The quality of a headphone mix can make or break a
recording session. No amount of amazing microphones,
preamps, or compressors will change that. A bad
headphone mix will leave the client wanting and you
with holes in your studio calendar.
The purpose of the headphone mix is to give the
musician everything he or she needs to give their best
performance while recording a track. It’s a delicate
balancing act: If the mix is for a vocalist, for example,
there needs to be a strong pitch reference in the mix;
if it’s for a bass player, then rhythmic elements are
important in the mix.
Common Problems to Avoid
What defines a bad headphone mix? Mostly, a lack
of clarity. Some of this quality is in the ear of the
beholder, and depends on the recording context:
When you’re recording basic tracks, the mix battle is
between the live instruments in the room and their
representation in the performers’ headphones; during
overdubs, the battle is between live instruments and
recorded tracks. That said, here’s a general list of mix
pitfalls to avoid at any time:
• Unclear basic pitch or rhythm elements.
• Lack of clarity of performers’ own parts.
• Weak signals that cannot be made louder than the
actual live performance.
• Distorted signals that cause pain to the performer.
Mix Send Configuration
I send my mixes from Pro Tools into an Oz Audio
HM6 QMix Headphone Amplifier and Mixer, which
has six headphone out channels and four aux inputs,
as well as stereo main input and effects sends. (Hear
Technologies’ Hear Back Four Pack and the Furman
HDS-6/HR-6 are comparable units.) This configuration
allows me quite a bit of flexibility in sending out
my mixes—I can set up four mono sends or two stereo
sends. I then take one of two basic send approaches:
The “Whole Shebang”: In this case, I premix the
signal in Pro Tools and send out a stereo send to the
QMix. This means that any mix tweaks that performers want need to be made by me. I almost always exclude
a huge amount of information in this mix: I don’t add
effects (unless they are pertinent to either the song
or singer). I omit stacks of guitars in favor of featuring
one that provides the most harmonic and rhythmic
information. I leave as much room in the mix as possible
so the performers can focus on what they are
doing in the moment and they aren’t confused or distracted
by what they are hearing.
The “Matrix”: Here, I send four mono instrument
sends and let the musicians adjust the levels themselves:
Typically, I send the drums and bass on input
one, guitars and keyboards on two, vocals on three,
and whatever is being performed live on four. I usually
set up a preliminary mix to give the musicians a point
of reference to start from.
Basics: This is the initial recording session, when all
of the musicians come in to record their original
tracks. This scenario is the hardest to create mixes for
because of the sheer volume of the live instruments
compared to the headphone mixes. Also, in basics,
getting a great drum track is key, so the mix is almost
always skewed toward the drummer. At this point, I
like to run The Matrix. I find that the more control the
band has over the sound of the headphones, the happier
they are. The mixes tend to be cleaner, and only
the musicians who want a loud click track or a drummer
in their ears have it.
Overdubs: Here, I generally like to send the musicians
a stereo mix from the board so I can control
the individual mix elements. During this recording phase,
there is a whole lot more information in the mix, which
needs to be controlled with a firmer hand so mud is not
sent to the headphones. Secondly, I can send effects
into the mix without it gumming up the works.
All in all, providing a great headphone mix in the
studio will give your musicians the ability to move
beyond the technical morass of the recording
process and get to the heart of the matter faster, and
have more fun while they’re at it!