Headphones are incredibly useful in a recording setting as they allow you to hear yourself and what you're inputting, and they allow you to do so without excessive microphone bleed ruining your takes. In recent years, studio headphones have come a long way and have become a key tool used in the recording, mixing and mastering process. But what kind of headphones are best for studios or recording? Can't I just use my set of Beats by Dr. Dre to do my studio work?
Aren't all headphones pretty much the same?
The short answer is no. Traditionally speaking, most mixing is done using studio monitors, and the stereo spread of your tracks is observed and tuned using monitoring headphones. In fact, most audio professionals advise against doing any mixing and mastering work on headphones alone, however they are a very important tool to use for both recording and for mastering. Headphones come in all shapes and sizes, and there are many factors that are important to consider before you make a buying decision.
Regardless of the brand, style or type of headphones, each will colour the sound in their own unique way. Some headphones emphasise a heavy bottom-end with aggressive pumping bass. Other headphones are more top-heavy and might emphasise mids and highs and offer more clarity or an "airy" effect. The style of headphone will also play a significant role in the overall tonality of the headphones. For example, your Apple Air Pods will sound much different to a set of closed-back, over-the-ear headphones, and then again will sound different compared to a set of ear-plug style headphones that form-fit into your ear canal.
These colouration differences can have a significant impact on your mixes. This is why for studio applications, Flat Response Studio Monitors and Monitoring Headphones are strongly recommended. These type of studio speakers and headphones are tuned specifically to present the sound to you without any sharp colouration. This means you'll be hearing the full spectrum of your recordings as accurately as possible, for good or for bad.
So, what difference does it make to use Monitoring Headphones for my recordings?
Let's say you've recorded a few tracks, and now you're sitting down to mix your work. You put on your set of Beats and immediately notice that the bass tracks are overwhelming. You also notice that your vocals sound "muddy", so you adjust the EQ's and roll off some of the bottom end and bring up some of the upper frequencies to add clarity. While this mix might sound decent on this particular set of headphones, you have a listen through your car speakers and notice it sounds thin and incomplete.
But why's this?
Let's have a look at the EQ chart of a set of Beats by Dr. Dre:
If we have a look at the overall EQ tuning of these headphones, you'll notice a significant spike in bass response between 20-800Hz. This means the headphones are boosting these specific frequencies, which will change the overall sound presentation.
So how do Monitoring Headphones differ?
Below you'll find the EQ chart for an excellent set of monitoring headphones: Audio-Technica M50X.
The first thing you'll notice is a much more flat pattern across the entire sonic range, without any major peaks or valleys (other than the upper frequencies, which are usually tuned in all speakers/headphones to highlight specific frequencies for clarity). This means that you'll hear a much more accurate portrayal of the frequencies you've recorded.
This isn't to say that your standard, over-the-counter headphones wont come in handy in your home studio. In fact, many professional audio engineers will use a number of different types of headphones, bluetooth speakers and even car speakers in the final stages of their mixes, to ensure they sound consistent. After all, that's what you, the consumer, is likely be listening to the tracks on.
What kind of headphones should I get, on a budget?
When you're setting out to record, a set of monitoring headphones will help you to hear yourself accurately, but also help to reduce any unwanted microphone bleed. The Audio-Technica M50X's or Sony 7506's are both reasonably-priced industry standards, and can be used for both tracking and mixing. Both come in at under $250, which is very reasonable considering their overall quality and the benefit they will bring to your recording process.
There's an old studio rule: "Never mix with headphones". While this was once true, times have changed and the same is true of studio headphones. They've come a long way in recent years, and quality monitoring headphones are more accurate and transparent than ever before. But when it comes to mixing and mastering, it's important to remember that headphones are only a reference tool. Use them to record your tracks and to reduce bleed into microphones, to get an overall feel of the stereo panning of your instruments, and to get the "big picture" feel of how your mixes are sounding. Keep in mind, however, that the bulk of your mixing should be done on a quality set of "Flat Response" studio monitors. By then comparing and contrasting your mixes between your studio monitors and monitoring headphones, you'll get a better overall picture of how your mix is translating.
You'll likely find you get the best results if you mix your tracks primarily using Flat Response Studio Monitors, while making minor changes and listening for subtleties/stereo spread and panning using monitoring headphones.
Reference/monitoring headphones are key to any studio setup, and will help you tremendously when it comes to recording tracks, and assessing the positioning/panning the instruments. They can provide a different sonic perspective from what you hear through your studio monitors, and are a valuable reference tool to use in both the recording and mixing process.