Music is about the silence between notes, the rhythm, and the energy. So the tracks should be recorded with as much musicality and sense of raw sound as possible. As you move on to the next phase, you wonder if you can mix with closed-back headphones or not. And if you do, can you use them to the fullest extent? The subject of this article is for people who want to know the popular opinion about mixing with headphones, whether closed headphones are suitable for mixing and the exceptions, and what the exceptions and implications are.
- What is mixing in the music industry?
- Short answer—Can I mix with closed headphones or not?
- The take on studio mixing headphones
- Reasons why you cannot & should not mix with closed headphones
- How closed headphones affect mixing
- Situations when mixing with closed headphones is acceptable
What is mixing in the music industry?
In the music industry, the concept of mixing has two meanings:
- Audio mixing: The process of combining multiple recorded tracks into a cohesive whole.
- DJ mixing (DJing): The process of playing and mixing music tracks live, generally for a dance floor audience.
There are a few differences between DJ mixing and music mixing; thus, mixing with closed-back headphones depends on the type of mixing you are doing. LINK HERE
In the production of music, mixing should be done by an experienced engineer, who can mix and master tracks in such a way that the final product is as good as it can get.
The mixing process involves several steps:
- The process of combining multiple recorded tracks into a cohesive whole.
- The process of adding stereo effects such as echo, reverb, delay, and equalizers.
- Gain staging—the process of adjusting or modifying the gain or level of a track to a standard level to provide optimal balance and clarity.
- Implementing bus routing, compression, panning, and other mixing techniques.
- The process of preparing a final mix for use in various delivery formats, such as stereo, quadraphonic, 5.1 surround sound, film, and television soundtrack.
The mixing engineer’s work is crucial to the final product, and they have to stay diligent while they mix a track, as this determines whether the mix is satisfactory or not. Thus, the mixing process has to be done carefully.
Meanwhile, DJ mixing is more about live and impromptu performances. It’s not about how the track sounds at the end, but it’s more about being capable of blending sound effects and adjusting levels on the fly.
Hearing and understanding how your song sounds at the moment and mixing accordingly to the audience’s response is a part of DJ mixing, also known as sound mixing or live mixing.
Short answer—Can I mix with closed headphones or not?
A closed-back headphone is a sealed headphone that doesn’t leak sound, like the ones you see in the recording booth on top of the singer’s head.
They have specific benefits and flaws that make them adequate recording headphones but a less than ideal option for mixing.
So is mixing with closed-back headphones possible? Yes and no.
Due to the strict mixing requirements, closed headphones should not be used for mixing to avoid unnecessary problems in the studio and a sloppy mix.
On the other hand, closed-back DJ headphones can be used for live mixing (especially if you are a DJ).
In short, some closed-back headphones are suitable for DJing, while most closed-back headphones cannot be used for production mixing/studio mixing.
The take on studio mixing headphones
Sound engineers focus on making their music sound good on as much audio equipment as possible, but speakers are their priority. This means that in case of a bad mix, it won’t matter whether you’ve been mixing with open or closed headphones.
The consensus is that mixing should be done on monitors, not monitoring headphones, whether they’re open or closed models.
The majority of music producers believe that near-field and far-field monitors are the best for mixing. Studio monitors don’t have the “in your head” effect of closed-back headphones and allow the sound to travel freely as with a proper set of speakers for a natural listening experience.
A general rule of thumb is to mix with monitors first and then use headphones to finish off the little touches of the mix.
“I mainly use headphones for details when I want to focus on minute parts or want to trouble-shoot unwanted noises. Headphones are, to me, like a magnifying glass for sound. When distortion or unwanted noise is becoming faint on headphones, it will be inaudible on speakers”Michiel Lombaers, a sound engineer with 30 years of experience.
Headphones for monitoring and mixing are less dependent on room acoustics. The natural reverberation of the room affects the sound of your monitors, which is not the case with open-type headphones. However, this does not mean that closed headphones can be used for mixing.
Reasons why you cannot & should not mix with closed headphones
Sound clarity and accuracy issues
Closed headphones are less suitable for audio mixing than open mixing headphones. Although they can be used for mixing tracks, they’re not capable of efficiently delivering the accurate and clear sound that mixing engineers need for the finishing stages of their work.
In terms of accuracy and clarity of sound reproduction, closed-back headphones are different from open-back headphones, usually used for mixing.
In fact, with closed-back headphones, you end up with sound distortion, which can be pretty annoying for sound engineers. The design of their cups means that they block out ambient sound, which adds unnecessary reverb and distortion to tracks.
Due to the lack of transparency, you can’t hear and mix low frequencies either. So if you’re mixing tracks with closed headphones, you may end up with a sound that isn’t as clear and precise as you’d like.
Coordination with the musician and audio producer
As a mixing engineer, audio mixing is a job you usually do alone. But sometimes, you must collaborate with the artist and the producer.
Audio mixing is a reasonably complex job that requires collaboration and coordination with the crew. You can easily misjudge your work or overlook the explicit instructions they give you.
Micromanagement can distract and limit your creativity, which is why closed headphones are not suitable for sound mixing when you need to communicate with others.
How closed headphones affect mixing
To better understand why it’s not a good idea to mix with closed-back headphones, it’s essential to know their impact on your mix.
Closed-back headphones prevent the reproduction of natural sounds. You can’t distinguish the exact timbre, pitch, and depth of sounds because of the sound response within the enclosure.
When mixing with closed-back headphones, the main goal is to get a balanced sound in the low frequencies, which is challenging to do considering the design flaws of the headphones and their preference for these frequencies.
Distinguishing delicate and subtle nuances of your music is also challenging because of the reverberation effect generated by the airtight enclosure of the headphones.
Situations when mixing with closed headphones is acceptable
Mixing with closed headphones can lead to inaccurate levels and an unpleasant listening experience. Still, thanks to the advantage of isolating the listener from external sounds, there are some scenarios in which closed headphones can be used for mixing:
- In critical listening, monitoring, and mixing situations, when you need to avoid distractions and work in noisy environments.
- DJing or live mixing to protect your hearing and focus on your music in a club environment, surrounded by loud and distracting sound effects.
In the lack of a proper mixing environment, closed headphones are more suitable to use when doing the following:
- Focus on fine details in audio tracks such as dynamics, transients, and stereo imaging.
- Replacing sounds, adjusting and cleaning up unwanted noise, or adding a sense of depth or clarity in small parts.
- Using headphones to monitor the effects of a stereo reverb in a mix.
- Minimizing noise coming from other devices in the studio to listen to subtle notes.
- Check how the mix sounds on multiple devices.
Is mixing with closed-back headphones a good idea?
It is not advisable to mix with closed headphones unless they are the best equipment for the job. In general, studio monitors are preferred over open headphones for mixing, which are better designed for the mixing process than closed headphones.
Nevertheless, some environments and applications do not allow the use of monitors or require additional equipment to fine-tune or avoid room reflections. In these cases, mixing with closed headphones can be a reliable option.
On the other hand, if you are mixing music that requires a lot of high frequencies (such as synthesizers), closed-back headphones, because of their acoustic design, are not so good.
As many people agree, mixing with closed headphones is not as good as mixing with studio monitors. However, there are situations where closed headphones are a good option.
Whatever your reasons for needing or wanting to mix with closed headphones, be aware that the environment in which you are mixing influences the character of the sound. Therefore, different corrections may be required.