Mixing the Center Image on Headphones

Making critical mix decisions on the center content of a stereo image is among the hardest things to achieve when mixing with headphones. Abbey Road Studios’ Mirek Stiles explains why this is so important and how the Waves Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin can help.

Mixing the Center Image on Headphones: Abbey Road Studio 3


By Mirek Stiles, Head of Audio Products, Abbey Road Studios

It’s a reality of the producer’s life that, for a mixture of reasons and scenarios, many of us end up mixing on headphones at some point. I have been there myself many times, and it usually involves mixing way into the early hours of the morning, in a home studio environment with less-than-understanding house mates or neighbours.

We are often told that mixing on headphones is less than ideal; what often isn’t discussed is why. There is nothing worse, from a mixer’s point of view, than spending hours making painstakingly precise creative decisions, only to realise they have been lost when listening to the mix on other systems.

First off, I would like to highlight that there are a lot of positive aspects to at least checking your mix over a pair of headphones on a regular basis. These include bringing out the smaller details that can sometimes be masked by speakers, such as distortion, clicks, pops and hiss. On a similar note, you might find it easier to tell if you are over-compressing something via headphones, as the ‘pumpy’ effect will be more obvious. Also worth mentioning is that a lot of engineers use headphones as a ‘sense check’ when working in an unfamiliar or less-than-perfect room, as the headphones, well, they eliminate the room. I have also witnessed on countless occasions a mix engineer always giving one last check via headphones before printing a mix—a final details check if you like.

Having said that, there are also various reasons (which you can read more about here) why mixing on headphones can be difficult territory to navigate. For one thing, judging low end on headphones can be hard; the trap people often fall into is adding too little or too much bass, based on what your headphones are telling you. This can lead to disastrous consequences when the same mix is played back on other systems—in a car, over a soundbar, etc.

But in this blog I want to highlight a different headphone mixing trap. It’s a fundamental element of how we both produce and listen to most examples of modern music. It’s something that as a producer you will base a huge amount of your most important mix decisions on.

I am talking about the centre image.

If you think about it, the very nature of headphones is that they don’t really have a true centre image, like you would get from a pair of speakers. With headphones you have a small speaker placed close to both ears, directly injecting sound to both the left and right side of the head, independently and in complete isolation. This creates a really nice intimate soundscape, and it’s why a lot of people love listening to music on headphones (although eventually it can become fatiguing).

But although headphones can be great for checking details of a mix (like small noises), they are not so good at judging the overall depth of the soundscape, and the centre image is no exception.

So, if headphones don’t provide a reliable centre image, and you’re making important centre image mix decisions, you are effectively mixing in the dark.

Mixing the Center Image on Headphones: Abbey Road Studio 3

(1) On regular headphones, sounds are ‘injected’ directly into the left and right ears, with no true center image. (2) When the exact same signal is in both L and R, at exactly the same level, you will hear some faint resemblance of a center image on headphones; but L and R are still isolated, and the stereo image is not panoramic, as if there is ‘empty space’ between the center and the hard L and R. (3) With the Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin activated, headphones emulate a realistic center image that is continuous across the panoramic stereo soundstage.

Now, if you think about the most important elements of your music, most of them are in the centre most of the time. Think kick drum, bass line, lead vocal, snare drum. These are the backbone, the foundation, and in many instances the main hooks for your productions.

If you are balancing anything in the centre over a pair of headphones, you could very potentially be making the wrong decisions. Creating a perfect vocal balance on a pair of headphones has a very real probability of not translating very accurately on a speaker or soundbar system. Sure, you are hearing a very rough representation of centre image information over headphones, but it isn’t very accurate; it’s collapsed somewhere inside your head. It sounds very internal and quite smeary. Which again makes sense, as you only have sound blasting directly into the left and right ear.

By contrast, when you are sat in front of a pair of speakers, you get the left and right image, but you also get crosstalk (or crossfeed—depending on where Google takes you)—some of the left speaker going into the right ear and some of the right speaker going into the left ear. In the middle you get a true centre image representation, in front of you and not inside your head.

Stereo crosstalk

Stereo crosstalk

So, if it’s the general consensus that you will make more accurate mixes over a pair of speakers than a pair of headphones, but you only have the option to mix over a pair of headphones, what is the solution?

The only way to get around the problem is by tricking the ears into thinking they are hearing the mix outside of the head in front of them. In other words, giving the illusion the sound is coming from outside the headphones, as if you are listening to the music over a pair of speakers inside a room. This would allow you to make more informed level and EQ decisions about some of the most important aspects of your productions. The decisions you make with regards to your kick, snare, bass and vocals should translate more acutely across a variety of playback systems.

3D audio technologies achieve this by several means—including but not limited to carefully measured room reflections to simulate a three-dimensional acoustic environment. But of supreme importance, in my view, is to achieve a more accurate centre image on headphones, with the most carefully realistic design of crosstalk.

WATCH: Creating the Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin

Achieving this was one of our primary goals in teaming up with Waves to create the Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin, based on Waves Nx 3D audio technology. By placing this plugin over your main output fader in your DAW, you can get a feel for how your tune is balancing over a set of three stereo speaker fields—near, mid and far—in one of the best-sounding mix rooms in the world. This simple-to-use, but incredibly effective plugin is a powerful tool to ‘sense check’ or provide a ‘reality check’ when it comes to the most important aspects of your mix. The beauty is you can easily bypass the plugin back into headphone mode if need be, to double-check those dodgy edit points.

If you do mix over headphones, then the Studio 3 plugin can help you ensure your balance translates to the outside world. It could be a genuine game changer for your productions, and I hope you enjoy using it.

Learn more about the Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin.

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