6

Studio monitors are expensive. Excellent quality headphones are cheap.

When I look at how people listen to music, it's almost always on earphones, headphones or cheap small speakers.

Are studio monitors really necessary for producing tracks? Or can professional level studio recordings be produced with a good pair of reference headphones?

  • 2
    how are you expecting to gauge the quality of the sound if you are not playing it trough speakers that can play high quality audio? seems counter-intuitive to hamstrung the potential quality of a recording because you don't want to pay a couple hundred dollars for some studio speakers. There is just a certain amount of capital that is required when recording. – Neil Meyer May 7 at 14:01
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    @NeilMeyer the people who are listening to the recording aren't playing it through high quality speakers – pro May 7 at 16:12
11

You could produce tracks with some ordinary earbuds. It's just harder to know what exactly is going on in your mixes and whether it will translate well to other listening environments.

It's general there are few things you want out of your listening environment:

  • It's nice to have speakers/headphones that are as neutral as possible—there's no such thing as completely neutral. But you don't want a bias in the speaker response or an acoustics problem in your room fooling you into compensating for a problem that might not exist.
  • It's nice to have speakers/headphones with that reproduce the full range of your hearing. It's especially tough for small speakers to reproduce bass well.
  • Most importantly, you want to know how those speakers or headphones sound. You want to have listened to a lot of music that you consider good or mixes that are considered good so that you have a frame of reference of what "good" sounds like.

Those first two are somewhat linked in that small and/or cheap speakers can rarely do both. So the design of a small consumer speaker might be tweaked to get more bass in a way that hurts accuracy. The third is easier and more desirable with good speakers or headphones but doable with anything.

And there are some other things to factor in:

  • The stereo separation is obviously more dramatic with headphones which might make you overcompensate. This is less likely to happen with properly-positioned speakers.
  • It's not necessarily just about having one really good listening environment. Many people prefer listening on other things like their crappy car speakers, cheap earbuds, or a mono speaker as a final test to make sure everything translates even on subpar systems.
  • On that note, it's also good to listen at different volumes. Does the bass line disappear too much at a low volumes? Does the high end sound particularly harsh or fatiguing when you turn it up really loud?

In short, you want to use different techniques and listening environments to give your mix the best shot at translating well to other environments. But starting from the most accurate reference as you can tends to get you there quicker and easier.

Though when factoring price in, I think you're correct. If I had a budget of say $100-$200, I'd rather get nice set of headphones than the absolute cheapest 4 or 5 inch monitors. With the budget extended a few hundred dollars more, I'd probably rather have monitors.

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5

You should definitely not rely exclusively on headphones for mixing. There are some sound aspects that headphones just can't properly convey, in particular any phase cancellation between the channels. Nor should you make do exclusively with consumer speakers, because these are just too nonlinear to get a reliable spectral balance.

But that doesn't mean you must get an expensive set of high-end studio monitors. There are small ones available for really cheap. You may think, those can't be enough to get a good picture off the bass range, but actually it's kind of ok in the near-field at low volume – which is anyway a good idea for mixing. If you can also get your hands on some subwoofer, then that gives you three monitor options between which you can switch: headphones for detail and high volume, monitors alone for general sound cohesion, monitors+sub for checking the low-end. I would recommend you do most of the mixing with the monitors but occasionally check that everything is also ok over headphones or subwoofer.

FWIW: many of the biggest records were mixed on Yamaha NS-10 monitors, which aren't really high-end.

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    A lot of big studios checked their mixes on NS-10s. None on them had NS-10s as their ONLY monitors. Home studio owners misunderstood why they were there. Not because they were good, just because everyone knew what they sounded like. They were a reference point for engineers who worked in several different studios. – Laurence Payne May 7 at 1:26
  • They were also singularly to blame for the 'missing 1.2k' in many mid-80s records. With or without toilet paper, they're hard in the mids. I still have a pair, though these days they do nothing more than carry the TV sound in the kitchen ;) – Tetsujin May 7 at 5:50
  • As an alternative to the NS-10 you could consider the BBC designed LS3/5a or one of its offshoots like the JR-149 – Brian Drummond May 7 at 12:52
  • Those too - but watch out for the bottom end, especially if you've got the matching BBC EQ [was that Calrec? can't remember now]; I fell foul of that a couple of times. – Tetsujin May 7 at 14:07
2

Even though people listen to music on headphones it doesn't necessarily correlate exactly that mixing with headphones would yield the optimal result. As I understand it, monitors give a better view of the stereo field and certain frequency problems that headphones otherwise can miss.

But I think it's possible to mix with headphones. Well, as a hobbyist at least speaking for myself. Just make sure to listen to your mixes in your car/phone/other speakers you have as well and make notes of adjustments that you need to do. Would recommend a really high quality set of headphones since that makes all the difference. I'm using a pair of Ultrazone Signature Studio headphones and the difference between them and anything less is mind-blowing.

Some helpful things,

  • Use visual analyzers to help spot potential problematic frequency areas
  • Waves NX is a plugin specifically for simulating the studio monitoring experience with headphones. It helps with stereo separation issues you might otherwise miss. How appropriate your panning is etc.
  • Ozone 9 Tonal Balance Control is another very useful VST to help you get an idea of how you're doing
  • Listen to your mix in mono as well to get an even better grasp of which frequencies are messy, how the stereo field collapses and if you have any cancellation artefacts
  • Listen to reference tracks during the process to get an idea of how other professionally recorded music sounds on your device.

I'm no professional. Just a hobbyist, you can hear an example of my mixing (with mostly headphones) here.

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