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In The Studio: Cue Systems & Headphones, How Musicians Hear Themselves

More than just hearing, but also creating an atmosphere that fosters creativity

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The recording engineer’s job is to create an environment conducive to musical creativity and then capture that creativity. I often say that.

Headphones are usually the only way that a musician will be able to hear themselves and (more importantly) how what they’re playing works with the rest of the band.

Every musician will ask to hear themselves much louder than everyone else. This makes sense as it will allow them to play the nuances of their instrument.

But if they’re only listening to themselves (or the click track) and not everything, then what they play may be brilliant alone but wrong with the track. They may even compromise the art of their own playing as a result of a poor headphone mix.

Guitar players who hear themselves too loudly will not “bear down” with the pick as much as they may need to. Piano players who hear themselves too quietly may not play with the full dynamic range of the piano if they cannot hear themselves play softly.

And finally, any musician that cannot hear the full rhythm cause by the combined pushing and pulling of all the instruments may not play “in the pocket”, even if they are overdubbing alone.

Remember you must make the musicians feel like they’re playing together in a room without headphones (in fact I prefer to record bands that way). They have to be able to hear and feel each other clearly.

Sometimes you will have the luxury of multiple headphone feeds, which will allow you to tailor different mixes for the players that require them. Beware of letting musicians mix their own headphones, as they will tend to want to hear only themselves.

Here are a few general pointers:

1. No matter how loud the drums may be in the room, everybody needs some kick, snare, hat and other direct drum mics. The timing and feel of the direct mics will sound different from the drum sound in the room.

2. Panning can be your friend. Sometimes moving some instruments just slightly off center will make it easier to the players to hear themselves without being soloed.

3. You can change the sound musicians hear in their headphones without compromising the sounds you record. I was recording a large horn section that was used to a compressed edgy sound. I wanted to go for something full, so I recorded them using a combination of ribbon and condenser mics going flat from Neve mic pres straight into the tape machine.

The section was not happy and complained that the sound was not what they were used to. I did not want to lose the fullness the mics were giving me, so I EQed and compressed the monitor channels coming off the tape machine. Suddenly they were all happy and played well.

When I mixed, I was able to use all of the sounds with no EQ or compression and was very pleased with the results. If I had changed the sound I was capturing to match what the musicians were used to hearing in their headphones, the final sound of the section would have suffered.

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4. Make sure the musicians hear enough of the band and even the beat that they can perform to the song  rather than just lay down their parts. Musicians will (and should) be concerned with their performances, but do not let them lose sight of the fact that they are playing within a song along with other musicians. If they don’t hear the others they will not be able to interact with them, even if it is only on a subconscious level.

5. Some drummers will ask for loud click tracks in their headphones. If you have only one headphone feed and the drummer needs to share the cue with other performers, it may be tricky to keep everyone happy. You may need to ride the click. And speaking of riding the click….

6. Be prepared to ride the click track down in softer sections of a song, especially at the end. There is nothing worse than trying to mix the very end of a song and having to fade out too quickly to keep the click from the drummer’s headphones from being heard.

Bruce A. Miller is an acclaimed recording engineer who operates an independent recording studio and the BAM Audio School website.

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