Should You Mix on Monitors or Headphones?

"Should I mix on monitors or headphones?" One of the most asked questions in the music production world – especially if you are just starting out.

This guest-post from Nadav at Catzaudio helps answer this age-old question, and highlights the pros and cons of both options. He's interviewed many world-class DJs and producers such as The Chainsmokers, Vicetone, Cazzette & Laidback Luke to name but a few, so has some good sources to draw from. I chip in from time to time to give my opinion, and we both give some suggestions of available solutions...

world-class producers

Enter Nadav: "Since the dawn of the digital age, music production has been changing rapidly. Many aspiring producers now forgo working in multi-million dollar studios. No longer must they rely on thousands upon thousands of dollars of immobile studio gear. Instead, they build studios of their own - focusing on efficiency and mobility. This brings to mind a pertinent question: should you mix on headphones or studio monitors?

Both monitoring types have their advantages. Some forms of monitoring excel in particular environments, while others fall short.

We will explore the concepts of monitoring and some things you should consider for your current EDM mixing needs. Even if your tracks are coming out smooth and balanced, there’s always room to grow. Maybe you desire to mobilize your production rig, or maybe you feel that it’s time to try some new mixing options.

Every mixing engineer and EDM producer has an opinion - usually a strong one! So enjoy our tips below, and make sure to keep searching for your dream mixing setup.


The Importance of Your Monitoring Source

Need to know terms:

Monitors - Anything one would use to reference audio and mix elements. Monitors could be in-ears, headphones, or classic “studio monitors”. For the sake of this article, interpret “monitors” as being the classic studio monitor (usually a cab with a tweeter and woofer).

Flat Frequency Response - How a monitoring source is engineered in terms of responding to the frequency spectrum. Some listening or monitoring sources are “hyped” in certain areas (i.e. high frequencies are engineered to be more crisp, or low frequencies punch harder). These hyped frequencies are deceiving during the mix process. Producers should learn to work with monitors that are balanced, giving a true representation of the audio content at hand.

Your monitoring source is vital. Everything - EVERYTHING - goes through what you use to monitor your mix. Whether you use studio monitors, in-ears, or headphones, understand that your monitoring source is the last line of defense. What you choose for monitoring should be your touchstone and your ally!

Your audio monitoring tools are important for a few major reasons:

Translation: how a mix translates to other listening sources. For instance, one could get a mix to sound good through a pair of cheap earbuds. However, this mix won’t necessarily “translate”, or sound good, through a car stereo or laptop speaker.

High-end monitors and headphones are engineered to produce a flat frequency response. Flat, balanced monitoring assures that a mix will sound killer in your car, through a tv, and even through your phone! Cheaper monitors are hyped and made to “sound good”. Instead of having a flat response, they have a hyped high and low-end response. Stay away from these, as they will deceive you during the mixing process. Usually the flatter the frequency response, the better the mix translation.

Efficiency: some producers abide by the mobile lifestyle. In-ear monitors and headphones are compact and noise isolating - perfect for those wanting to mix on the road or in a local cafe. Some classic studio monitors are bulky, making it difficult to mix on the go.

Trust: every producer MUST trust their monitoring device. If your monitors or headphones are of decent quality, they can be used as a reference tool.

Firstly, one must profusely listen to music through their desired monitoring source. Listen to how certain elements sit in a mix. Listen to records that you are familiar with. Eventually, you’ll become accustomed to the monitor or headphone’s frequency response.

Once you’re attuned to your monitors, start producing. You’ll find that mixes will begin to fall together! Your choruses will feel crisp instead of muddy, and bass lines will resonate without clouding up the rest of the mix.

It’s vital to understand your toolkit. Trust your tools and use them.


So What’s Better - Headphones or Monitors?

Honestly...neither!

As mentioned above, it truly depends on the lifestyle and mixing habits of the producer.

Below, we will observe the nature of both headphones and classic studio monitors. Take note of the pros and cons to see what suits your mixing habits...

Studio Monitors

Studio Monitor

There’s a reason studio monitors are the engineer’s primary mixing apparatus. Studio monitors are robust tools that properly convey a natural stereo image. In a doctored room, studio monitors are a weapon.

The studio monitor is a cab containing usually 2 or more speakers. Monitors are placed on the left and right side of the mixing desk (which gives the producer or engineer a stereo reference of the audio source being played). Unlike headphones, monitors interact with the physical space of a room. Depending on acoustic treatment, this can be a good or bad thing.

If you’re unfamiliar with the studio monitor, feel free to check out this review of the Yamaha HS5 - it will give you a good idea of what to look for when monitor shopping.

Pros

  • Natural stereo image. One hears the song as if it were being played live. Mixing auxiliary effects and stereo wideness is easier in this environment.
  • Studio monitors translate well to other listening mediums. Headphones are a relatively new concept in the mixing world - it can be easier to produce within a medium that the industry understands.

Cons

  • Immobility. Some monitors are mobile, but for the most part, they stay in the same place. This could hinder the mobile producer.
  • The need for doctored space. If you’re going to use studio monitors, you must doctor your room. A bad room can make the best studio monitors irrelevant.

Headphones

Pair of Studio Headphones

Both headphones and in-ear monitors are viable mixing reference solutions.

Headphones are over-the-ear mixing monitors that isolate outside noise, giving the user a somewhat “mobile studio”. In-ears are much the same, but they go inside your ears to provide max isolation.

Cheap headphones and in-ear monitors just don’t cut it. They simply can’t reproduce a natural stereo image in a reliable way. Save for the AKG K240 – or a few others. Cheap headphones will destroy a mix.

Will's Comment: I highly rate the Sennheiser HD650s, but you do need to be in a quiet environment to use them as they are open-back. Perfect for a home-studio, though.

Just stay away from the cheap stuff.

Because laptops are now powerful enough to run audio editing software, many producers have adopted headphones as a primary mixing tool. Some producers even abandoned the idea of studio monitors because of their success with the new, mobile medium!

Pros

  • Mobile Studio. Mix anywhere, anytime...for the most part.
  • Easy to learn what you’re working with. It’s easy to listen to records with headphones or in-ears. Knowing your tools is the best way to excel with them!

Cons

  • Unnatural stereo image. Normally, the left and right portions of your stereo image bleed together a little bit. With headphones, both ears are isolated. This can make for unnatural mixing decisions when it comes to the stereo field.
  • Ear fatigue. Some headphones and in-ears can cause excess stress and ear fatigue. Four hours of producing high energy tracks can wear on you when you have things hanging on to your ears.

Conclusion

Studio monitors and headphones are some of the most valuable tools for a producer. If you're going to spend money...spend it here first (before fancy plugins and a new DAW)!"

Will's Comment: For all your home-studio needs, you should be able to find monitors good enough to make world-class mixes for between $150 and $1000, and headphones: $100 and $500 (you don't need spend more). I recommend trying out some different solutions first. Truth be told, I've bought (and sent back!) many sets of monitors and a couple of sets of headphones. Sometimes it can take a few weeks to decide whether or not they work for you, so buy from somewhere that gives you a 30 day money-back guarantee. Above all, though, it's learning how they sound that makes the biggest difference (by listening to lots of music through them). More expensive kit doesn't equal better music.

Thanks to Nadav for that guest post! So what monitors or headphones do you use (and WHY)? It's such an important part of production and I'd love to know. Let me know in the comments below! 🙂

Cheers, and happy producing,

Will

About the Author

My name's Will Darling. I've been making and playing dance music for over 20 years, and share what I've learnt on EDMtips. Get in touch on Facebook.

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