Guide to Mixing with Headphones
by Amar Dev Sharma – 20/02/19
Can we mix on headphones…..? If you have to ask this question, chances are you don´t have the ideal set up for mixing on monitors. It´s not the best scenario, but when push comes to shove, the answer is yes! Many people are already doing so. It may not be the traditional method, but it is being done with great success! But how?! For those producing their own material, you can obviously be more flexible and less demanding of yourself…. of course, you want the best sound you can achieve and many producers do well with headphones, a laptop and some software…. in those cases it usually comes down to knowing your headphone sound and having good taste! But if you are mixing or producing for clients, or want to simply take your headphone mixes to the next level, there are various tips and tricks we can employ to get the best results possible. Software solutions also help. Before we get into that, you may be interested to read our thoughts and recommendations on the Best Studio Headphones.
Luckily these days most of us have access to more than one method of listening to our mixes. Even if you don’t have a set of studio monitors, you can make a great sounding mix! Usually, this involves lots of referencing, which is listening to your work in different environments and with different equipment and using reference tracks too. For years I would make multiple mixes of the same song and A-B them with some reference material:
In the car
On a 2.1 computer speaker setup at home – as it happens they are really good at revealing over compression!
On a phone
On a Bluetooth speaker
Anywhere else I possibly could
You can probably relate! This was very time consuming, and at the end of the day, I would rather just know that my mix is going to sound good anywhere. However, this tedious stage of my progress in mixing led to being able to better recognize different sonic signatures in various listening devices, so I definitely don’t regret having spent so much time on honing my process. Nowadays my workflow is much faster, I am more confident in my mixes and don’t reference like that half as much. Don’t get me wrong; I still do check on various devices, but I don’t have to tweak my mixes as much any longer, whereas before I would end up going back and forth 5 – 10 times between my car or other devices to get it “right”.
Follow these tips and you will save yourself a lot of time, and cut years off of the learning curve that myself and many others go through. Hopefully, you will find some things you didn’t know about 🙂 You will see that there is really not much to it!
Tip #1 – Reference Tracks
It seems like a no brainer to me now, but it was honestly years before I even heard or thought of this. Basically, you use a reference track to “calibrate” your ears and listening device/environment. Are you mixing a hip hop song? You should probably be listening to what other great hip hop songs sound like! What is your all-time favorite song or album? Chances are you have heard that music in many spaces and on many different types of speakers. You ideally want to choose music that you know very well, or music that you know sounds really great! Then you listen to that music on your headphones and try to appreciate the sound signature of your chosen headphones. You may notice, for example, that you hear more high frequencies on your headphones that in other places. You may hear less low end. If you can, try switching between headphones and earbuds, for example, the differences are usually very noticeable! You have to take these differences into account when mixing your music on your chosen headphones. You can even switch between listening to your mix and your favorite reference track to make sure you are getting the sound right. Personally, I always ask clients to send me songs that indicate the direction they would like me to take, so I don’t really have any fixed reference songs. I work in many genres too so depending on what I’m working on my reference songs will vary. Check out and follow my reference playlist on Spotify! I am constantly updating it! >>>
Tip #2 – The Right Equipment
Make sure you actually have a decent set of headphones to mix on! Some headphones also require more power so you may need a decent headphone amplifier. Do not overlook this step…you can try and mix on earbuds or some budget headphones, but you will find your mixes improve greatly with headphones that were actually designed for studio use. Plus they tend to be more comfortable as they are designed for long sessions. Even a great set of headphones will be more wallet-friendly than most studio monitor speakers, so don’t skimp on this! You don’t have to spend a fortune either as you can see from our Best Studio Headphones guide. Having a decent pair of headphones is essential for the next tip.
Tip #3 – Emulate Spaces
Once you have a good set of headphones, you can start trying out software-based emulations. Although controversial, I have found them to be quite helpful. So instead of having to make a CD or bouncing an mp3 to a phone to go and listen in a car, you can use software to emulate car speakers. There are various options available, free and paid that can emulate different speaker sizes, mobile phone speakers, and more. My personal favourite free option is the Beyerdynamic Virtual Studio. This emulates a Stereo Studio, a 5.1 Studio (it won’t sound like 5.1 as headphones only have 2 speakers but it’s still a handy reference), Car, and Big Venue. It can sound a bit strange, to begin with, but you just have to let your ears adjust. Sometimes when using the Stereo Studio setting I can almost forget I am using headphones, if they are comfy enough! Deespeaker, Dotec Audio is another free option but only has one setting. Panipulator by Boz Digital Labs is an often overlooked free plugin that simulates a few other things like when speakers get plugged in the wrong way, etc. Quite handy! Audified’s Mixchecker is paid software (there is a free trial, and we will hopefully have a full review coming soon!) which offers standard and pro versions, both designed to work with either monitor speakers OR headphones with loads of emulations! Unlike frequency correction software, emulations do not require you to measure your space and they don’t appear to take into account your headphone make and model, which leads me to believe that while very handy, they may be less accurate overall.
Tip #4 – Frequency Correction Software
The idea of this type of software is to flatten the frequency response of your headphones and/or speakers. Headphone manufacturers publish their frequency responses so they are easy enough to compensate for, but if you want to use these programs to correct your room you will need a measurement mic. These are all paid products so tend to have good features, some supporting more headphone models than others. Here are some options:
Quite a cool plugin with support for VR audio, but unfortunately doesn’t support a whole load of headphone models as it is more geared towards speaker correction. Still a great bit of software though! Use this link for a 10% discount on any Waves plugins! > https://www.waves.com/r/97pji0
The budget-friendly option supports loads of headphones but has a rather simple feel and look. Even so, the low price point makes it a fantastic option!
My personal favourite. Supports a load of headphone models, you can even buy it with headphones that they have calibrated to be even more accurate, or send your headphones to them for calibration! This is a good idea because there can be slight differences even between the same model of headphones. Try/Grab Sonarworks here!
Tip #5 – Double, or triple check
Have more than one set of headphones! Although I largely use a pair of DT990s if and when I mix on headphones, I often switch between them, some very cheap Superlux headphones that happen to reveal a lot of mids, and some Sennheiser HD215’s (now discontinued) which I have had for years, so I know their sound rather well. Occasionally I´ll check on some Apple earbuds too but I don´t need to do this as often as I used to, thanks to all the other tricks mentioned! This is a quick way to double and triple check your mixes without leaving the room, bouncing mixes or burning CDs.
I am lucky enough to live close to a very nice studio designed by acoustics legend Philip Newell himself. I have had the opportunity to take some of my mixes there to see how I was getting along and apart from realizing I had been rather generous with my bass frequencies, I was happy to note that my mixes generally sounded great on their NS10s and full range Reflexion Arts soffit mounted monitors, also designed by Philip. Not bad considering I only really have a very humble and budget setup. I often see that many home studios are much better equipped than my commercial venture. So, the tips work!!
I hope this has been helpful and wish you the best of luck in speeding up your process. Mixing on monitors is of course still the better option, but if you are traveling or are between setups, etc, sometimes we don’t have any other choice! It is still worth checking your mix on a mobile phone speaker and on other devices, but you will require less tweaking if you take these tips on board. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment below! Feel free to share this article with your producer friends too!
May your mixes be forever punchy,