The Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin makes headphone mixing more like the experience of using monitors. Find out what happened when the same song was mixed with and without it.
By Mike Levine
Headphones are a crucial tool for mixing as they can provide a different perspective to regular studio monitors for some of the finer details of the mix. However, mixing on headphones exclusively is difficult for numerous reasons, the main one being that you hear the left and right sides separately, with no room reflections. On monitors, you don't have complete separation between the left and right channels and you hear reflections from both channels in each ear as the sound bounces around the room. Because of these differences, mixes done in headphones can have difficulties translating to speakers.
To remedy this, Waves developed the Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin using the binaural and head-tracking technology it developed for Nx Virtual Mix Room over Headphones. The new plugin not only gives you a virtual room to mix in, but it models the acoustics and multiple monitor responses from the Studio 3 control room at Abbey Road. The idea was to alleviate headphone mixing limitations and make the experience similar to listening on monitors.
When used in conjunction with a Waves NX Head Tracker or webcam on your computer, the experience can be even more realistic. As you turn your head the image shifts accordingly as if you were in the room. Alternatively, you can rotate your orientation vis a vis the control room with the Rotate Studio knob.
For this article, I conducted an anecdotal test of the Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin, by mixing the same song twice—first as a conventional headphone-only mix and then using headphones integrating Abbey Road Studio 3 with a head tracker. For this exercise, I used the tracks from a song of mine called "Mendoza Line," recorded by the New Jersey-based roots-rock band, Julie's Party. The headphones I used for this were the Audio-Technica ATH-M60X, closed-back studio headphones that offer clear and accurate sound reproduction, including excellent bass response.
"Mendoza Line" is a rock tune whose basic tracks were recorded in a commercial recording facility. The final multitrack mix contained the drum (kick, snare, hat, three tom mics and stereo overheads) and DI bass tracks from the studio sessions, with all the other tracks having been overdubbed in various band members' home studios. The rest of the instrumentation included lead and rhythm electric guitars, a Wurlitzer-style electric piano, a B3-style organ. In addition to the lead vocal, there were ten background vocal tracks.
Once I loaded the tracks into Pro Tools, I did some basic routing and inserting of plugins (keeping them all bypassed at this point), and created a template that I could use as a starting point for both mixes.
The template included two reverbs: Waves H-Reverb with a 3-second decay time to start with and Abbey Road Reverb Plates for a short drum reverb. I created a master bus processing chain that included Waves SSL G-Master Buss Compressor, PuigTec EQP-1A equalizer and L3 Ultramaximizer limiter.
The template also featured sub-groups for instruments, drums and vocals. That allowed all of those significant elements to be grouped on adjacent faders, making balancing easier.
For individual track processing, I mostly used the Scheps Omni Channel, which is a versatile channel strip that offers several different flavors of compression as well as saturation. On the DI bass track (Fender Precision), I first inserted Waves CLA Bass plugin to get the basic tone.
Starting the Mix
I followed the same workflow with each mix, starting with getting a rough balance, and then beginning to pan and add processing.
Because of time constraints, I could only spend about three hours on each mix, so I’d consider these to be rough mixes. I did the standard headphone mix first, broken up into a few sessions, then refreshed for a day before starting the mix with Abbey Road Studio 3.
Mixing exclusively on headphones was an unusual experience for me, and I wondered how the decisions I was making would translate. After I'd spent the allotted time working on it, I felt I'd done a pretty good job. To avoid bias, I did not check the mix on speakers and waited until I’d finished the Abbey Road Studio 3 version.
Enter Abbey Road
I opened the template, inserted Abbey Road Studio 3 on the master bus, and turned on the NX head tracker hardware. When I hit play, the difference in sound as compared to listening on the unprocessed headphones was startling. The plugin opened with the default of the near-field monitor simulation, and I could have sworn I was listening through real monitors. It was that realistic.
What's more, with the head-tracking engaged, turning my head moved the image accordingly in my headphones. When I faced left, I could hear more in my right ear, and vice versa. If I turned around completely, I'd hear the mix coming from behind me.
Another crucial difference between the standard headphone sound and the Abbey Road Studio 3 sound was the spatial aspect. With the unprocessed headphone sound, there was no space; it felt inside in my head. Hard panned elements seemed to be right on my ears.
Alternatively, when using Abbey Road Studio 3, the music sounded like it was coming from in front of me. I felt like I could judge panning and other spatial issues in the mix much more realistically, as you’d hear music on speakers.
Another factor that made mixing through Abbey Road Studio 3 preferable was the ability to switch between the different-sized virtual monitors. It gave me an accurate simulation of how the mix was translating from one monitor size to the next. In my typical mix workflow in my studio, I'm constantly switching between my monitors to check that.
Abbey Road Studio 3 also helped with EQing. When I switched to the far monitors, which simulated large, soffit-mounted studio monitors, they had considerably more bass response. I found them handy for checking and EQing low-frequency elements such as kick drum and bass. The ability to switch between different virtual speakers when using Abbey Road Studio 3 gave me a better perspective on frequency compared to the monochromatic sound of unprocessed headphones.
Regarding the fairness of the comparison, I tried to apply as much of a blank slate as possible for the second mix, so that my experiences with the first mix didn't give me the advantage of knowing what tracks were problematic and how long to set the reverb decay times, etc.
I should also mention that I used the official mix of "Mendoza Line"—done a few months ago by another mixer—as an A/B reference for both the standard headphone and Abbey Road Studio 3 mixes that I did for this article.
The Two Mixes Compared
Once I had put in equivalent time on the Abbey Road Studio 3 mix, it was time to compare the two rough mixes on my main studio monitors, 8" PreSonus R80s. I loaded stereo WAV files of both mixes into a new session in Pro Tools and switched between them.
Perhaps the most significant difference was that the Abbey Road Studio 3 mix sounded a lot more open and less cluttered in the midrange. The bottom end was also tighter sounding to my ears and I noticed that I used less reverb, particularly on the lead vocal and drums. I assume that the spatial dimension of the monitor simulation influenced that decision.
I also felt that I was able to sculpt a better snare sound in the Abbey Road Studio 3 mix. It was crispier and not as spongy as the one in the headphone mix. I chalk that up to having the ability to compare between the virtual speakers, which helped me get a better perspective of what I was hearing.
If this had been a real mix assignment and I didn't have any time constraints, I would have gone back and revised both mixes before pronouncing them finished. Both still had issues to address.
Here are the two rough mixes, for your comparison:
After doing both mixes, there was no doubt in my mind that using Abbey Road Studio 3 enhanced the mixing process for me. Not only did the song come out better, but I was impressed by the realism that the combination of the plugin and the NX head tracker provided.
I'm not exaggerating when I say that there were a few instances during the Abbey Road Studio 3 mix where I was concentrating on tweaking something, and, lost in the moment, I forgot I was on headphones and thought I was listening through monitors. Because of the spatial simulation, I also felt less fatigued than when mixing on unprocessed headphones.
If I was mixing exclusively on headphones, I would absolutely want to use Abbey Road Studio 3. It provides an experience much more akin to listening on monitors in a control room environment.
Do I like the sound of my headphones without any processing? Sure. But can they compete with the sound of the control room at Abbey Road Studio 3? Not so much. Try it for yourself.
Want more on mixing on headphones? Check out Mixing on Headphones: How to Translate to Speakers.
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