Understanding headphones is an important part of recording and the production process, maybe not the sexiest subject but essential nevertheless! From affordable to pricey, open to closed back, over-ear to in-ear, there are many different kinds of headphones suitable for a range of applications from recording to release. We’re going to break down which headphones are best for different applications. Before we get into it let’s go over a small glossary to help explain some of the terminology used:
- dB: decibel, a unit of loudness – ambient noise levels usually sit around 60-70 dB
- Frequency response: how a piece of audio equipment responds to an audio input across the audible spectrum of 20 Hz to 20 kHz.
- Closed back: headphones that fully enclosure around the ear without any holes. Typically made of metal or different types of plastics.
- Open back: headphones that have perforations or holes in the ear cups allowing air to move through.
The first stage of the production process does not require fantastic, wallet busting reference headphones. There are two things that need consideration when choosing headphones for your artists to track with. The first is to make sure that they are closed back. Open back headphones tend to have far more bleed than closed back headphones which means they are not ideal for getting clean recordings from your artists. The second aspect is how comfortable the headphones feel when you choose them for tracking. Your artists may be wearing them for hours at a time and you don’t want them being distracted from delivering a world class performance by wearing uncomfortable headphones. A good choice for tracking headphones would be the AKG K92, the Audio Technica ATH-M20X or the Beyerdynamic DT240 PRO. These are affordable closed back headphones that deliver great quality audio while being cost effective and comfortable.
When mixing in a room that hasn’t been acoustically treated, getting a decent pair of reference headphones is a great idea. Having good headphones allows you to cross reference your mix to make sure it translates well when you listen to your mix outside of your room. These headphones can be either open back or closed back, although typically they tend to be open back. Open back headphones allow air to move through providing a more realistic frequency response.
It is important to check the frequency response of the headphones before making your purchase. A flatter frequency response means that your mix will be better represented and will translate better to other speakers and listening mediums.
Here’s an example of a frequency response graph of the AKG K712 referencing headphones:
The frequency response graph above shows the AKG K712 has a flat bass response down to 30 Hz giving them an accurate representation of low end in a mix, making them suitable for mixing bass heavy music.
There is no such thing as a perfectly flat frequency response from monitoring gear such as headphones or monitor speakers, the best are ones that does not deviate to much from the zero dB mark with a good response to bass frequencies as indicated in the graph above. The bass response tends to be more important than mid and high frequencies due to the majority of energy and excitement of a track (particularly across popular and electronic music styles) coming from the bass and sub frequencies. Mixing headphones can have a hyped bass response— as soon as you take your mix outside of the studio the bass and sub frequencies will feel flat and uninspiring and all the wind will be sucked out of your track’s sails!
Most mastering engineers will tell you there are no perfect choice of headphones for mastering as listening through even the best headphones in the world won’t match listening back through excellent monitor speakers in an acoustically treated room. In the mastering process headphones are used mainly for quality control, to listen for clicks, pops and to check crossfades that might be hard to pick up when listening through monitor speakers. When mastering a track, it’s always recommended to work with monitors in a well-treated room.
Even though there is no substitution for a treated room with high quality monitors, headphones play an integral part in the creative process. Having a comfortable closed back pair for tracking and an open back pair for referencing mixes will improve your production quality and ensure your mixes translate well when listened to on any playback medium. Of course this article is a simple guide and choosing the right pair of headphones also comes down to personal choice and budget.