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The common and often debated question of whether one should mix on headphones or Speakers
Which headphones or speakers should an engineer, starting out, invest in.
What are the characteristics or specs of the equipment that you should be looking at?
Let’s dive right in.
Firstly, we need to understand the difference between the two monitoring devices i.e Headphones Vs Speakers. The reason why both of these sound different is because of something called spatial localization, or simply put how our brain perceives sound in 3-Dimensional Space.
We all know that the way our brain locates a sound in 3D space is by using the time difference the sound takes to reach each ear.Let’s take the following example
This tiny difference is calculated by our brain and we perceive this sound to our right. This is the basic principle on which all our stereo speaker setups work. In all our listening environments we arrange our speakers in a way where the listening position is right in the middle of the two speakers and we have a stereo field or soundstage as so:
Now let’s try to breakdown what happens with headphones. Here the sound generated from both the channels i.e L and R reaches our brain at exactly the same time as they are over the ear and we perceive this sound as generated from inside our head. This is where the contention really begins. The problem with this is that since both the channels are completely isolated from each other this makes mixing on the headphone feel wider than it really is!
Let me try to explain what I said above with a simple example, let’s say that we are mixing a track that has elements as keys, Drums, Bass & Vox. If we were to pan these instruments in our stereo field on headphones we would be conservating in doing so, as it would feel too wide, but in truth, the field is not as wide on speakers.
This leads to errors not only in panning and placing sounds in the stereo field but also in deciding the levels for delays, reverbs and other effects. On headphones these effects will always sound overly exaggerated as opposed to speakers, what might sound like a vocal track drowned in reverb will actually be fine when heard on speakers.
Here I will try to explain a few things that you should look for whenever you’re using headphones:
Beware of the Color:
Yes, speakers do suffer from this error as well, but it is often less exaggerated than what one would find on headphones
Don't Trust the LOW end on Headphones:
I’m sure you guys are wondering, “Just cut to the chase, tell us which is better. Speakers or headphones?”
The answer, as you must have already guessed is not a simple one.
Monitors and headphones go hand in hand
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, you see that the ideal way to mix is to use speakers to do the chunk of your mixing, ie balancing, EQing and Compression and then moving over to headphones to see if there is anything that’s sticking out or causing distractions.
In the next blog post, I’ll go into detail about the mixing process using speakers!