In Session: Why Do My Headphones Suck?

Nathaniel Kunkel wonders why studios skimp on the cue system.
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In my opinion, few things are as important in the studio as performers' headphones. I can overcome a buzz in the system, and I can overcome bad converters. I cannot overcome how much a performance will suffer if the musicians can't hear themselves.

Hardly any studio I go to record anymore has a cue system worth a damn. The headphones are always blown up, the mixers rarely work, there is almost always a buzz, and no one seems to care. (There are, of course, exceptions.)

I have booked rooms for several thousands of dollars a day that don't have — and will not provide me with — working headphones. I kid you not. I have actually sent my assistant to a music store with my credit card to buy headphones for the artist because the studio cannot provide me with one working set. I am not talking about some tiny home studio. I am talking about major facilities.

Just in case you are one of the few who actually care about the musicians' ability to really perform for you, I wanted to let you know it's time to raise the bar: it's time to start checking headphones before a session; it's time to get enough talkback microphones; it's time to no longer accept a huge buzz in a cue; it's time to provide consistent, quality audio to the people who need it most. I'm not talking about just ensuring that audio comes out of the headphones; I'm talking about ensuring that high-quality, balanced, gratifying audio comes out of them — inspiring audio that elevates the performances from the people who depend on it.

Here is a news flash for everyone: headphones don't last forever. I know, how can that be? Seems amazing. I mean, cars last forever, and strawberries last forever, right? Wrong. Drummers' headphones on a major tracking date will last a shorter period of time than a banana in a basket. If you think that using headphones on a tracking date for several weeks will not render them unusable, then you are mistaken. We need to think of headphones like any other expendable studio item. The new toilet paper, if you will. Just build it into your operating expenses. Every six months you need a new case of headphones.

“But that will cost me thousands of dollars,” you say. Yeah, so what?

You can buy a networkable cue system for around $3,000 and a new set of good headphones for around $100 a pair. Hello? Do you think that might be more useful than a $9,000 plug-in package? Or would you rather edit for three weeks because your musicians couldn't get an inspiring cue mix? Remember, the richest man in the world can't buy a minute.

The most amazing thing to me is that when I complain to my studio-provided assistant about the horrible condition of the cue system, they always say the same thing: “Yeah, I know, everyone has problems with it.” That, of course, makes me feel fantastic. I am getting reamed by the players and my producer, and all the while they knew that the cue system sucked on the last session.

So what do you think? Now that we can record 96 tracks at 96 kHz, tune it all, quantize it all, and send it across the world in an hour, do you think, just maybe, you can make my headphones not suck?

Nathaniel Kunkel is a Grammy and Emmy Award-winning producer, engineer, and mixer who has worked with Sting, James Taylor, B.B. King, Insane Clown Posse, Lyle Lovett, and comedian Robin Williams.