You would be hard-pressed to find a musician or sound engineer who doesn’t use a good pair of headphones to record or produce music. Having headphones is a must for any music studio, but many people fail to realize the value of using them. So, why are headphones necessary, and what value do they bring to recording?
Headphones can work wonders for recording when used with equipment like an audio interface and DAW. Recording with headphones keeps sound from leaking into other tracks by using methods like overdubbing and multitracking. Just make sure to use headphones that are made for the studio.
Continue reading to learn what you need to know about using headphones to record audio. This article will tackle how headphones can add value to your recordings, how to set them up, and the best ones to use for the job.
Table of Contents
- The Benefits of Using Headphones When Recording
- How To Set Up Headphones in a Studio
- The Best Type of Headphones for Recording
- Using Headphones for Mixing and Mastering
- Final Thoughts
The Benefits of Using Headphones When Recording
The benefits of using headphones for recording may not be obvious. It may seem like all you need for a home studio is a microphone, an audio interface, and a computer with a DAW (digital audio workstation).
You can technically record music with all that equipment, but adding headphones to your list will take your home recording studio to a new level.
Using headphones when recording translates to the following benefits:
- Clean and clear recordings by eradicating bleed.
- More control over each instrument during the mixing phase.
- Better sounding overall composition.
How Headphones Eradicate Audio Bleeding
Imagine recording a song for a three-member band with a drummer, a guitarist, and a vocalist. The traditional way of recording was having them play together with individual mics. However, recording a three-member band simultaneously increases the chances of microphone bleed (a.k.a spill).
Bleed occurs when the microphone that’s pointed to one source picks up sound signals from other sources. For instance, the vocalist’s microphone picks up sound from the drums and guitar.
Eradicating or minimizing bleed gives each instrument more isolation. Isolating the instruments gives the sound mixer more control since they can customize each instrument’s sound, volume, and position separately, which increases the overall sonic quality of the recording.
One way to eliminate bleeding is by multitrack recording and overdubbing.
Multitrack recording involves recording each instrument and different parts of the composition separately.
So, instead of having all the band members play to record them simultaneously, each band member is recorded individually, and each recording can be done a segment at a time. After each musician is done, the mixer or the sound engineer compiles all the recordings to finish the composition.
Since the performance of each band member is recorded separately, there’s no way their instruments can be picked up by the mic of other musicians, which eliminates bleed. Aside from capturing cleaner and clearer sound, each track can be fine-tuned individually.
The sound engineer can make the guitar sound like it’s a little to the left, while the drums are a bit to the right.
They can place the vocals in the center of the stereo field and adjust the equalizer settings for each band member so that the vocals sound warm, the drum isn’t too boomy, and the guitar doesn’t sound too bright.
It would be tough to do a multitrack recording without using headphones. If the guitarist’s part is recorded first, the drummer would need to use that as a reference so that the drum’s beat matches the guitar perfectly. Headphones allow the drummer to hear the guitar without bleeding into the microphone.
The vocals can be added to the recording using a process called overdubbing. Once the guitar and drum tracks are recorded, the vocalist can use the track from either instrument as a reference to singing over.
Like multitracking, the musician will need headphones to hear the other tracks and sing in time with them.
How To Set Up Headphones in a Studio
Now you know the benefits of using headphones for recording, let’s discuss how to set up your home studio. You don’t need all the fancy equipment you see in a professional recording studio to get the same results at home.
Below is a list of equipment you’ll need:
- A computer or laptop
- A DAW (digital audio workstation)
- An audio interface
- A microphone
Connect Audio Interface and Install Driver
An audio interface converts the analog audio signals of microphones and musical instruments into digital data your computer can understand and converts digital back to analog for the sound to be played on headphones or speakers.
The audio interface connects to your computer via a USB cable. Your computer must meet the audio interface’s minimum system requirements. You can connect your headphones, microphone, or other musical instruments directly to your audio interface.
Unless your audio interface is class compliant, it may need an additional driver to run on your computer. You can download the driver for your interface by visiting the manufacturer’s website.
If the audio interface is class compliant, you can download the ASIO (Audio Stream Input/Output) driver to optimize its performance.
Download and Install DAW
Aside from installing the driver of your audio interface, you need a DAW, the software used to record, mix, and master your compositions. If you don’t already have one, you can download open-source audio software like Audacity.
Connect Headphones and Mic
After installing all the necessary software, you can plug your microphone into the audio interface’s mic input and the headphones into the output port. Use Audacity to play the initial layers of your composition if you want to overdub.
Before recording, ensure your microphone is calibrated so that the sound from the microphone and other tracks are synchronized. You can use a click track as a timing reference and adjust your DAW’s buffer size to remove any latency.
The video below demonstrates how to calibrate a microphone and record with Audacity.
The Best Type of Headphones for Recording
There are so many types of headphones you can choose from these days, but not all of them will be suitable for recording. If you want to buy a pair of headphones specifically for recording, you need to consider the following:
- Isolation. To block external noise and keep the sound from the headphones from bleeding into the microphone.
- Sound Signature. Accurate sound reproduction is essential.
- Comfort. Good fitment and not uncomfortable to wear for hours.
Despite the vast number of headphones in the market, you can narrow down your options by targeting headphones specifically designed for the studio.
Closed-back, over-ear headphones give the best isolation since they don’t have vents behind the ear cups and rest snuggly around your ears, forming a seal.
You can automatically discard earbuds, in-ear monitors, or even on-ear headphones from your list. However, not all closed-back, over-ear headphones are specifically made for the studio.
Most headphones are made for the music consumer, while a smaller fraction caters to music producers. Even if some of these headphones look similar, their roles give them distinct qualities.
Studio vs. Consumer Headphones
The main difference between studio and consumer headphones is in their sound signature. Studio and consumer headphones can be over-ear and closed back, but the way they sound will be distinctly different.
Consumer headphones will have a more colorful “V-shaped” sound signature. It is referred to as V-shaped due to the boosted bass and treble and recessed mid-frequency sounds. This sound signature is deemed by many to be desirable since it suits many popular genres of music like hip-hop, EDM, and pop.
Studio headphones have a flat or neutral sound signature. None of the sound frequencies are elevated, which some people find dull. The advantage of having a flat frequency response is that the sound reproduction is more accurate, and the details of the recording are more pronounced.
Another difference between consumer and studio headphones is their feature set. Consumer headphones are more likely to have features like Bluetooth and Active Noise Cancellation.
These features are not necessary for a studio environment, not to mention that they can add latency and compromise sound accuracy.
The Top 3 Headphones for Recording
So, there’s no question about it: studio headphones are the way to go for recording. But the number of options can still be overwhelming, so here are the best studio headphones for recording at 3 different price points.
Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro
The Beyerdynamic DT770 Pro Studio Headphones (available at amazon.com) feature soft circumaural earpads and a padded headband for utmost comfort. These headphones have a closed-back over-ear design making them perfect for recording music. Beyerdynamic headphones are a popular choice among music professionals.
Sony MDR 7506
The Sony MDR 7506 Studio Headphones (available at amazon.com) have large sealed diaphragms that offer comfort and outstanding isolation. These headphones have 40mm drivers with neodymium magnets that deliver accurate sound for monitoring.
The Audio-Technica ATH-M20X Studio Headphones (available at amazon.com) have a 3-meter (9.8’) single-sided cable, making them convenient for a recording studio. These headphones are tuned specifically for studio tracking and mixing and feature circumaural earpads that isolate noise.
Using Headphones for Mixing and Mastering
You might be asking yourself whether or not you can use your recording headphones for mixing and mastering. Technically speaking, you can use the same headphones for recording, mixing, and mastering, although some music producers advise against it.
But, that also doesn’t mean you have to buy more equipment.
Accurate sound reproduction is critical during the mixing and mastering phase of music production. And while studio headphones do not add coloration to the sound they produce, studio monitors are still considered the best monitoring tools.
Like studio headphones, studio monitors also deliver a flat sound signature. But the apparent difference between monitors and headphones is that monitors are placed farther away from your ears.
Studio monitors are usually placed in front of the listener, which leads to a more accurate sound stage or a more realistic perception of where the sound of each instrument is coming from.
Open-back headphones have better stereo imaging than closed-back headphones, but they still won’t match the imaging and dynamic range you get from studio monitors.
But, you can still use studio headphones for mixing and mastering since they offer some benefits. There are some things that headphones will not perform as well as monitors do, but you can still produce great music with them.
Here are their pros and cons to give you a better understanding of the strengths and limitations of headphones.
- Headphones expose the most minor details you may not hear on studio monitors.
- You can turn the volume up without disturbing those around you.
- Headphones are portable and allow you to mix wherever you go.
- Headphones have no crossfeed and exaggerate the stereo image.
- Headphones have a lower dynamic range compared to monitors, so there’s less variance between the softest and loudest sounds.
- Headphones can cause ear fatigue.
Tips for Mixing With Headphones
Despite the cons listed above, you can still use headphones for mixing and mastering. If you don’t have studio monitors, the following tips can still help you achieve phenomenal results with headphones:
- Use a reference track. Familiarize yourself with how a good recording sounds on your headphones so you can emulate the same sound when mixing.
- Compensate for the lack of crossfeed by panning sound a little further to one side. Remember that the slightest variation off-center can be heard more on headphones than on monitors.
- Give your ears a break. Fatigue is your ears’ way of telling you to rest.
Headphones can elevate the outcome of your compositions when recording and mixing. When used with a DAW and audio interface, headphones will help eradicate audio bleed and allow you to customize each instrument’s sound, placement, and output level.
There are many headphones to choose from in the market, but knowing the qualities of good studio headphones can drastically narrow down your options. Nothing can stop you from creating your next masterpiece with the right pair of headphones and studio equipment.
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