume and with a short delay.
You could use open back headphones designed to help in this scenario, reference tracks also will help.
You should have 3-5 reference tracks, that you know. They will help you to hear where everything is sitting in your mix, panning, low-end, top-end, volume balance, etc. along with the understanding of how professional songs sound on your headphones. Putting this into practice and finish as many mixes as you can, will give you the perspective & practice you need to nail your mixes.
Work At Two Volumes
Firstly find a comfortable overall volume with your headphones on. You should be able to hear things, mixing at around speaking level is ideal, it shouldn’t be cranked.
Ear fatigue is a much bigger problem when it comes to headphones. The low volume protects your hearing and won’t fool you into thinking your mix is better than it is, improving your hearing and allownig you to mix for a longer period of time.
This is volume #1, at which you’ll do most of your mixing. Write it down.
The key is to not work at this volume the whole time. Your ears will get used to hearing things the way they are and get lazy.
Enter volume #2; a lower volume.
Turn your volume down till you can just make out all the instruments in the mix and it seems more like background music than anything.
The quieter volume 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 the mix isn’t balanced properly.
Check your mix at both volumes consistently, every half an hour will rest your ears. This will help to get all your tracks to sit where they sound best.
*****Tip; One-Click Down Button; map your volume down to a key on your keyboard.
Ableton users: Place a Utility Plugin on the Master Track with the appropriate level dialed in and Map the on/off trigger to an unused key on your keyboard.
Here is a great resource from Patches on Key Mapping that includes step by step instructions to snap the master fader between 2 positions.
2 Sets Of Headphones
Every set of headphones/monitors have there signature EQ curve. Shaping your mixes sound in their own way. Our ears become familiar with that sound, and adapt.
This where your second set of headphones come into play, they don’t have to be expensive.
Any set of headphones, even the in-ears that came free with your phone, will do the job. They’ll have a completely different frequency response less top end, more hyped bottom end, rounder mid range and will give a different perspective on the mix.
Do this every hour or so and it will wake your ears up and show you things that need slight tweaks, pretty much instantly. Flipping back and forth as often as you like, is handy keep your ears awake, focused, and honest. The small elements you notice will be the difference between an OK mix and a superstar mix.
Whether you mix on headphones or super expensive studio monitors, referencing your mix on the second set of speakers, is a must. Even cheap ones will do the job.
Play Your Mix On Speakers For A Day
Once your happy with your mixes on both sets of headphones at both of your volumes, the final step to be sure you’ve got a perfect balance and your mix will translate everywhere.
You need to listen to your mixes on normal speakers for a solid 24 hours.
This will reveal a TON about the condition of your mixes, panning and space effects (reverb/delay) that are harder to dial in will show through and you’ll have a more realistic picture of how your mix translates to a casual listener in a casual environment (the car, the kitchen, laptop speakers, etc).
Listen for: drum 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.
Done & Dusted.