Are you mixing with headphones? If not, you should be. If you are, you shouldn’t be. Confused? Good. There’s a right time and a wrong time for using headphones.
When NOT To Use Headphones
All of the time.
I get it, headphones provide sound isolation and therefore make for easier mixing. The musicians can be heard without the distraction of other people talking in the room. How do we listen to a lot of our music? We listen through headphones.
The problem with sound isolation is it disregards the acoustic properties of the room. I’ve mixed in two similarly-sized rooms and one room has a lot of reverb while the other has almost none. Bottom line, what sounds good in the headphones can sound…umm…is there a Christian way of saying “crappy?”
When You CAN Use Headphones
Mix the music without headphones and then listen for problem areas.
Consider the example of a band with two acoustic guitars. One guitar sounds great but the other sounds odd. It’s hard identifying the problem area, even after a few EQ tweaks, so grab the headphones.
Listen to the odd-sounding guitar in the headphones. This can be done using the channel-level control typically labeled PFL, Cue or (Han) Solo. Hearing only the guitar, it’s easier to identify and correct the problem area.
After making the EQ changes, take off the headphones and listen to the new house mix. Make sure this new mix sounds right. If it still sounds wrong, re-visit the guitar changes.
I use headphones for a problem area, then remove them and listen to the house mix. If I still have a problem with that channel, I make mix changes without the headphones as I’ve already identified the problem area. Maybe I need to carve out frequency space in another channel. It depends.
Live audio mixing is not studio mixing. What is heard through the headphones is only a part of the sound in the room. Use headphones for hyper-focusing on a problem area. Also, use them for subtle mix refinement – but that’s another article.
You can create a great mix with headphones, as long as it’s at the right time.
Ready to learn and laugh? Chris Huff writes about the world of church audio at Behind The Mixer. He covers everything from audio fundamentals to dealing with musicians, and can even tell you the signs the sound guy is having a mental breakdown.