Studio Monitors vs Headphones Tutorial
This marks the first is a series of tutorials I hope to write. Back in the day nearly 12 years ago now, I learned so much from the elders on this very forum. Now I’m a little older and more experienced I feel like it’s my time to pass on a little knowledge.
I’m going to try and keep this factual but obviously like with any subject, at a point, you can only share an opinion.
This ended up being just under 4 pages long in Microsoft Word so if you can’t read all of this then you suck! Really though you need to read all of it. I had to say so much, that ,important points where left until last.
I am only human so if I have said something stupid or you have something good to add to this I will gladly edit it! I have 12 years of experience so hopefully that will keep me from saying anything too stupid!
Anyway so let’s get to the point… You want to learn about Studio Monitors and Headphones.
I feel like the first thing to say is that… Most experienced producers will say to buy Studio Monitors first. By first I mean before any other bit of hardware, Keyboards, Interfaces, synths.
You might ask “Well I have seen some top producers using headphones on Youtube and Twitch. So what’s the deal!?”
You might have even seen some people on this very forum say they only produce on headphones.
I need to say something right here right now. If you do buy headphones make sure they are comfortable!!! I have brought expensive pairs of headphones before but I could only ware them for 15 minutes because they crushed my ears! Try them in a music shop first!!!
The real truth here is you need both!!!
Some things are done better on Monitors and other things are done better on Headphones. I have even seen top Dubstep producers with several sets of Headphones and Monitors. As they mix and change sounds they will switch between them. If you watch them they know when to switch because they know what things will sound different. This only really comes with experience. Also if you book a little time in a studio, to say, mix down a track you have been working on in a soundproof room. You will most likely find two sets of monitors in there. A bigger pair and a smaller pair.
So why is this?
Well different Speakers and Headphones have different resonant frequencies and are better at producing different frequencies. So what sounds good in your car might sound like garbage on a laptop.
The point here is that as a producer I want my music to sound good on all mediums of playback. This is a war you will fight when you mix down a track. You will make one change to make a song sound good on speakers… and then you switch to headphones and make a different change.
Can you ever win this war…?
Well if you know what you are doing too a point you can.
So now you understand a little…
What should you buy first? Monitors or Headphones?
This is a difficult question. I’m going to go into more detail soon about what can be done in monitors and what can be done in headphones. But in my opinion get Monitors first! There are things you just can’t do in headphone that you can do in monitors. Other Things you can do loads better in headphone but you can still kind of do them on Monitors. So you should get Monitors first. This though is an opinion!
This is all to say you have the money for Monitors. I have heard really bad things about cheap Monitors. So if it’s unrealistic you are going to get hold of £350 for a decent pair of entry level Monitors. Drop £60 - £150 on a nice pair of studio headphones. Some people produce exclusively on headphones and I have seen pairs that have crazy good frequency responses.
Before I get into other things there is a very important point I need to make. Know your equipment!!! Technically if you know the way professional music sounds on even cheap crap you will still have a half decent mix. I hate to use Skrillex in this tutorial but… He made Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites on… ONE blown crappy speaker!
Something just as important is to know what you do best on monitors and what you do best on headphones. We can argue all do about the benefits of both… Do what works for you!
Not even with two speakers! He wasn’t even working in stereo! He got a half decent mix because he knows his “speaker”. He knew how music should sound on it. So whatever you use… know how music should sound on it!!! Even myself… I have made some decent mixes on crappy £20 set of speakers because I knew how music should sound on them.
Once you have tasted the glory of good studio monitors and headphones there is no going back. It will forever change you! At home I listen to music and watch movies exclusively on my studio equipment. I do this because mainly I need to know how things sound on my equipment and because well it sounds dam good!!! I often go to an old friend’s house for drinks. He has an expensive surround sound and sub I think he spent around £1k on. All I can think about when I get there is how crap it sounds compared to my studio setup. Saying that though… as a producer what I want speakers to do is probably very different to what a general listener would want.
So let’s get more in depth!
The first thing I feel you should know is…
What am I looking for in “studio” monitors or headphones?
You are looking for a flat frequency response. Normal speakers are designed to boost the highs and basses in places to “make the music sound better". It’s really just an illusion though. Beats by Dre headphones are a good example. They boost the bass to a ridiculous level! They are complete crap and for the money you pay for them you could good a really nice pair of studio headphones!
You are looking for a flat response because as a producer you want to hear how the music actually sounds. Obviously if you are working on speakers that boost the high end then in your final mix the high end will be to quiet.
It’s time for an image. Below is a waterfall from the monitors I have. KRK Rokit 5s.
You can see in the image where they do well and where they fall short. They are a little old now but they will still set you back £250 for a pair right now on google (written 2017). So for the price you could easily find headphones with a much better waterfall frequency response. But like I said before there are things you just can’t do as well on headphones. That’s why at the time I spent £400 on a pair of KRK’s.
So when you are looking to buy headphones or monitors you can google them, find a waterfall like I just did… and then compare them. If you are new, learning and reading/watching tutorials you will hear this all the time “Mix with your ears and not your eyes!”. I often close my eyes when EQing because what I can see confuses what I can hear. It’s the same with waterfalls. You should look at it and make a note of it… then just forget about it. At the end of the day you know your equipment and you know how things should sound!
So for speakers and headphones we are looking for the most flat frequency response. You want to hear how the music really sounds. Not how the speakers make it sound!
But wait you said that pros will have multiple pairs of headphones and speakers???
Yes!!! I’m going to get into what speakers can do and what headphones can do. You need to know this though. You will never get the perfect pair. So you might want a small pair of speakers and a bigger pair to see how your music plays on all mediums. Then you might want a pair of headphones for the high end and a pair for the low end. If you look at the waterfalls you will normally find any pair of headphones/monitors is only good at representing particular sets of frequency bands.
So you might be thinking… “I’m just getting into this… I can’t buy all of that right now”. Well! It’s something you build over time. If you can get monitors then awesome!! Do it! If not get the best pair of headphones you can. Trust me it’s addictive collecting audio equipment! Use what you can get as a start and build from there.
OK so what can be done on Monitors and what can be done on Headphones?
I’m going to try and cover the most basic things here but it really depends on the speakers and headphones you have. Well to a point…There are however a few things we can say for sure!
One thing to note is that if you are in a really bad room then using monitors might be a really bad idea. So you can remove the room from the equation by just using headphones. But like everything you will still want monitors to check your mix every so often even if the room is bad!
Thinking about this… for me to explain everything you will have to know so much more. I want this tutorial to be self-contained but I feel like that’s not possible. I will do my best here.
Let’s start with Monitors. If you have speakers I want you now to rest your fingers lightly on them. Suddenly you can feel all of the bass frequencies. The sub-bass and the mid-bass. If you were to turn things up to club volume this is the closes representation you will get to that. You can feel how the drum are hitting. You can feel the bass. You can’t get that feeling in headphones! You can get punch and bass in headphones but not the same as this!
Now if you have your speakers placed right they are evenly spaced. If you move a difference distance from the speakers your stereo sounds will start to cancel out differently… Because they take a different time to get to you and they are bouncing off the walls differently. You can’t hear this in headphones obviously… because they always stay the same difference from your ears. Also in the left ear you can’t hear any content from the right side and vice versa.
So on monitors you can move around your room and hear how the stereo sounds change. You can’t do that on headphones.
When I make music I often start walking around the room to hear how all my sounds change as I do it. You might find some nasty frequency in your mix by doing this and be able to pull it out with an EQ.
Can you imagen… You make a track that is heavy as hell, and then, when it’s played on a club system all the bass cancels out and it sounds shit. This is because you made it on headphones and you couldn’t hear that some of it was cancelling out on speakers. This is why most sub-base is made in mono. So you never have that problem. There are ways to get around this problem with stereo sounds, like switching to mono on headphones. But this is outside the scope of this tutorial.
To diverge a little here… For some reason produce seem to like to work at night. Maybe some phycology guy can talk more about that and I would be interested to read it. Can I mix sub-basses and add a touch of chorus on headphones. Well YES! But I would much rather use Monitors and the light speaker finger touch technique at 3am in the morning.
OK so let’s talk about headphones. The first thing to say is that panning can be done perfectly on headphones. You might pan a sound on speakers but until you switch to headphones you can’t truly know where it is in the stereo field! Obviously as soon as you move around the room the panning will change on speakers!
Next is the way things hit. You might have perfectly hitting drums on monitors… but when you switch to headphones you will find they just don’t cut it. This is the point you will be at war. You make a change to make them hit harder on headphones and then you switch to monitors and it now sounds like crap. You will just go back and forth. Once you have experience you will learn to make sounds that punch on both headphones and monitors… but that’s again outside that scope of this tutorial.
Another thing to note is some things just seem to sound completely different on headphones. It drives me insane! It happens very often with the top end click on a kick drum. It sounds awesome and clear on my monitors and then I switch to headphones and it sounds like muddy crap.
I learned to choose my kicks on headphones. To make sure the top end is clear. The after I have worked on it with my monitors, once I switch back to headphones most of the time it will still sound good. This is something I learned by making mistakes.
So this is the end… you now have a good beginner understanding of speakers and headphones.
To summarise. You need both. Buy what you have the money for a build from there. If you have headphones save up for monitors next. The most important thing to remember is “Know your equipment”. Someone on crap headphones will make better mixes if you don’t know your equipment no matter what you spend.
Just encase you are interested… What equipment do I have???
I have a pair of KRK Rokit 5s and two pairs of £100+ Sennheiser headphones. There are way better brands than Sennheiser but I like them personally. I have been using Sennheiser’s since I was 17 years old and I know how music should sound on them. In the end I use my monitors and one pair of headphones… the pair I like the most! Between the two I can get a good understanding of how my music sounds on all mediums. Most importantly I know how music should sound on both. Could I have a better setup?? Well yes!!! But that would cost money. So I make do with what I have and one day I will upgrade!
You will never make music that sounds good on everything. It’s a war you will fight! Unless you have crazy levels of experience! This is more something you can work towards as a producer. There will always be some crazy shaped speakers that your music sounds rubbish on!
Like I said in the beginning is you have something good to add or I have said something stupid I will happily edit this post!