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Mixing: Monitoring On Headphones Vs. Studio Monitors

| My New Microphone

A common question posed within the music production community is whether headphones or studio monitors are better for monitoring, producing, mixing and mastering music. If you've ever asked that, you've come to the right place to find your answer. While we'll be focusing on mixing, I also want to discuss monitoring in a variety of phases within the music production process.

Is it better to mix on headphones or studio monitors? It's possible to mix professionally with only headphones or studio monitors, though better to use both to switch up our monitoring and improve translatability. Headphones are great for isolating the stereo channels and the acoustic environment, while studio monitors yield a more natural response.

That's an “it depends” type of answer. Let me dive deeper into the reasons why we'd want to monitor our mixes with headphones and studio monitors in this article so that we can move forward with more confidence in our mixes.


The Goal Of Mixing

Before we get into it, I want to break down the goal of mixing into its most essential concept: balance.

Balance is primarily achieved in the balance of levels between the tracks in the mix. We want our levels to bring out the best in the song in order to have the maximum impact on the end listener. This means ensuring the tracks work well together, which often means the background elements are mixed a bit lower in level, and the lead elements are mixed a bit higher.

Balance is also about our sense of dimensional space in a mix. Consider the perceived width, depth and height of the stereo (or surround sound) song when mixing.

Width refers to the centre image (we'll discuss the phantom centre in a moment) and the differences between the two (or more) channels of the mix.

Depth refers to the perceived distance of sound sources, which is largely affected by levels, transient information and high-end frequency content.

Height refers to the differences between low-end and high-end frequency information and everything in between.

If we can get the balance right, we can achieve the ultimate goal of mixing, which is bringing out the best in the song and providing the most impact on the end listener.

With levels and space in mind, we can think of our mixing processes as follows:

  • Faders control relative levels and are the primary tools for balancing.
  • Pan pots control relative positions and help with width.
  • EQ is frequency-dependent level control, helping with balancing and height (it also helps with depth, particularly in the high end).
  • Compression is dynamics-dependent level control, helping with balancing (it also helps with depth, helping closer sounds sound closer and further sounds sound more distant).
  • Reverb and delay are spatial effects, helping with width, depth and height.
  • Saturation and distortion add harmonics and act to compress signals, helping with balancing.

But the way we monitor the mix can have a big impact on how we perceive the balance of levels and space within the mix. Now that we have a primer on the goal of mixing, let's bring this information forward into our discussion on monitoring on studio monitors and headphones.

| My New Microphone

If you'd like more discussion on the goal of mixing, I discuss it in the following video:

YouTube video

Studio Headphones Vs. Studio Monitors

The differences between headphones and studio monitors may seem obvious, but let's go through them briefly to get our definitions right in this article.

First off, there are numerous different types of speakers and headphones. Let's focus primarily on those designed and marketed as studio solutions for mixing. This section is supposed to be brief, and doing so will help cut down on countless caveats.

With that out of the way, the big similarity between headphones and studio monitors is that they're both used to playback audio for monitoring purposes. In other words, they're both transducers that convert analog audio signals (AC electrical signals) into sound waves. The transducer elements are generally called drivers, and there are a few different styles of drivers available, with the most common (by far) being the moving-coil design.

Additionally, both professional-level options are designed to accurately reproduce the audio for monitoring purposes, unlike consumer-grade speakers and headphones. That stated, many pro options do have their own “colour,” and no single option is absolutely perfect.

The big differences between studio headphones and monitors are the form factor and positioning.

Headphones are smaller and are positioned on the mixing engineer's head, over his or her ears. The drivers are smaller, too. Sound produced by headphones doesn't have to travel far, or through the acoustic space, to reach the engineer's ears.

Studio monitors are bigger and are positioned away from the mixing engineer. They often have more drivers, and the drivers (except for tweeters, potentially) are larger as well. The sound produced by studio monitors travels through and interacts with the acoustic space as it makes its way to the engineer's ears.

The other noteworthy differences can be summed up in the following table:

Studio MonitorsStudio Headphones
Narrower frequency response (esp. in low end)Wider frequency response (esp. in low end)
Crossfeed in acoustic environmentNo crossfeed (isolated from environment)
Narrower stereo imageWider stereo image
Less perceived separationMore perceived separation
Dependent on the roomIndependent of the room
More expensive and involvedLess expensive and involved
Better for general translatabilityWorse for general translatability
Less fatiguing on earsMore fatiguing on ears

I'll be referencing these differences throughout the rest of this article. Now that we have a solid understanding of headphones, studio monitors and mixing, let's get to the pros, cons and considerations of these two monitoring options.


Mixing On Headphones: Pros, Cons And Considerations

There's a lot to discuss here, so I've split this section into three smaller sections to make things more organized. I'll list the pros, cons and considerations for easy reading and then dive into each point with more detail.

Pros Of Mixing On Headphones

The pros of mixing on headphones include:

  • Portability and ease of use
  • Affordability
  • Environmental isolation/independence
  • No crossfeed
  • Greater detail
  • Wider frequency response
  • Quieter (environmentally)

Portability And Ease Of Use

The easiest benefit of headphones to explain is the portability and ease of use aspect. Headphones are much more compact than speakers, and unless we're dealing with specialty headphones with incredibly high input impedances, most headphone amps will drive them sufficiently.

This means we can easily mix with headphones on the road and in tight spaces. We don't even need a dedicated audio interface in many cases, assuming we're working with a device that has a headphone jack.

Headphones generally don't have added tuning controls either, and a simple volume control is often all we need to use them appropriately.

Affordability

The “starting at” price point for sufficient quality is significantly lower for headphones than it is for studio monitors. If you're just starting out or are on a tight budget, a nice pair of studio headphones may only run you $150-300, whereas a sufficient pair of active studio monitors complete with cables, stands, a dedicated interface, and acoustic treatment for your room may run well over $1,000.

Environmental Isolation/Independence

I just mentioned acoustic treatment, which brings us to our next benefit of headphones. The relative isolation from the acoustic environment means that we don't need to spend as much effort (or money) treating the acoustic space.

The headphone drivers are right next to our ears, and the ear cups provide a good amount of passive noise cancellation (especially in closed-back designs). Even in open-back designs, the amount of flutter echo and overall “room sound” is minimal.

This means that a good pair of studio headphones can be used in a wide variety of spaces without sounding different. Compare this to studio monitors, which produce sound waves within the acoustic environment and will, therefore, sound different not only in different rooms but also in different positions within the same room.

No Crossfeed

Crossfeed happens in stereo playback when some of the left channel is heard by the right ear and vice versa. This happens naturally with speakers, including studio monitors, that produce sound waves in an acoustic environment.

With headphones, however, the drivers are so close to our ears that crossfeed is typically negligible (even in open-back designs).

I hesitated to add this as a pro. It certainly helps us to hear the separation of elements across the stereo panorama and the width of the mix, though the lack of crossfeed also gives us a rather unnatural soundstage, so it can also be thought of as a con, in a way.

Note that crosstalk is very similar, though it has to do with the audio signal from one channel bleeding into another. This can happen in headphones either in the cable or the headphone amp, but usually isn't a big deal.

Greater Detail

In addition to more obvious stereo separation, headphones also typically offer greater clarity in the detail of the audio within the mix. This is largely because there's less smearing due to crossfeed and room reflections. This holds true at quiet listening levels through to loud listening levels.

So if we need to focus on the fine details of a mix, putting on a nice pair of studio headphones can help us hone in.

Wider Frequency Response

A good pair of studio headphones can have a very wide frequency response, often beyond the audible range of human hearing (20 – 20,000 Hz), and while the frequency response curve isn't always flat within the audible range (in fact, it rarely ever is), we can still usually hear all the important frequencies with some degree of accuracy.

This is especially the case in the low-end bass and sub-bass regions of the frequency spectrum, which many studio monitors fail to recreate with power and accuracy.

Yes, headphones have smaller main drivers than studio monitors. However, their proximity to the ear, their enclosures and, to a lesser degree, the bone conduction they cause in the skull all contribute to their improved bass response.

Related article: What Is Headphone Frequency Response & What Is A Good Range?

Quieter (Environmentally)

This is another obvious one, but headphones are much quieter for the environment, which is a big deal in some instances.

If you need to be mixing during quiet hours (whether you live in an apartment or have a home studio) or you have to mix in less-than-ideal circumstances outside the studio, then headphones can help you keep the mix to yourself rather than having it played for everyone around you to hear.

Cons Of Mixing On Headphones

The cons of mixing on headphones include:

  • Higher potential for ear fatigue
  • Unnatural stereo image

Higher Potential For Ear Fatigue

The higher potential for ear fatigue when wearing headphones is largely because of the proximity of the drivers to the ears and the relative coupling of the drivers and the eardrums, particularly in closed-back designs.

Anecdotally and subjectively, it's also partly because we often have to push headphones a bit louder for them to sound equally as good as monitors, though I can't prove that for certain.

Whether we choose to use studio monitors or headphones, taking regular ear breaks is important for reducing ear fatigue, which will allow us to mix for longer in the span of a day and also over our careers.

For more information on ear fatigue, check out my article What Is Ear Fatigue And How To Avoid It.

Unnatural Stereo Image

I touched on this briefly in the “pro” of headphones having no crossfeed. Because headphones are designed in a way that effectively pushes the left channel to only the left ear and the right channel to only the right ear—this gives us a lot of separation, but it also yields a rather unnatural soundstage.

When monitoring on headphones, we can expect the stereo image to be exaggerated. Keep this in mind for mix translatability, as the image will surely narrow on most playback systems utilizing speakers.

Considerations When Mixing On Headphones

A few points worth considering when mixing on headphones include:

  • Studio headphone specifications
  • Type of headphones
  • Listening level
  • Multiple pairs of headphones
  • Room emulation plugins for headphones

Studio Headphone Specifications

Headphones come with plenty of specifications to help define their operation. While many specs aren't overly critical for understanding the performance of a pair of studio headphones, and we should always use our ears to discern whether we like a pair of headphones or not, there are a few standout specs we should take into consideration.

The first is frequency response, and particularly the frequency response graph (if available). Most manufacturers will give a frequency range, often based on a ±3 dB range of variance. Frequency graph curves are harder to come by, though you can find reputable third-party testers that offer frequency response graphs from popular headphone models.

The second is impedance, which is the inherent opposition the headphone circuitry has to the flow of electrical current. Unless we plan on investing in a dedicated headphone amplifier, lower impedance ratings are generally better. They can be driven, though perhaps slightly less accurately, than high-impedance headphones by the typical headphone amps in our DACs, audio interfaces and regular headphone jacks.

A third specification to consider is the fit style and overall ear coupling. Circum-aural headphones are generally best for studio applications as they cup around the ear and create a seal. Beyond that, we can consider open-back designs, which allow the ear cups to breathe and offer a wider soundstage as the sound waves can escape from the cup, or closed-back designs, which contain the sound waves within the cup and offer more isolation and coupling.

For information on all the headphone specifications you may come across, check out my article Full List: Headphone/Earphone Specifications w/ Examples.

Type Of Headphones

The headphone type is in relation to the driver/transducer type.

The vast majority of headphones, including studio headphones, are moving-coil dynamic, where the driver is made of a coil attached to a diaphragm suspended in a magnetic field. The audio signal (alternating current) flowing through the coil causes the coil to experience an altering magnetic field, which moves it forward and backward according to the audio signal. This forward and backward movement pushes and pulls air to create sound waves.

There are plenty of superb moving-coil dynamic options on the market for studio headphones.

Other headphone types that can work well for mixing include planar magnetic headphones and, in some cases, in-ear monitors built primarily on balanced armature designs.

This isn't an article on the various headphone types, though I would argue that it's worth considering the type of headphones you use when mixing.

For more information on all the different headphone types, check out my article How Do Headphones Work? (Illustrated Guide For All HP Types).

Listening Level

It's critical that we pay attention to our listening level. It's difficult to know exactly how loud we're monitoring at through headphones, as measuring the SPL at our eardrums is difficult while the headphones are on.

However, it's important to notice how loud and how long we've been monitoring through headphones. It's highly beneficial to keep levels relatively low for the most part and also to take regular breaks throughout the mixing process to stave off ear fatigue.

It's important to monitor loudly from time to time. However, we only have so much time at louder levels before we sustain fatigue and even permanent hearing damage.

For more information on safe listening levels, check out my article What Volume (In Decibels) Should Audio Be Mixed/Listened At?

Multiple Pairs Of Headphones

It's advantageous, when mixing, to have multiple monitoring options. This includes, of course, different pairs of headphones.

If we employ multiple pairs of headphones, we can switch back and forth to hear how the mix translates on different playback systems. This can help with our overall mix translatability. So if we have a few headphones that we're familiar with, utilizing multiple pairs can help us experience our mix in different ways to help us pin down issues that require solving.

I would always recommend having a go-to, default pair of headphones and to periodically A/B test with your other pair(s). This way, you can become familiar with the “default monitoring” while also taking advantage of the others.

Room Emulation Plugins For Headphones

As you'll read shortly, it's typically better to monitor with studio monitors. Properly positioned monitors in properly treated rooms will give us the best monitoring for mixing. However, it's not always practical to monitor in such a way, and so there are plugins out there that can effectively mimic the sound of a room (often famously sought-after rooms) in our headphones.

Some of this software is incredibly powerful, and if you have the time and funds to experiment with it, it's worth a shot.

Of course, I would always recommend getting the clearest signal possible and using headphones for their pros (and cons) when mixing, but room emulation software can come in handy when you don't have the option of reference/monitoring through proper studio monitors.

The Waves NX and dSONIQ Realphones are examples of such plugins.


Mixing On Studio Monitors: Pros, Cons And Considerations

I've split this section up just like the previous one. I'll list the pros, cons and considerations for easy reading and then dive into each point with more detail.

Pros Of Mixing On Studio Monitors

The pros of mixing on studio monitors include:

  • Natural crossfeed
  • Better for translatability
  • Less fatiguing on ears
  • More comfortable

Natural Crossfeed

Stereo studio monitors, when set up correctly, offer us natural crossfeed. The sound waves emanating from the left monitor (reproducing the left stereo channel) will hit our left ear first but will also hit our right ear. Likewise, the sound waves emanating from the right monitor (reproducing the right stereo channel) will hit our right ear first but will also hit our left ear.

When we're positioned correctly, the “mono” information (that which is the same in the left and right channels) creates a “phantom centre” image that is perceived as coming from between the speakers. This is similar to what happens with headphones.

However, the stereo or “side” information (that which is different between the left and right channels) will reach both ears: the respective side's ear first and then the opposite a short time afterward.

Panning and overall width decisions demand a bit more aggression when mixing on studio monitors, and these decisions tend to translate better than headphone-only mixes, which often sound a bit narrow on speakers due to the enhanced sense of width produced by headphones.

This natural crossfeed is much more akin to how we hear sounds in real acoustic environments and gives us more detail about how our mix will translate to other speaker playback systems.

Better For Translatability

Speaking of translatability, it's important to monitor on multiple systems in multiple environments to get the best possible idea of how our mixes will translate to the systems and environments of the end listeners.

We discussed how panning decisions and the overall width of the mix can be more straightforward to mix on monitors. We also described how crossfeed sounds more like how we hear sound naturally in acoustic environments.

But beyond that, studio monitors typically offer a flatter response in the midrange frequencies and often have less presence in the very bottom end. This lack of presence can be looked at as being a bad thing, but considering the wide variance in the frequency response of playback systems (and the effect the acoustic space has on low-end resonances), being forced to focus on the midrange is actually beneficial when it comes to translatability.

Headphones often have extended frequency responses, which is great for enjoying the full audible spectrum, but many times the low-end and midrange frequencies are a bit coloured.

Of course, these are vast generalizations, but they hold true in many cases.

For more information to help get your mixes to translate better, check out my article The Top 10 Tips To Improve Your Mix Translatability.

I also have a video dedicated to the discussion of mix translatability if you'd prefer a video format:

YouTube video

Less Fatiguing On Ears

Don't get me wrong, listening too loud for too long on studio monitors will cause ear fatigue and even permanent hearing damage.

However, if we compare having two speakers at arm's length and sound interacting within the room against having drivers pressed nearly against our ears, then headphones will be more fatiguing more quickly.

More Comfortable

The last big benefit I want to share in regard to monitoring on studio monitors is the comfort factor. Again, we can compare monitors to headphones.

Studio monitors are to be placed away from the listening position. It may seem funny to write out, but we don't wear them on our heads, covering our ears, for extended periods of time.

The pressure of headphones can cause pain and discomfort over time, and they can trap heat in and around the ears (particularly in closed-back designs), which will cause further unpleasantness.

Cons Of Mixing On Studio Monitors

The cons of mixing on studio monitors include:

  • Limited frequency response
  • Dependent on the acoustic environment
  • Cost and involvement
  • Produces environmental sound

Limited Frequency Response

I mentioned that studio monitors often suffer in their low-end response. Typically, the larger the monitors, the lower they can properly reproduce frequencies. Still, dedicated subwoofers are still commonplace for being able to monitor sub-bass frequencies appropriately.

On one hand, as we've discussed, having less detail in the low-end will automatically draw our focus to the midrange, which can help enhance our mix translatability (the midrange is generally well-represented across playback systems, while the low and high-end frequencies are often more varied).

On the other hand, the limitations of studio monitors, along with the resonances of the environment, typically don't give us a fully accurate sonic picture of the mix. This is obviously an issue, as we should strive to get as clear a representation of the mix's audio as possible for the most accurate results.

My advice is to simply understand that standard studio monitors won't give you the full bottom end that a dedicated subwoofer will and to carry that information into your mixing decisions.

Dependent On The Acoustic Environment

I touched on the issue of room resonances and their impact on the accuracy of studio monitors. The fact is that studio monitors produce sound waves that will interact with our ears and the environment. If our room isn't treated properly or the monitors (or we, ourselves) aren't positioned appropriately, then hearing an accurate representation through the monitors is practically impossible.

So, when getting the most out of our studio monitors, it's also the case that we must spend some time, effort, and often money, on our room. The two work together, so it's important to get your acoustic environment right.

Cost And Involvement

In addition to all the costs associated with setting up your room, we also have the cost of the studio monitors themselves, which often run higher than headphones, not to mention that you'll need two monitors for stereo playback.

Beyond that, studio monitors will require an audio interface if we're working with a computer and digital audio workstation, which is an additional cost. Headphones, on the other hand, will often benefit from the DAC inside a dedicated audio interface but will generally sound good enough through the built-in headphone output of a computer.

Setting up the studio monitors is another task that involves patience and effort. Placing them correctly and having them in the studio (with all audio and power cables) could be considered a con. Compare this to headphones, which can be folded up and used pretty much anywhere.

Produces Environmental Sound

And speaking of using headphones anywhere, we can also use them at pretty much any time. The same usually can't be said about studio monitors unless you have a dedicated studio you can work out of at all hours of the day.

The sound produced by studio monitors is environmental. If there are people in the vicinity of your studio space, and you're driving your monitors loud enough, they'll hear it.

Considerations When Mixing On Studio Monitors

A few points worth considering when mixing and producing on studio monitors include:

  • Studio monitor specifications
  • Acoustic treatment
  • Tuning the room
  • Room dimensions and monitor size
  • Positioning of the monitors
  • Listening position
  • Listening level
  • Multiple pairs of studio monitors

Studio Monitor Specifications

Like headphones, studio monitors also come with plenty of specifications to define their performance.

Frequency response, and especially the frequency response graph (if available), is an important specification to pay attention to. These ranges are generally based on a ±3 dB variance, and they tell us a lot about how accurately the monitor will reproduce the audio being fed to it.

We should also pay attention to the connection types and plan our cables accordingly.

Consider opting for monitors that have some amount of tuning abilities. This can help them perform to their fullest in different room sizes.

For more information on studio monitor specs, check out my article Full List: Loudspeaker & Monitor Specifications w/ Examples.

Acoustic Treatment

Acoustic treatment is certainly something to consider when using studio monitors. There are two basic types of acoustic treatment: absorption and diffusion, and both are part of treating a room properly.

Absorption has to do with “absorbing” energy from sound waves (as heat due to friction) and reducing the strength of the reflections. Soft furniture, rugs, blankets, acoustic panels and bass traps are great options here.

Diffusion has to do with breaking up the reflections of a sound wave by providing many different surfaces in a relatively small area (rather than large, flat areas like floors, walls and ceilings) for reflections to disperse from. Bookshelves, oddly shaped rooms, open closets, and professional diffusers are great options here.

This is by no means a masterclass on the deep subject of acoustic and acoustic treatment, but I'd recommend looking into it to optimize the performance of your studio monitors.

Related article: The Ultimate Acoustic Treatment Buyer’s Guide.

Tuning The Room

Tuning the room generally refers to making changes to the room itself, primarily through acoustic treatment (see above). It's important to note that absorption affects high frequencies (shorter wavelengths) more than low frequencies (longer wavelengths), and so it's important not to overdo the absorption if we want a balanced room.

Furthermore, if you happen to be using far-field monitors (as opposed to the typical near-field monitors in most home studios), you may want to go through the effort of tuning your room with an EQ that “corrects” the frequency curve of the audio being fed to the monitors in order to produce a more accurate representation of the audio.

In terms of near-field monitors, we could opt to EQ the signal, though it's generally unwarranted as most of the sound we hear from near-fields is direct (before any room reflections).

Positioning Of The Monitors

We also have to consider where our monitors will be positioned within the room.

First things first, they should be at ear height for optimal monitoring. Furthermore, monitor pairs will perform best when they form an equilateral or isosceles triangle between themselves and the listening position. In general, the equilateral approach allows for a wide soundstage that translates well to multiple systems, while the isosceles technique leads to wider or narrower stereo images.

For speaker placement, placing as close to the front wall as possible is important as this allows for fewer low-mid frequency wave reflections. The lower the frequency spectrum, the more omnidirectional the speakers become. If the speakers sit ¼ wavelength away from the wall, it will cause destructive interference at that frequency.

Again, I won't be giving a masterclass on acoustics in this article, but I had to mention monitor placement as a consideration here.

Room Dimensions And Monitor Size

The larger the acoustic space, the larger the monitors it can handle appropriately.

This is largely because the extended low-end of smaller monitors is more likely to build up at noticeable resonances in smaller rooms.

So if you happen to mix in a small room like me (I'm currently in a room that's about 150 square feet), then you'll get better, more accurate monitoring from smaller speakers (I use a pair of 5-inch Yorkville YSM5s).

Listening Position

Our listening position is equally as important as our monitor placement. As I mentioned, it's best to form an isosceles or equilateral triangle between the listening position and the monitor position.

Of course, it's not always practical to set up our monitors in ideal locations (if we have a bedroom setup, for example). However, it's critical that we sit in an appropriate location when using our monitors so that we can monitor appropriately, especially in stereo.

Listening Level

Keep listening levels in mind throughout the mixing process.

It's important to monitor at high levels periodically in order to hear what the mix sounds like loud (a lot of listeners like to listen loudly). However, it's critical for our hearing health not to extend these times, as we run the risk of damaging our sense of hearing and causing ear fatigue (which leads to poor mix decisions).

I typically mix at low volumes, around 65 to 85 dB SPL, to allow myself to mix for longer and also to focus my perception on the midrange frequencies (our natural frequency response flattens out as sound pressure increases).

Periodically, I'll crank the mix up to listen loud, and I'll also turn it way down to hear only the most important elements poke out.

Multiple Pairs Of Studio Monitors

Finally, we can consider incorporating multiple pairs of studio monitors (or even single mono options) into our workstations. This will allow us to toggle between monitors at ease (assuming we have a monitor switcher or audio interface that allows such an option) and get different perspectives on the mix.

It's important for mix translatability to reference our mixes on multiple systems and multiple environments. Having multiple studio monitor options can help us achieve that practice much more easily without having to leave the studio nearly as often to get a second perspective.

For more information on the benefits of using multiple sets of studio monitors, check out my article Why Mixing Engineers Use Multiple Pairs Of Studio Monitors.


Mixing With Headphones And Studio Monitors

Ultimately, the best approach to mixing is to utilize studio headphones and studio monitors. It not only gives us the “best of both worlds” but also helps with our overall mix translatability as we can effectively monitor from two (or more) playback options.

Understanding the typical characteristics of studio monitors and headphones arms us with the knowledge of what to expect when monitoring on either system. Once we become familiar with our particular playback systems, we can A/B test our mix and know what needs fixing as we move through the mixing process.

Furthermore, we can invest in multiple pairs of headphones and studio monitors as we continue to improve our studio space. Having multiple options for playback gives us a great advantage when it comes to mix translatability. It's important to reference our mix on multiple playback systems (think of the infamous “car test”), and having these options in the convenience of your studio space is ideal.

I also have a video on these A/B test if you'd prefer that format:

YouTube video

Monitoring On Headphones When Recording/Producing

We don't only need monitoring when mixing. We also need it when we're recording, particularly in iso-booths and for overdubs, and during the production phase.

Headphones are go-to monitoring choices during recording due, in large part, to their isolation characteristics.

Unless everything is being recorded live off the floor with all the musicians in the same room, good monitoring will be essential. Headphones provide such monitoring without projecting sound into the environment, which is a tremendous help in reducing bleed in other microphones.

For example, a vocalist may record in an iso-booth, either as an overdub or along with the original performance. Since the iso-booth is heavily treated and isolated from the other sound sources, the vocalist will need to monitor the music some other way. By using headphones, the vocalist can hear the music and perform along to it, and the amount of bleed (sound from the headphones) that reaches the vocal mic will be minimal.

On the issue of bleed, it's best to utilize over-ear/circumaural, closed-back headphones to minimize the amount of sound that escapes from the ear cups.

Additionally, if our mixers or audio interfaces offer such utility, we can produce different headphone mixes for different musicians. This way, each musician can have their own mix via their own set of headphones and can perform in the same space with minimal bleed or crossfeed (compared to trying the same with loudspeakers or studio monitors).

When editing and producing, using headphones can offer us a more detailed reproduction of the audio within the session (assuming we're using high-quality studio headphones). Additionally, headphones won't cause noise pollution in the environment, which can be super helpful in home studios and in larger studios with other recording and mixing sessions are happening.


Monitoring On Studio Monitors When Recording/Producing

Studio monitors can also be used for monitoring in other phases of the music production process.

If we're lucky enough to have a control room that's separate from the live room(s) in our studio, we can monitor through the speakers in the control room while the performances happen in other rooms. This is an easy and comfortable way for everyone to hear the same thing in the control room (room position variations aside) without risking bleed and feedback in the live microphones.

I've been on both sides of the equation (performing and engineering), where the musicians playing electric instruments (notably guitarists, bassists and keyboardists) sat in the control room during the recording of a song or entire record. The miked cabinets would be in another room, or the instrument would be directly injected for recording. The drummer and vocalists would be in other rooms with their own headphone mixes, but a few musicians could perform in the control room if they wanted.

I try to monitor through my studio monitors whenever possible. Personally, that means whenever there's no active mic in my small home studio and when I'm not going to annoy anyone else in the house (all the more reason to save up for a dedicated studio building)!

New To Mixing? Check Out My FREE In-Depth Article:

What Are The Step-By-Steps Of Mixing Music?

Make the right decisions at the right times to craft professional mixes!


Are noise-cancelling headphones good for mixing? Active noise cancelling effectively reacts to environmental noise and attempts to cancel it out by producing an out-of-phase recreation of such noise. Active noise-cancelling headphones are, therefore, unsuitable for mixing as they consistently alter the audio being played back.

Related article: How Do Noise-Cancelling Headphones Work? (PNC & ANC)

How can I get my mixes to translate outside the studio? Here are ten tips to help improve your mix translatability:

  1. Improve your monitoring situation
  2. Get comfortable in your monitoring situation
  3. Monitor differently inside and outside the studio
  4. Find your preferred level but monitor at a variety of levels
  5. Use reference mixes
  6. Mix in mono
  7. Mix filtered bands
  8. Take notes and make necessary adjustments
  9. Hire a mastering engineer
  10. Practice critical listening

For more information on mix translatability, check out my article The Top 10 Tips To Improve Your Mix Translatability.


Leave A Comment!

Have any thoughts, questions or concerns? I invite you to add them to the comment section at the bottom of the page! I'd love to hear your insights and inquiries and will do my best to add to the conversation. Thanks!

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.

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