Yes, mixing and mastering on headphones is a reality that many Artists and Producers face on a daily basis. Whether you live in an apartment complex or have a reduced budget this is something that can definitely be accomplished correctly by just having some things in mind when doing so.
MIXING ON HEADPHONES
Mixing on headphones definitely has some major pros like more accurate monitoring of automation and effects like delay, reverb, etc. It is easier to properly adjust reverb tails and delay feedback using headphones. In fact many mix engineers optimize their mixes for headphone listening.
Mixing with the same pair of headphones and at the same volume every time will make your mixes start sounding more consistent. This is due to the fact that you are always mixing in a controlled artificial environment unlike many bedroom producers using near field monitors.
It is a very common problem for up and coming producers and engineers to not have treated rooms for mixing and in many cases not even a dedicated room. You may also be on the go for some part of the year touring or working on different locations. Luckily this will not be a problem if you work exclusively on headphones.
The downside of mixing with headphones is that the low end will not reproduce correctly for one simple reason. It is physically impossible for these frequencies to complete a cycle in such a short distance. This is tends to translate in mixes that have too much bass when played on speakers.
This is not necessarily a deal breaker because after a small learning curve and comparing your mixes in other sound systems you will get a better understanding of how the low end translates in different playback sources. Having this in mind while mixing will help you compensate for it.
MASTERING ON HEADPHONES
Mastering on headphones is not a very common practice but it is something that many of us have tried for a variety of reasons. Some would say it is complete unorthodox and unachievable. Mastering on headphones share some of the advantages and downsides already mentioned but there are many factors involved in the mastering process. Even your mastering chain consists entirely of plugins it is still possible to come out with a great final master as long as you understand gain theory and a few basic mastering concepts.
PRODUCING ON HEADPHONES
Producing on headphones is a more common practice than mixing and mastering. With the rise of bedroom and laptop producers this is becoming the new standard and it makes perfect sense. Some beat makers are working completely in the box or using a beat machine. This social phenomenon can be observed all over Instagram if you search for #beatmaking or a similar hashtag.
Of course everything has disadvantages and the one major downside I could think of is that it complicates collaborating with other musicians in the room because of its isolating nature. So this would only work if you are producing alone or collaborating remotely.
Established hip hop producer Sonny Digital have said that all he uses is headphones and hit trap producer Lex Luger has mentioned that he produced hits and entire albums on his father’s kitchen, living room floor and using a desktop computer missing a side panel. So no excuses allowed for making things happen.
EDITING ON HEADPHONES
Editing on headphones is widely accepted in the engineer community for several reasons. It is not cost effective for many projects to edit in a pro mix room. Also, let’s consider that in most cases the ones who will be doing the bulk editing of recordings will be the assistant engineers and runners.
Editing is also know and the “engineers homework” and as the name implies most of them will be doing this in the studio b or even at home. Audio editing tasks can be effectively done in smaller workstations using headphones.
Some of the obvious alternatives to mixing and mastering on headphones would be to try an online mixing and mastering service. There are options available for all budgets. Of course alongside with the price goes the quality.
IS IT ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY TO MASTER MY TRACK
Yes is the short answer if you plan to release the track for sale, duplication and streaming on digital platforms. The main reason being that these services have file requirements that have to be met in order to accept a track or album.
On the other hand if you are recording a demo for writing purposes or a pre production for an album then the agenda is a bit more flexible. Regardless of this it is always recommended to at least try some basic home mastering using a simple mastering chain on the master bus.
Even if you don’t have a dedicated mastering suite or plugins my advice would be to use an instance of the following:
- Paragraphic EQ
- Multiband Compressor
- Stereo Imager
- Harmonic Exciter
- Stereo Imager
Not everyone is an expert and by all means doing this is not a substitute for real mastering but it can definitely help you kick your track up a notch. This can be accomplished even using Pro Tools, Logic or FL studio proprietary plugins. So give it a try and play around with the mastering presets. One instance at a time and after a while its guaranteed that you will notice how audio reacts to different processes and you might even be amazed by the results.
I am a firm believer in getting things done so if you absolutely must mix and master your own tracks using headphones then do it. No one knows your track better than you. If you mix with love and attention to detail you are already ahead of the game. I also believe that if your tracks are fire the important thing is to drop them and get the snowball effect going. In the process you will most likely meet an engineer willing to collaborate with you, a producer to work with and other Artists.