Mixing Without Monitors

Mixing without monitors isn’t ideal, but it certainly can be done. A good pair of headphones is an obvious essential, but just as important are some of the less-obvious things, like your car stereo and the tiny speaker on your phone. While a good set of monitors is a great investment, you can use a few simple tricks and techniques to get a great mix, even if they’re out of your budget.

The biggest challenge of mixing primarily on headphones is not to get sucked into mixing only on headphones. Because headphones feed each ear individually with a speaker that is very close to your eardrum, they have a unique set of sonic properties that are very different from what you experience listening to near-field monitors. The net effect of all of this is that the low end is often “hyped” sounding, and you can run into ear fatigue very quickly if your phones are too loud or just not very comfortable. Additionally, because each ear only hears one speaker, the stereo image is much different and some phasing issues can be harder to spot. We’ll tackle each of these issues in turn.

Choosing the Right Headphones for Mixing

Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro Headphones

Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro Headphones

One of the best ways to combat ear fatigue and the problem of overhyped bass is simply by getting the right headphones. Headphones for mixing, just like monitors, should be accurate, not exciting. The Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pros, for example, are a great choice. The Beyerdynamics can be had for around $200 used and there are, of course, more and less expensive options. The important thing is that your pair of headphones should be accurate, not hyped, and should be comfortable to wear and listen to for long periods.

Open-backed headphones are nearly universally regarded as the better choice for mixing because they are less isolated and do not unduly enhance low frequencies. The added benefit of the open back is that you don’t get the slightly disorienting “swimming underwater” feeling that some closed-back models can induce, meaning they are more comfortable for extended sessions.

Drawbacks of Mixing on Headphones

One of the benefits of listening to music with headphones is the huge stereo spread and the amount of detail that comes with it. This can be a drawback when mixing. Because headphones give an extremely detailed and well-separated stereo picture, it’s very easy to hear a part perfectly well in headphones, only to have it disappear completely when you bring the mix to a set of speakers. This is usually something that’s panned pretty hard left or right, and often it disappears because it simply wasn’t loud enough, but the headphones tricked you into thinking that it was.

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Phasing Issues are Harder to Detect on Headphones

Likewise, headphones can hide some phasing issues that speakers would reveal, for example, a stereo pair of mics on a drum kit. If those mics are panned pretty hard left and right, you can have a harder time hearing phasing issues on headphones than you would if the sound was coming from speakers and hitting both of your ears. The best way to catch these issues quickly and consistently is to check your mix in mono, which can be done with a stock plug-in in your DAW or on many outboard monitor controllers and headphone amps. To be clear, this is something you should always be doing, no matter what you’re mixing on. However, it is especially important to do when mixing on headphones. If your mix doesn’t sound clear and well-balanced in mono, it isn’t ready.

Ear Fatigue Leads to Bad Mixing Decisions

Ear fatigue is another issue common to all mixing and is exacerbated when using headphones. Because the sound is blasted directly into your ears, it’s very easy to over do the volume. Combine that with the eventual discomfort that comes from simply wearing headphones and you have a recipe for bad mix decisions. Taking breaks is essential, as is taking the cans off of your ears. If you start having a hard time telling what’s working and what isn’t, keep wanting to turn up the volume, or are just getting frustrated, it’s time to take a break. Throwing your mix on a set of speakers, even just your laptop speakers, and listening from across the room in your favorite chair is a great way to give your ears a rest and help you hear what’s working and what’s not working.

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Use Multiple Systems and Environments to Check Your Mix

On that last note, when you don’t have monitors to mix on, it’s imperative to check your mix on as many different systems as you can get your hands on.

A car stereo is an excellent choice because cars, by virtue of their interior shape, are pretty ideal listening environments. If you don’t have a car — or one with a working stereo — that’s OK because, either way, you should check you mix on everything you can play sound through, including:

  • earbuds
  • mobile phone’s speaker
  • laptop speakers
  • alarm clock
  • the aux input on your practice amp
  • anything else you can think of

Mixing without monitors means that obsessive checking and cross checking is even more important than ever. What you’re listening for isn’t that it sounds good per se, after all, nothing really sounds good through the speaker of an iPhone, but that you can hear the different parts of the song. If your kick drum is coming across on your laptop, it’s going to come across on a nice hi-fi; and if you can tell your guitar parts from each other in mono coming from a driver that’s only half an inch in diameter, you’re going to do fine in stereo.

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Ultimately, mixing without monitors is really not all that different than mixing with monitors, except that you have to be much more mindful of the ways that you can go wrong. The upshot, though, is that getting into good habits of checking mixes and recognizing ear fatigue when mixing without monitors will improve your game when you can afford a great pair of nearfields.

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