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Why and How You Use Studio Headphones


A good pair of studio headphones are a must for any producer making music in their own home studio, especially when the studio is closely surrounded by other rooms and buildings.


I've used my own pair of headphones on many occasions when I've needed to work into the early hours of the morning. Using a pair of studio monitors at this time of night just isn't practical for many when you need to avoid being too noisy - you probably don't want to wake your housemates or neighbors.


Studio headphones are an essential part of any home studio

There may also be a time when you want to do a little mixing but your neighbors are renovating their apartment or their house, so you need to cut out as much external noise as possible.


A good pair of headphones are extremely useful in situations like these.


There are two main reasons for using a pair of studio headphones (sometimes referred to as monitor headphones):


  • Monitoring as you're recording
  • Mixing




Monitoring during recording


When you're recording an instrument or a vocal take in your studio, the musician or vocalist will need to hear what's already been recorded so they can play or sing in time with the rest of the track. Playing this guide track through the studio monitors isn't an option as the noise would spill into the recording microphone and ruin the take. This is where a good pair of studio headphones comes in.


If you're looking to record a few musicians at the same time (all of whom need a pair of headphones), you'd need to use a headphone amplifier. The most common amps enable four outputs for four pairs of studio headphones.




Monitoring during mixing


The first thing to emphasise here is that it's rarely a good idea to mix a whole track through a pair of headphones. We hear sound and music very differently through a pair of headphones compared to listening through a pair of monitors.


The sound travelling into your ears through a pair of headphones is at a much closer proximity than a pair of monitors. The sound leaving a pair of monitors can be played at a much higher volume, and the sound also interacts with the environment and the sound of the room, all of which changes your perception of what you're hearing.


You'll often find that if you've been mixing on a pair of headphones, the results will sound different to what you expect when played through your studio monitors. In fact, the results can be so different that you could find yourself having to start the mix from scratch.


When I first started learning how to mix, I remember trying to complete a few mixes using a pair of headphones instead of monitors. Needless to say, I had to undo all the work I'd done through the headphones as the results were nowhere near good enough. I definitely learned the hard way.



But there are occasions when using headphones during mixing can be beneficial. They can be used to listen to smaller details in a mix, or to check that the mix you have through your monitors sounds ok through headphones - after all, a lot of music these days is listened to through headphones, so it's worth checking your mixes through them now and again.




Open-back vs Closed-back

Studio monitor headphones come in two varieties, each with their own features.


Mixing on a pair of headphones is usually not a good idea

Open-back headphones:

  • Sound more natural to the listener as they let sound in from the surrounding environment. However, this 'openness' also means that sound from the 'phones can leak out, which can cause problems during recording, particularly for vocalists as they tend to stand relatively close to the recording microphone.


  • This spillage can get even worse when a click track is playing.


  • Useful for monitoring with louder instruments, such as guitars or drums, as the instrument's volume will easily mask the spill from the headphones.


  • Not really suitable for mixing, as they have weak bass response and hence the sound you perceive isn't very accurate.


Closed-back headphones:

  • Completely isolate the listener's ears: very little sound from the environment can enter, and very little sound can leave the headphones. This means they are better suited to monitoring, as bleed is minimized.


  • Much better bass reproduction.


  • Because of the isolation, the sound can tend to appear unnatural, as our ears aren't used to being cut-off from the environment. This means that they're not very useful for listening to mixes.




Final thoughts


Having a comfortable pair of headphones should be high on your list when it comes to building up your home studio. Most studio-quality headphones will provide good frequency and bass response, and you should keep in mind comfort as well, as you could be wearing a pair for long stretches of time.


As I mentioned before, it's never a good idea to use studio headphones for mixing - you'll mainly be using them for monitoring. It can also get quite loud in a studio, so a good pair of closed-back headphones should satisfy your home studio needs quite nicely.



 

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