Mixing with headphones is one of those recurring themes that come up among people who are forced to work under limited circumstances. Limited one way or another; sometimes it’s the (often extremely) low budget that doesn’t allow them to buy their perfect rooms with perfect speakers. Other times it’s “only” their environment; cruel neighbors, noisy places, you name it. And sometimes they just want to conquer the impossible and achieve something that the majority put in the “can’t be done” category. And frankly, mixing on ‘phones falls into that category for a couple of rational reasons.
Headphone mixing – only if you must
The frequency response of headphones (right on your ears) and speakers (placed in a room) are often very different. While the midrange and the high end are more or less manageable, it’s hard to get a true image of what’s happening in the low end. It leads to mixing the bass elements blindly. Unfortunately, the only reasonable cure for this is to use visual help in the form of an analyzer, and shape the low end to match some reference track. Not too musical, not much freedom and creativity involved, and sometimes it will still be off, because of the different dynamics present on your tune vs. the reference one.
The closeness of the small drivers of the cans to your ears results in another problem: the spatial information you get will be different from when using speakers. On one hand it’s a difference in the stereo image. When you are working with headphones on, you are only hearing sounds strictly from either the left or the right channel. There’s no mixing of sounds happen before they reach your ears, like in the case of speakers and the surrounding air of the room. The cure is to use something that provides some cross-feed between the two channels, to simulate the above mentioned natural mixture of sounds. Unfortunately a simple cross-feed is not quite as natural sounding as one would need it to be.
Another spatial problem is the lack of natural reverberation. It’s present in a room, but it isn’t there between your ears and the cans. It usually results in overcompensation, so you end up adding way too much ambience in the form of reverbs and delays. The best way to battle the spatial problems of headphones is to use a speaker simulation plugin or hardware. These often get you closer to the frequency response of some well known speakers as well. Of course you’ll have to fine tune these to your own ears and ‘phones. It’s far from ideal, but it makes it at least doable.
Know you cans
The biggest help is usually to get to know your headphones really well. The more familiar you are with them, the better your headphone mixes will be. When you’re done, send the track to us and let the mastering engineer correct that mess.