I wrote this for you, before I knew you might need it.
I did it because I’ve been through the same journey — different paths and streams, but we share a common belief.
And although the specifics of the craft may differ from what I’m about to tell you, I intend the broad strokes to be relatable.
So let’s start with this:
Yes, you too can mix and master in headphones.
What seems like an at-face audio observation quickly gets kneejerked, rebutted, and quite frankly, spat upon. Usually, it’s by people so used to doing things their own way, that they don’t consider that, well, there might be others out there who are doing awesome with their own approach. In other words, they’re selfish, not genuinely interested in helping you advance your craft, and came here to voice an opinion at you, not uplift a collaboration with you. So, that’s not useful.
First: I have a profound respect for talented specialist audio roles and “golden ears”. I also have a hearing disability called hyperacusis, which is one those weaknesses that’s also a strength, because I hear things differently from most. The built-in EQ in my ears is already imbalanced, so any external compensation I’m doing is also overcompensating for my natural deficiencies! But, like how more and more have challenged the dogma of why universities can bill so much for tuition and how the Industrial Revolution’s fossils still lord over us, I question a lot about past belief that was true then, but isn’t now.
This extends to audio practices: in earlier decades, there was more doubt that you can make expressive electronic music, because there was a perception that “machines do all the work and take all the soul out of it”. (HINT: even Kraftwerk got some wicked melodies out of the bargain.) Also: remember when the “home studio” was scoffed at, because you need to be in a “professional environment” to get the job done? And how based on that limited worldview, “doing it on your laptop in your bedroom/hotel” possibly couldn’t be valid, just because you didn’t pay your dues and the whole price of admission to do things the hard way? (Some odd codependency with “you get what you pay for”, I suppose.)
This is not a technical how-to article. (There are lots of those.) It might not even be a philosophical if-why one. (There are fewer of those.) But it speaks to the metaphors of musicmaking, and it sure as heck is a reassurance, to share my experiences. And maybe, just maybe, if they match up with yours and where you want to go, it’ll be useful.
So again, for emphasis: YES! YOU TOO CAN MIX AND MASTER IN HEADPHONES!
There’s been decades of opposition to this. Some of it is based on science, a lot of it based on fear, more specifically, “being afraid to do things differently”. Opponents trot out the same points, such as: you can’t judge the bass, stereo imaging will be wack, you need the crosstalk, the frequency spectrum will be doubly wack, etc. But consider this: do you think a lot of people buy headphones and earbuds because they listen to music in them? And why do various games, films, and media advise to “Listen in headphones”, with all their surround and binaural goodness? Certain experiences even have adaptive settings for headphones vs. soundbars. Could it then, perhaps be a valid end goal?
Cutting out a lot of the chaff along the way, let’s make some stellar presumptions…
One of them being: before any of this, you need a “decent” audio signal path. And by decent, I mean that it’s relatively transparent, that even if your audio interface isn’t an RME, you’re able to hear results from others that sound good to you. And of course, that you have a decent pair of headphones to begin with. To remix a saying from Centaurworld:
You are able, but are you comfortable?
Another of these presumptions being: you’ve used a pair of headphones so much that you know what all manner of other music sounds like on it. You’ve listened to talky podcasts, headbanging metal, thumpin’ EDM, and maybe even the occasional slice of a particular string quartet playing over the lowercase rustling of library pages being flipped. You’ve established a range, and for lack of a better way to put it, are intimate with your headphones. You know them inside-out. They are thus a reference. A safe space for your ears.
And that gets us to where, say you make music in headphones — including “mixing” and “mastering” — and you put it on your phone, and you play it in your car, a friend’s house, heck, a club soundsystem. Maybe you even have another friend with a “proper” setup you can audition. The point being, this is a feat of ambassadorship, and you know how what gets output to your headphones will translate, precisely because you’ve been down this road many times.
If you’ve come this far, good.
Reading further implies you have a general sense of what “mixing” and “mastering” mean, how the definition has changed over time, and so on. But as a basis for discussion, you understand this much.
There’s also an inferred curtness about what certain words mean, where no, you aren’t getting the full-on Sylvia Massy or Bob Ludwig treatment via DIY. No way. If you’re going to get heart surgery, you need a cardiovascular specialist. But what it does signify: simply by being hands-on, you’re learning about what makes “mixing” and “mastering” important to the process, and gaining a greater respect of the craft and those who came before you. I’ve been exploring this very thing for over a quarter of a century, and still have more questions.
Used to be a given that once you do the recording, the separate phases happen sequentially, with mastering being the final one, handed off to someone else you trust. But now, with the power technology imbues you with, with the mimized cost and maximized convenience at your fingertips, you can do all at the same time. (That’s what I do: I fly in melodies, mix as I go along, and “mastering” is often using a template that I tune for each track.) Should you? It varies. Yes, it can help to have a fresh pair of ears listen and improve on what you did. But it’s just as valid for you to play “auteur” and control the whole flow. Just like in visual media, where certain directors are content to help other storytellers find their way, while others need to imprint their own voice on everything underneath them.
It may also be possible that while you can get part of the way there, ultimately, you eventually discover that you prefer someone to mix and/or master your music with whatever tools they have. But just like the voiceover director who mimes the characters crazy intonations so that the actual VO artists have a reference track to shoot for, some is better than none. Plus, it’ll give you a better appreciation for how it all works.
My backstory, in brief, is that due to a combo of being short on money, time, having hyperacusis, and preferring an isolated “in my head” immersion, that’s how I started trying this full production workflow in headphones. I began because I was curious. I had help along the way, although a lot of my experiments are in isolation. While I’ve gotten to a relatively stable state, I’m nipping and tucking as-needed. If Voxengo Elephant comes out with a new limiting algorithm, I’m going to try it out, same as any virtual instrument and effect. All in pursuit of getting closer and closer to translate what’s in my head into your ears.
I’ve had various headphones along the way. For a long stretch, I stuck with Sony MDR-XB700s. I found my impressions from almost a decade ago, and I still stand by this. I made so many tracks on them that garnered me awards in music competitions, and heaps of praise! (Yay, social proof.) They were thought to be “too colored with that boomy bass”, but they sounded so fun, and I was able to get to where people asked me what speakers I monitored my mixes on. That felt pretty gratifying. Although, revealing to these peeps that it was, in fact, headphones… made the resulting fallout awkward and unpleasant. It was like an evil version of the Pepsi Challenge, where someone tells you they prefer Pepsi, but it’s actually Coke all along.
Also consider that on your journey, the results you’re getting are on-target (or at least are getting closer and closer) to your actual intent. In other words, whatever criticism you receive is compatible with that end goal, and external feedback isn’t veering you off of the path you chose to travel. To put it more colorfully: if you want a loud, brash, brickwalled-to-the-max track and someone else has you earmarked for something with a lot more dynamic range circa Squarepusher or Hybrid of today, their feedback might be wrong for you in this moment.
I’ll lay this out preemptively. People like to defend what they have. Maybe they put a lot of money into a conventional setup, and have too much of a sunk cost (in their own mind) to change it up. Maybe they tell you to send them your music and prove it, but they aren’t doing anything for you in return — I’ve gotten that, I get it. (And you’re in the right place, torley.com, to listen to my music.) There are a number of scenarios that replay themselves across spacetime, variations on a theme. And if you’ve played this game like I have, your brain’s keen pattern detector will pick up on these, too. You won’t even have to think about it, there’ll just be — blink! — that’s what it is.
I routinely re-examine my own prejudices. More recently, it got so hot, and I had to turn on air conditioning to stay cool. It makes a lot of whooshy pink-esque noise, so I pitched myself the idea: “What if I got active noise-canceling headphones?” which is taboo upon taboo, if you’ve read various forums out there, like one step beyond naysay to headphones. I picked up a refurb pair of the Sony WH-1000XM4s, and within a week, I had figured out how to translate what I did on the MDR-XB700s to the WH-1000XM4s, to where I’d wear them back and forth and be satisfied. And stay cool. Different profiles, but still good. (And thank goodness RME allows individual workspace/EQ settings as a one-click change.)
This still seems fairly unorthodox, but it seems obvious to me in hindsight. Colors of noise are the enemy in properly soundproofed studio, with extra care being paid to acoustic foam to minimize reflections, getting a computer that’s quiet under load, and such. But certain things — like mechanical keyboard and music controller keyboards — can’t get more quiet past a certain point, due to physics. However, with active noise canceling, you can operate more gear with the outside world shut out, and make the world of music what you’re hearing — in headphones.
So why not give it a go… what if?
You’re going to trade your time, energy, and funds for it. You’ll learn something coming out the other side. In my experience, it was absolutely worth it, but it’s also frustrating because of those who keep harping on hating headphones for mixing/mastering, with nary a whit of having invested much of their own ear-meat to literally hear it out.
A lot of emotions carried me through this. The act of listening, after all, engages those. I think about other fields and counterintuitive wisdom in them, like how Harold McGee and Heston Blumenthal debunked ages-old “wisdom” about washing mushrooms, by applying science. Those findings led to further developments from Jim Fuller. How do we even get here without being curious? We can’t. And even with the science, we can’t necessarily intellectualize why we might be curious. All I know is that I heard a lot of things repeated, and wanted to test them for myself.
Be kind and patient with yourself. If you already have audio monitors but haven’t been able to make them work for you, it doesn’t mean you throw them away. Maybe you switch between monitors and headphones, not unlike having salty and sweet tastes together can bring out the flavors in each other. Listen to what you want to get out of this, and what your priorities are. Do you want to reduce the amount of physical space your setup uses? That’s often a compelling part of using headphones more. Or perhaps your own hearing is better tailored towards hearing tiny details in the cans, right next to your ears, and you want others to share that experience.
I encourage you, that if you are inclined towards this path, that it’s legitimate. You aren’t alone because I’ve traveled here before, and I’ll walk alongside you. What a weird thing to be advocating for, but here’s where we find ourselves.
In the end, none of this is to say that everyone should mix & master on headphones. My point is that you can on cans!
Delight in your musicmaking, and the rest will follow.