How to: Set up a great headphone mix

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How to: Set up a great headphone mix

Headphone mix
Words by Andy Lloyd Russell

A guide to getting the best headphone mix in your trusty studio cans.

The studio is a fun and inspiring place to hang, no doubt about it. Whether it be a humble setup at home or a high-end professional studio space, we associate these spaces with creative freedom, where inspiration strikes and most importantly, where these ideas are committed to, captured and processed into something for our respective listening pleasure.

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Those of us who love to tinker with gear on the regular will often find ourselves battling the virulent nature of GAS, dreaming of that next outboard compressor, 500 series EQ, tube preamp, or that coveted vintage European branded microphone destined to capture that next perfect performance. Thrilling as this undoubtedly is, in reality, means zilch for the recording process if the musician/s can’t hear themselves properly. Seems obvious to say, trust me I know – but surprisingly little attention is given to the importance of a quality headphone mix. 

The Elements

Recording musicians is an interesting process, particularly when separated between control room and live room. Whilst this type of setup can at times feel isolating and disjointed, it’s often necessary in order to best capture performances and to be able to effectively pull great sounds and be able to distinguish a great take from one that needs more work. 

In the scenario laid out above, what the engineer and musician will be listening to respectively is usually different, with the musician typically monitoring their own mix in headphones, and the engineer monitoring a different mix through studio monitors. To overly generalise for a second – most musicians want to be able to hear themselves loud and clear, of course – then followed by the other elements and instruments in the mix listed from most to least importance. While this all totally fine, often the idea of what the important elements are, and how loud they need to be can be a little skewed – the headphone mix is worth some time and consideration between engineer and musician before jumping into pressing record. 

For example, take a drummer recording to a click track. Sure, the click needs to be audible, but certainly not set at a colossal volume that’s painful, nor risks bleeding into the microphones. This is worth even more reflection if a rhythm section is laying down a track together. Having a click track blaring into a drummer’s ear is going to distract them from locking in with the bass player, the chugging rhythm of the guitar, or the groove of a piano/keys. The same goes for the other band members. Taking a second to think about what elements in the song are really important to the headphone mix goes a long way. Does the downbeat of a kick drum or the backbeat of a snare really need to be felt, or is the the hook of a vocal in the chorus more important? Also, what doesn’t need to heard? Trying to cram everything into a headphone mix can be detrimental. Just because someone or something is being played, doesn’t mean it’s integral to every musician. A headphone mix consists of limited, precious real-estate, so choosing elements wisely will undoubtedly help in playing (and capturing) a great performance – far more so than hearing a particular instrument deafeningly loud over the rest of the arrangement. Discuss, communicate and execute accordingly. 

Setup and Control

Regardless of the gear used, having an intricate understanding of how audio is being sent to a set of headphones is integral to achieving a great headphone mix. Yeah, duh! But bear with me. Not only understanding the physical connections, but how they are being routed within the digital or analogue realm and knowing how to adjust and fine tune these parameters, will setup a session for success. 

There are numerous types of setups readily available today – from simply using the built-in headphone amps in an audio interface, utilising multiple outputs on a headphone amp through to a self mix headphone station type system, each of the above have their respective pros and cons. 

A simple two cue mix method is pretty common place these days. This simply means having two headphone mixes available for musicians to choose from. Whilst this might seem a little limited and usually means a little more work for the engineer, it comes with the benefit of a little more control and ability to more deliberately delegate signals being made available – not to mention a quick and easy way to listen in on what the musicians are hearing. This can be setup a couple of different ways, but usually employs the use of sends from a DAW and/or utilising routing options within the control software of an audio interface (such as Universal Audio’s Console application), to control input signals and sends from DAW playback. Ensuring your setup (and session) is running within optimal parameters (eg hardware buffer size) is paramount in helping minimise latency. Having to deal with dreaded delayed or doubling issues whilst live tracking or overdubbing is never desirable, so understanding your systems recommended settings (such as engaging low latency mode in Pro Tools for example) is integral for getting your session running smoothly. 

Another potential option is having individual headphone mix stations. Previously found only in professional studio spaces where the budget allowed for such systems to be implemented, systems like the more affordable Behringer Powerplay series have brought this type of headphone mixing capability into the home studio space. This type of setup consists of a main input rack module which then distributes (typically via a CAT5e / Ethernet cable) to individual headphone mix units – which allows musicians to select from the available channels and tailor their own headphone mix. This type of system presents some obvious benefits for both musician and engineer, taking less time for the engineer to setup headphones mixes on their end and allowing musicians to adjust their headphone mix autonomously, also allowing for on the fly adjustments if needed. However, sometimes having this much control at your fingertips can distract from performance and also headphone volume and overall balance can get a little unruly if not properly monitored. 

With the profusion of audio interfaces, headphone amplifiers, spitter boxes, self mix headphone stations etc, being readily available today, it can be tricky figuring out exactly what setup is going to suit your needs best, but regardless of this, knowing how your system works and how to get the most out of it is the takeaway in all of this. 

Headroom, Detail and Vibe

Aside from knowing the ins and outs of your headphone system intimately, understanding how much headroom you have is essential, regardless of the type of setup. Headroom is a finite resource, and slamming a bunch of stuff at equally slamming volume isn’t going to bring about a great performance from a musician. I’ve typically found setting sends at unity gain from a DAW doesn’t leave much headroom, particularly when you’ve got upwards of six stereo feeds on the go. A good place to start is somewhere around -10dB below unity gain. This should give enough volume of individual sources and still leave a nice amount of headroom without things becoming distorted, even when the overall master volume pot (for the whole mix) is dimmed. The aim is to retain as much detail and clarity of the individual elements as possible, whilst still giving the headphone mix punch and vibe. Which brings me onto my last point. 

Depending on the musician/s being recorded, some people prefer a very dry, unprocessed headphone mix, whilst others will want to be swimming in effects, requiring a specific vibe to get them in the zone. This is particularly prevalent with recording singers. Making sure a track is nicely balanced with a good amount of vibe to start with will save valuable time and will help keep a musician or singer inspired. The setup will dictate the amount of processing (eg EQ, compression, delays, reverbs etc) you can have dialled in to a headphone mix, but even most entry level audio interfaces these days will allow some sort of effects to be dialled into taste, without the need to setup sends in your DAW, but this easily done if required. Discussing what an artist needs and wants to hear in the track and on their voice or instrument cannot be understated, so take the time to communicate. Having some presets ready at the press of a button is always a great idea, so you can instantly access some basic starting points and build from there. Inspiring a great performance is what we’re always aiming for, so being prepared and grasping an understanding of an artists’ needs will only aid this process. 

Final Thoughts 

While thinking about and setting up headphone mixes isn’t the most glamorous part of the recording process, it is without doubt one of the most rudimentarily important elements in the process – it’s quite the art form in and of itself. You’ll always be remembered for setting a great, positive vibe and making an artist feel comfortable and at ease in their headphones, not to mention helping capture consistently great performances. Taking the time, communicating clearly and knowing how to get the most out of your setup will bring with it a rewarding experience for engineers and musicians alike. 

Looking for more entry level production tips? Check out our feature on the best DAWs for beginners.