Improve Your Session With Better Headphone Mixes

The quality of a headphone mix can make or break a recording session.
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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.

Recording Scenarios

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!