Building the future of audio production through engineering, community, & education.

Home Recording Academy: The Role of Studio Headphones

In the previous version of the Sage Audio Mastering Blog's Home Recording Academy, we talked about the importance of having quality studio monitors for your home recording studio. I wanted to use this space this week to talk about the importance of headphones in the studio, and what they are used for.

Home Studio Headphones

Typically, headphones will serve two main purposes in a studio:

  1. An aid for recording
  2. An aid for mixing

Home Studio Headphones for Recording

More than likely, more than 95 percent of your headphone use will be during recording. The most obvious use is during overdubbing, when you're recording a new track to a track or tracks that you've already recorded. To avoid bleed, you'll want to mute the studio monitors and use the headphones as your reference to the previously recorded track.

Additionally, headphones come in handy for getting sounds in your home studio. While professional studios have a mixing room where sounds are replicated through speakers separate from the source instrument (or vocal), this is not a luxury found in most home studios. Therefore, if you are adjusting settings on your preamp for recording your acoustic guitar, a pair of headphones can help block out the actual sound of the guitar and allow you to only hear how your recording setup sounds.

Home Studio Headphones for Mixing and Editing

Here, I want to start with a warning. It is almost never a good idea to mix using headphones if you can help it – as mentioned in the studio monitors article linked to above, a good pair of speakers will give you far more consistency in your mixes than headphones. That said, I know plenty of people who mix late at night in apartments with thin walls, and headphones are the only way they can work – so it goes to show that it is possible to learn to make good mixes on whatever equipment that you have.

However, headphones can be great as a test of your mix after hearing it on studio monitors. This will give you another reference of your levels before you take the mix for testing on other stereo systems.

Additionally, headphones are great for editing. As you might expect, you get a great sense of how your L-R pans sound in headphones, and I've found headphones also give you a pretty good sense of how clean your mix is sounding. They also will allow you to hear quiet parts in tracks that you might not pick up on your monitors.

What Types of Headphones Should I Buy for My Home Studio?

Much like studio monitors, the price of headphones can range from a couple bucks up to tens of thousands of dollars. As far as price, my advice to most home studio owners is to spend enough to get a quality set of headphones, but don't blow your entire budget.

It is important to make sure the headphones you buy cover your entire ear. This will limit bleed of your click track (or previously recorded tracks in overdubbing sessions) to the track you are recording. Some players and engineers (particularly drummers) prefer noise-canceling headphones while they record. As with most gear in this industry, it’s best to try out a few different types, and determine which type of headphones best suit your needs.