How to Mix With Headphones

How to Mix With Headphones


When mixing with headphones, the most important thing to understand is how headphones are affecting the frequency response, stereo image, and perceived distortion.  Plugins let you mimic the effects of these changes and even reverse them to monitor the signal from a more neutral perspective.

Stock Plugin Binaural Post Processing

For this video, the tips are in no particular order.

In your DAW, odds are there will be a stock plugin in the imaging section that’ll imitate the crosstalk and phase cancellation caused by speakers.  Logic Pro X’s lets you pick the speaker placement from being in front, being above, and being placed in a surrounding formation.

The plugin certainly isn’t perfect, but it’ll help give us an idea of what will be lost when converting a signal to speakers.

Let’s take a listen.

Free Headphone Monitoring HPL2 Processor

This free plugin called HPL2 Processor is in my opinion a better option than the stock plugin we used in chapter 1.  Since the plugin will mildly attenuate the signal, we can use the output to match the level of our original and processed signals.

I find that this plugin gives a better indication of what a signal will sound like when played through speakers, so try this out if you want a quick way to monitor your mix in a different way.

Let’s take a listen.

Using ISOL8 to Understand Image

When mixing on headphones, monitoring your signal in multiple ways is incredibly important – the free plugin ISOL8 by TBProAudio is a good option to quickly check out your mix at different frequencies and placements.  With it you can monitor the mid, side, left, right, and stereo signal at any range.

You can also mute certain ranges while leaving the others unaffected, giving you a chance to understand the impact of each frequency range.

Let’s use the plugin and run through some important aspects of the signal.

Matching Mel Frequencies

A great way to better understand your mix is to match it to popular mixes of a similar genre.  For example, I’ll use Newfangled Audio’s EQuivocate to match this hip-hop mix to Wait For U by Future, and observe which frequencies are changed before controlling them with the range.

This plugin sets the changes to Mel frequencies, which are bands that are perceived to be equal distance from one another – giving us a better idea of what more casual listeners will hear when playing our mix. 

Let’s take a listen to the changes made by matching this mix to a reference.

Monitoring Increased Width

One thing to keep in mind is that when listeners aren’t using headphones, they’re likely listening in a car with speakers to the far left and right.  To mimic this, we can use a width plugin to expand the stereo image – I’ll use the PSP audioware master width control.

I’ll increase the width to its maximum amount, and then slowly alter the effect while listening closely to understand how different speaker orientations will affect the image and frequency response.

Let’s take a listen.

How Crosstalk Affects Distortion

In addition to the frequency response and stereo image, playing a signal over speakers will also affect the level at which we can perceive distortion, with headphones making it easier to perceive.  To demonstrate this, I’ll use the Baby Audio plugin TAIP for heavy distortion.

Then I’ll follow it with the free HPL2 processor.  We’ll notice that although distortion is noticeable with and without the HPL2, enabling it significantly reduces the perception of distortion.

This is also true for speakers, and it’s something to keep in mind both when mixing on headphones, and when mixing on speakers.

Let’s take a listen to what emulated speaker playback does to our perception of distortion.

DT 770 Pro Hz. Compensation

For these last 4 chapters, let’s do something a little different and work to compensate for frequency changes made by our headphones. 

First, I’ll go to the website where they do an in-depth analysis of various electronics including headphones.  If we look up Beyerdynamic DT 770 headphones, we can see various parameters they tested, most notably the frequency response from 20Hz to 20kHz for both the left and right channels.

With this info, we can use an EQ with Left/Right placement to first match this response, and then invert it to monitor what the headphones would sound like if they were completely neutral.

Let’s try this out for these popular headphones, and then do the same for other popular headphones in future chapters.

AT M50x Hz. Compensation

Next let’s look at the AT M50x headphones – if we observe the chart we’ll notice a large bump on the left and right channels above 100Hz, followed by attenuation around 300Hz.  The high mids only need mild adjustments, but the highs around 6kHz are attenuated by 7dB.

If we’re unaware of these types of aggressive changes, it can really affect how we mix, so the point here is to know what your headphones are doing to a mix.

Let’s take a listen to the compensation for these headphones.

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Hz. Compensation

The HD 280 Pro headphones are a popular affordable option – we’ll notice some mild to significant changes in the lows which can be remedied, but highs above 2kHz is where the signal is greatly altered.  If we didn’t know about these changes, we’d likely make our mix excessively bright.

So if you have those headphones, use them now as we compensate for the changes they make to the signal.

Apple Airpods Hz. Compensation

Last up I want to try something a little different – which is to first compensate for the headphones I’m using, then mimic the response of common headphones, the Apple AirPods.  For example, if I’m using the Beyerdynamic DT770 headphones, I’d first insert an EQ that neutralizes the response.

Then I’d insert an EQ that matches the response of the AirPods to understand what the majority of listeners will hear.

If we didn’t showcase headphones that you own in the last 4 chapters, you’ll likely find the ones you use on, from which you can create a compensate EQ to neutralize the response.

Let’s listen to the example we described to hear how apple AirPods will alter the response.

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