The more you get into the nitty-gritty of mixing, the more you realize that a lot of decisions are subjective. There’s no “right” way to do anything. Some mixing methods are better for certain situations, and everyone figures out their own process as they grow.
When it comes to mixing with headphones, you won’t get a straight answer on its merits. Some swear by it, others avoid it like the plague, and most people don’t feel too strongly either way. In any case, it’s useful to know the pros and cons of mixing with headphones as opposed to studio monitors.
The first and most obvious reason to mix with headphones on has to do with how “close” you are to the mix. You can blast studio monitors pretty hard, but there will always be some space between you and the sound.
Even the best-treated rooms will experience some reflections from studio monitor output. With headphones, your ears are pressed right up against your mix, and if they’re of high quality, you’ll be able to hear every detail with presence and clarity. This intimacy will allow you to make more subtle, fine-toothed decisions as you mix.
Ideally, you’ll have some rocking monitors set up in your home studio. Those just starting out might not have this access, however. And even you do have great monitors, you might not always be able to crank them.
If your studio is in your home or apartment and you live with or near other people, they might not appreciate how amazing your mix sounds as you grind away at 2 A.M. Sometimes it’s simply not practical or polite to listen through your monitors.
If you plan on mixing on the road or away from your studio, you’ll also want a good set of headphones. It’s also important to keep in mind that many people will only listen to your mix through headphones. For these reasons, it’s practical to mix with headphones, at least every now and then.
On the other hand, using headphones can go from intimate to claustrophobic pretty quickly. While mixing with headphones gives you access to the tiny details, it comes at a cost. That space between you and your monitors can be useful as you mix. Many people listen to music in their cars or stereo systems, after all.
If you only mix with headphones, you’ll have a harder time accounting for how air and space interact with your mix.
Every pair of headphones is different, and cost isn’t the only factor. Headphones of the same caliber may favor completely different ends of the frequency spectrum. If you only rely on mixing with a single pair of headphones, you might overcompensate or underserve different frequency bands as a result. This can lead to translation problems down the road.
Lastly, solely mixing with headphones can just get exhausting. Ear fatigue in this sense refers to both physical weariness of the eardrums, as well as a loss of dynamic sensitivity.
In other words, your ears might actually get damaged over time from blasting the audio directly into them. But not only that, your brain gradually becomes desensitized to the auditory information after prolonged direct exposure.
This makes mixing a nearly impossible task, as frequencies begin to blend, levels seem stuck in place, and you lose focus of what you actually want it all to sound like.
So, there you have it. Mixing with headphones is great for ironing out small details and mixing in a more discreet fashion. But, it can also alter your perception of the mix and burn you out over time. Just remember that if you do mix with headphones, get a pair worth your while.