How to Mix with Studio Monitor Headphones

How do I mix music with headphones? What are the best headphones for mixing and music production? And why should I be tracking with headphones in the first place? These are very common questions for first-time home studio users, and Yamaha and Performer Magazine have teamed up to help guide you towards the best studio monitor headphones for your recording needs.

Welcome to the third in a four-part series that will provide real-world advice for setting up your first home recording studio, co-presented by Performer Magazine and Yamaha. In this installment, we’ll take a closer look at studio monitor headphones, specifically why you should be using a secondary monitoring source during your recording sessions, which types of studio headphones make the most sense for your applications, and how to listen to a headphone mix to make music production decisions. Yamaha has been kind enough to loan us a number of pairs from their MT series of studio monitor headphones, including the HPH-MT5 ($99), the HPH-MT7 ($169) and the top of the range HPH-MT8 ($199)

We feel the MT lineup offers great quality at each of their respective price points, and you can read our expert reviews of each model here:

MULTIPLE MONITOR SOURCES

To start, why should you bother with a set of headphones at all? One of the first purchases we see many first-time home studio users make is a pair of studio monitor speakers. And that makes sense; you want to be able to listen to your sessions as you’re tracking and mixing, and studio monitor speakers are voiced to deliver a true audio response without the coloration of, say, hi-fi speakers.

But there are a few reasons that studio monitor headphones are important. For starters, it’s always a good idea to reference your work using multiple monitor sources. What you’re hearing out of your speakers might sound great now, but it’s important to hear what you’re recording through other sources to get a sense of how the music will sound on various playback systems. And of course, one of the most popular methods for music consumption is through consumer-grade earbuds and headphones. So auditioning your tracks through a set of headphones makes sense, not just to hear what the end-user will experience (even though studio monitor headphones are voiced a bit differently than consumer-grade models in most instances), but also because the music will exhibit a different spatial depth when listening on a closed auditory system, like headphones, than an open system (such as speakers moving air in a room). In short, the soundstage will be more pronounced with the sound directed at both ears in true stereo, without the room environment and sound treatment affecting what you hear.

Second, we recommend studio headphone monitoring during both tracking and mixing to hear the subtler nuances of the tracks you’re working on. Especially true when layering lots of complex overdubs, it can be more difficult, at times, to truly hear each of your tracks in true separation even through the best of studio monitor speakers, if things are becoming a bit congested in the mix. At times like this, it’s especially prudent to reference your work through headphones to isolate any issues that may be causing muddiness or spatial confusion, which we feel can often be done more accurately through a pair of properly-voiced studio monitor headphones.

OPEN-BACK VS. CLOSED-BACK STUDIO MONITOR HEADPHONES

We’ll keep this short, while open-back designs might be great for pure audiophile listening, we don’t recommend them for home studio use, other than to audition final masters from a listener’s perspective. For tracking and mixing, however, we exclusively recommend closed-back headphones that were specifically designed and voiced for studio recording. The Yamaha HPH-MT7’s we’ve tested are an ideal choice for recording. They are voiced especially well for mixing, specifically in the way they are voiced, and are very nicely suited for on-the-go production. The MT8’s would be ideal for tracking and more intense critical listening. And the MT5’s offer the most affordable entry point to studio monitor headphones without sacrificing quality.

Yamaha HPH-MT5 side angle

Yamaha HPH-MT5 side angle

Open-backed designs can introduce unwanted bleed from the room, while in turn also bleeding out audio into the room. Neither is ideal – you don’t want any audio seeping into your brain that isn’t coming from your DAW and you don’t want loud audio from your session throwing off anyone else trying to work in the space. So open-backed designs, at least as far as we’re concerned, are a non-starter for the studio.

Of the MT7’s, we had this to note in our initial evaluation:

“In our tests, we were pleasantly surprised at the flat response and colorless reproduction the HPH-MT7’s had to offer. Too often at this price point, some sort of coloration seeps in and can affect the way you hear your mixes, and ultimately alter the way your tracks sound (and not always in a positive way). Most of the time, we’ve found that adds up to an increased (and often unnecessary) bass boost. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case and these new Yamaha studio headphones offered a “what you hear is what you get” type of vibe, exactly what you want in the studio. Bass was present and clear, without an over-emphasis on low-end frequencies. No mud, no fuss.”

STUDIO MONITOR HEADPHONE SPECS

There are some things to consider when it comes to specs. As we’ve mentioned, our recommendation is to stick to models specifically designed for studio usage, and not necessarily consumer-grade headphones. Many of those models offer coloration to the sound being reproduced, which in a recording or mixing situation, is not ideal. Especially prevalent are overzealous bass-boost “features” that will disrupt the natural bass curve of the music coming from your DAW. Instead, focus on studio monitor headphones that not only feature comfortable earcups and headbands, but also flat frequency responses of at least 20Hz – 20kHz (many higher-end models will offer reproduction at both higher and lower frequencies, and though we won’t get into the science of hearing in this article, even frequencies that are technically outside of the audible range for humans can make a difference in what you’re hearing) and good sized drivers.

In speakers, drivers will usually be measured in inches (in the United States), but for headphones look for specs of at least 40mm and higher. The larger the voice coil, the more air can be moved, not just resulting in louder volume (your headphone amp will play a solid role in volume, as well), but also the range of frequencies that can be accurately (and that’s the key word) reproduced. In plain English, the more accurate the sound, the better attuned to the music you can be when focusing on your session work. Trying to mix or record in an environment where you’re not hearing back a true representation of what you’re laying down in your DAW can have disastrous effects on all aspects of your project, most notably in over- and under-compensation in both high and low ends of the spectrum. The last thing you want is to boost all the highs only to find out they were fine all along, you were just using lousy headphones and now your tracks are entirely too bright and trebly.

THINGS TO LISTEN FOR DURING TRACKING AND MIXING

Again, listening to multiple sources will give you a better overall perspective and understanding of what’s going on in your music. When it comes to headphone monitoring, there are some specific items to note. To start, headphones allow you to really isolate the stereo imaging you’ve created in your tracks. Having both the left and right channels directed at each individual ear in isolation can make for perhaps an unnatural, yet revealing study of how you’re placing instruments in 3D space. Issues with panning and stereo placement can become instantly evident (even sometimes exaggerated) when listening back through proper headphones, and corrected efficiently before mastering.

Steinberg UR44 USB audio interface

Steinberg UR44 USB audio interface with Yamaha HPH-MT8 headphones

Second, you’ll be able to more faithfully tune into quieter passages and layers that have been more buried in the mix. Is that synth part audible enough in the bridge? Does that acoustic guitar need to be panned in the verse so it’s not competing with the piano that’s dead-center? Or should we double a vocal line here where it’s sounding a bit thin? Choices like this can often be made more intelligently after referencing the track through speakers first, then headphones to isolate things in a more distraction-free manner.

HEADPHONE AMPS

Until now, we’ve been dealing with headphones in isolation. But they need to be plugged into something to work, right? And you might find yourself in a situation where more than one person needs to hear what’s going on at once. That’s where headphone amps come into the picture. Now, your audio interface will likely offer monitoring options either on the front panel (if they’re smart) or on the rear. But if your interface only has one headphone port, you may want to look into a dedicated studio headphone amp designed specifically for recording needs. These devices will often offer very clean power and multiple outputs and independent volume controls – meaning you can have several people listening in at once, each with their own settings.

Yamaha SessionCake

One especially interesting product worth mentioning briefly is the new Yamaha SessionCake. With this device, you can daisy chain multiple units together for mobile, impromptu sessions that can be recorded to an iOS device or even affected by apps on your phone.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

We hope this installment has helped guide you on your way to choosing the best studio headphones for your needs. Keep in mind that this series is aimed at the beginner home studio user in an effort to dispel common myths about home recording, and to make the entire process much less intimidating than it might seem at first.

Head to https://usa.yamaha.com/products/proaudio/index.html to learn more and to find the products that will fit YOUR home studio needs.

And stay tuned for the final part of the series that will focus further on mixing with studio monitor speakers. Until then, be sure to check out the entire range of Yamaha professional sound products here and follow Yamaha Music USA on Facebook and Twitter.

Don’t Miss Part One, “How to Set Up the Ideal Home Recording Studio,” available here.

Part Two, “How to Choose the Best USB Audio Interface,” is available here.

and

Part Four, “How To Set Up Studio Monitors,” can be found here.

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