Headphones in the studio

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I recently upgraded my headphone inventory with the purchase of the LCD-2 (rev 2) by Audeze. The headphone is extremely flat and analytical and is a great addition to any studio where critical listening is important. I still like the sound of my Focal monitors better, and speakers at large, but headphones have had my special attention for a while now. Mainly because of practical reasons but also because of the new trend in audio playback: the mobile revolution.

I will do a review on the LCD-2’s at some point and perhaps about the O2 also. This post however will be more about the state of things in headphone land (I did a lot of research before buying) and the general ideas about mixing, tracking and even mastering wth headphones.

A new place for headphones in the professional studio?

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Audeze LCD 2’s in BK studio with 02 amp

Sure I admit it. I like to make attention grabbing headlines. It’s not like there was one specific place or function for the headphone in the studio in the first place, nor will it be the case in the future. But there is a shift noticeable going from practical  and workflow related to full range critical listening with headphones.  There is another factor playing in to this trend; money, ie the bedroom producers.

As a fresh eared producer I was mostly mixing on cans simply because I did not have a properly treated room. I did my critical listening with headphones. I knew the headphones very well after spending countless hours making music.  I knew the problem areas and how they translated. But also among my students today the general consensus is; I can’t afford room treatment or good monitors, so I produce on headphones. So the question becomes if I spend 400$ on headphones will I get more out of it then from spending the same money on monitors? Depending on room and personal preference this question might be answered differently in each given situation.

“You want to hear what the end user hears”

The above quote is something you often hear when people ask about monitoring or mixing with headphones. That used to imply mixing on monitors is preferred because most people simply listened to music on speakers. These days the end user will actually listen to speakers a lot less compared to years before.  So do we need to have a pair of shitty in ear buds, some beats headphones and a iphone to test how it sounds for the end user? At some point it is always good to do exactly that! You’ll want to make decisions based on the merit of the actual sound tho. Often called neutral or flat sound reproduction. I have found that working on headphones does alter the sound you end up with. It alters your mixing habits. And that’s the problem I have with only having decent headphones to reference a mix. I applaud being aware of the fact more and more people use headphones to listen to music.As long as you still keep referencing your speakers. Thus training your ears to appreciate the sonic differences.

Knowing what headphones do, how they ‘color’ the sound can help a lot. Mostly because this will allow you to translate the idea of the artist or yourself better. Especially stereo information and details or nuances tend to get lost on a lot of (entry level) headphones. Most mastering engineers will  hear the problems regardless of the fact the musician used headphones or not. While they don’t need headphones to appreciate the flaw’s, they might be better at translating the original intent when they know what headphones do to the perception of sounds by heart. Still the important thing here is as always try to fix it before the mix, before master etc. that being said, ‘mastering’ is fast becoming a creative tool for EDM artists. They self master before it’s sent out to mastering in the first place. In that case I would like to stress the importance of knowing what’s going on exactly even more. You might work a lot at night and thus use headphones. Make a routine of it to take the mix in your car or make time for mixing during the day after a nightly session. The key point is referencing until you know exactly how your headphones translate on different systems.

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The tank – Industry standard in Broadcasting. Beyerdynamic DT 150

While most studio cans have a closed back design to prevent leakage both to the mic and in the ears of the artist/engineer. Models like the Beyerdynamic DT 770 and some of the AKG models in the K series are a staple in the recording and audio post industry. The DT-150 can be seen on the head’s of many a cameraman (with mic is a different model but the same drivers). Especially the DT-770 has a bit of a smiley curve, that means it’s tuned to have more lows and high’s and a bit recessed mids. Personally I think this contributes to it’s success in the studio. The smiley curve is fun to listen to. It’s balanced and analytical enough to work with tho. You’ll have to get used to the bumps.

The Sennheiser HD600‘s are a different kind of headphone. From practical and fairly neutral  with the closed back models to relatively big soundstage, great instrument separation, more neutral and overall a less canned sound with the HD600’s and later HD 650.

Newer models by hifi company NAD and pro audio and hifi monitor/speaker maker Focal use a closed design and have a more neutral tuning then the DT 770’s for instance. I have not used these yet, but fellow producers with good ears were pretty excited about these new models.

The head thing.

To help me make good mixing decisions when I used mostly headphones when I started out, I tried a bunch of crossfeed plugins that emulate rooms and monitors. A crossfeed introduces the effects that are lost when you have two drivers closely to your ears like you have with headphones. No room bounces, no bleed between sources and even the shape of your ears when using earbuds but also with such direct sources near the ears found in over ear designs. Besides the fact the algorithms either introduced unacceptable phasing and weird artifacts, these days I mainly use headphones and IEM’s to listen to how many of the end users will  hear my music/sounds.  I have yet to try out convolution plugins with  head-related impulse responses (HRIR).

Audiophile VS Pro

Most people will associate models like the HD 600 and up with audiophiles and tube amps. While this might be true to some extent, it is actually a popular headphone among mastering engineers and mixers alike. The HD 800 has tremendous amounts of detail I have yet to find in any other headphone. Another favorite with audiophiles (and mastering engineers) is the planar magnetic headphones by Audeze and Hifiman. The bass response on the LCD-2 and 3 is unrivalled and since that region is also the most likely to be problematic in terms of tuning your room, it’s a bottleneck trade off to many.  All of these high end headphones are great for studio usage. I’ve mentioned practical specifications for certain usage and these headphones are not for drummers, singers etc. They are all fully open circumaural headphones (meaning over the ears). Big and with the planars actually transmitting sound directly to the outside too. So why the overlap between pro and audiophile? An audiophile will most of the time be inclined to appreciate music the most when it’s played back as true to the original recording as possible. I have a it of a bad annotation with the word audiophile. I can’t suppress a grin when i read about ‘fantastic sounding HDMI cables’ and ‘the best transients via this power conditioner’. There’s nutters in every hobby I guess 😉

That being said I really like what Audeze is doing. And companies like Audeze seem to actively market the (home)producer with endorsements of great acts like Noisia and Amon Tobin.

The DIY audiophile options and the budget headphones roundup.

The headphones discussed in the above paragraph are not cheap. Starting at a 1000$ we are talking serious money for headphones. But let’s face it, a bike is easily more expensive. That being said there are cheap bikes too and they are fine for most situations. Same is true for headphones. When you are older and you can spend more on your hobbies or you are a professional and in need of reliable headphones these prices are not that high, relatively speaking. Most musicians however don’t make that much money right from the start, if ever. Same goes for most younger ‘audiophiles’. So there has been a big growth of commercial DIY planar magnetic headphones based on (mostly) the Fostex T50RP. A rather mediocre sounding headphone out of the box but a great gateway to planar sounds. The Audio Technica ATH-M50 deserves a mention. It’s being praised by many, pro and music lovers alike. It;s slightly cheaper than the DT-770. It’s got a similar sound signature. The Beyerdynamics are ever so slightly better in most categories, especially soundstage and impact. We talked about about flat and neutral and the t50rp are very neutral in some cases. It’s however, not possible to hear the headphones before purchase in a store as it’s ‘DIY’ built. Less adventurously minded but still looking for neutral good cans?  The newer Focal Spirit Pro comes highly recommended but like mentioned not tested by your truly.

The headphone amp


O2 headphone amp by Head’n’hifi

Now we get to a point where we are not just talking headphones anymore. The headphone amp is an underestimated part of the set up by many musicians.I won’t be going in depth about it, as it’s easy to write an even longer article on just amps alone. I will say that when going shopping for hard to drive cans make sure you find a suitable amp. I personally opted for the open source O2 amp and will be writing about headphone amps in a later post more in depth.

The main thing with headphones that it’s very personal and therefor it’s always wise to visit as many budding producers with headphones and try, try, try!

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