Headphones are a practical monitoring alternative to loudspeakers, but can you accurately mix on them with results you can trust to translate? Read our guide to solving headphone issues with Waves Abbey Road Studio 3.
By Josh Bonanno
Headphones are relatively affordable, compact and portable, making for a convenient monitoring system for productions, recordings and mixes wherever you are. But are they sonically reliable enough for making serious mix and production decisions? Can you still make confident sonic choices that will translate across other listening mediums, or are you forced to stick with a trusty pair of studio monitors? Despite the numerous pitfalls introduced by headphone listening, the binaural technology which powers the Waves Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin provides a solution, giving you the best of both worlds.
Alternative to Speakers
Using headphones tends to come up in conversation as a “nice alternative” to working on studio monitors, but people only seem to “settle” for mixing on headphones when the favorable option of working on a stereo set of speakers is unavailable. This may be due to travel, bad room acoustics, disrupting neighbors, the list goes on. The truth is, headphones are not a natural listening experience to us as humans. Space and environment are crucial to the way that we hear sound and the way that our ears perceive frequencies, so it’s no surprise that most people prefer to listen and work on a nice pair of speakers.
Despite all their shortcomings, headphones are undoubtedly a necessity in modern music production, mixing and even mastering. Whether it’s a quick deadline, a sudden burst of inspiration, or unfamiliar/unreliable speaker monitoring environment, it is almost guaranteed that you will be relying on headphones at some point to make crucial sonic decisions.
In light of this, I’ve found Abbey Road Studio 3 to be a healthy solution. The plugin, based on Waves Nx technology, is looking to alter the way you experience headphones. By using psychoacoustics technology, the plugin sets out to achieve 3D audio from headphones, allowing them to sound and react like a pair of speakers set up in Abbey Road Studio 3, a world-class mix room. The result feels natural and realistic and provides an interesting look into the future of headphones.
We’ll go through some of the critical differences of headphone vs. loudspeaker monitoring and see how the plugin can provide a solution.
Because of headphones’ close proximity to our ears, space is the most identifiable difference between them and speakers. The loss of that physical space and time also removes all of the natural room reflections that we are used to hearing along with the source, drastically altering the way we hear the audio. As someone who is not quite a fan of working on headphones, I was very interested to see how the plugin could change this perceived space and put me “in a room.” Sure enough, the most immediate and noticeable difference that the plugin provided was the sense of space.
While the physical space does not change when engaging the plugin (you’re still wearing headphones on your head, after all) the perceived space becomes much deeper and more tangible. The music is no longer being directed immediately into your eardrums, but now feels more open, roomy, and diffused before being heard. The experience is very similar to the way you would perceive audio coming from speakers, which are typically a few feet in front of you. This change, while slightly strange at first, is almost immediately more pleasant sonically to listen to, and a far more realistic working environment.
A related spatial issue which particularly affects mix decisions I would typically make is the difference in the stereo image between headphones and loudspeakers.
Stereo imaging has always been one of my biggest issues with headphones. Due to their binaural nature, meaning the left and right channels are coupled directly to the listeners head without crosstalk or interference between the two channels, I always feel on headphones as if things are either hard-panned left or right, and anything in between is just some smeared form of “center.” Working on speakers has always given me a much more tangible sense of stereo space and of where elements live left-to-right in a mix. This can also play a serious role when placing reverbs and delays in a busy mix.
Waves Abbey Road Studio 3 changes that. The phantom center is up-front, audible, and things wrap around from left to right in a much more pleasing and realistic way than on normal headphones. Placing and manipulating a lead vocal is a breeze. Reverbs and delays are not quite as hyped and audible as they normally are on headphones, but they exist in a much more natural way which translates significantly better once on speakers. While the overall stereo width does feel narrower than that of normal headphones, it is also more on par with a traditional speaker set up. The plugin also provides a swapping feature between the near, mid and far-field monitoring options, giving a great point of reference as the perceived stereo field feels slightly different in each modeled monitoring environment.
This natural stereo image solution provided by Abbey Road Studio 3 is probably the most critical factor in achieving mixes which translate better in other environments. Without it, mixing on headphones can feel like guessing.
One of the biggest challenges and dangers of working on headphones is the ear fatigue that tends to set in more rapidly than in most other working environments. Sound sent directly into your eardrums, at any volume, is not ideal for your hearing, and with traditional headphone use, it is good practice to take frequent breaks and keep the volume low.
While Abbey Road Studio 3 does still require you to wear headphones, and sound is still technically being directed into your ears, the experience feels a lot less fatiguing and tiresome. The binaural “space” that is created cuts down the hard, upfront and direct nature of the sound of headphones. While the transient information is still present and perceivable, the modeled room allows the sound to “breathe,” resulting in a listening experience that feels like it would take much longer before ear fatigue started to set it. Obviously, it is still recommended to take frequent breaks to stay fresh and maintain a clear perspective, but the result is a much more pleasant mixing experience.
I also felt that the additional Nx head tracker tool helps significantly in creating a feeling of realism and combating the fatiguing characteristics of headphones. Because the head tracker captures in real-time your head movement in space, adapting the frequency spectrum in relation to your proximity to the virtual speakers, the sound is constantly shifting slightly. This provides the exact feeling of sitting in front of the speakers with your head bopping and moving along to the music.
Again, this opposes the feeling of a constant, direct and clinical sound that headphones seem to produce. For me, moving back and forth from the center sweet spot gives a fresh perspective that has always served as an advantage when working.
Frequency Spectrum and Low End
Getting a favorable representation of the frequency spectrum is not easy in any listening environment, but headphones make it even harder. Our ears perceive frequencies with different intensities at different volumes, (see the Fletcher-Munson curve) so injecting those frequencies directly into your ears makes for a very different listening experience than on speakers. This is especially true for low-end frequencies, whose physical wavelengths are incredibly long and require time to build up and mature to be perceived correctly. Low-end energy is generally “felt” through the vibration of your ribcage, rather than “heard.” Because headphones have very little (if any) physical space and air to let lower frequencies build up, they rely on the proximity effect and closeness to your ear in order to “fake” the perceived volume of the low end.
Because of the space provided by the Abbey Road Studio 3 plugin discussed previously, the result is a frequency spectrum perceived and felt in a much more believable and realistic way. The low end feels like it has had time to build and breathe and the top end no longer feels direct and clinical. Making EQ moves feels a lot more trustworthy, as if I’m EQing based on the source sounds rather than the unpleasant artifacts of the headphones’ sonic reproduction.
One key benefit of headphones, that even some professionally treated studio monitoring environments cannot provide, is the consistency of what headphones can deliver. Even the most well-designed and maintained rooms will be subject to factors such as something physically changing in the room, or someone bumping your speaker a few inches. Because headphones are a fixed listening source that is attached directly to your ears, you’re able to remove any variables that could change the listening experience day-to-day. With Abbey Road Studio 3, you arrive with the best of both worlds in that you get the consistent listening environment without the pitfalls of headphone listening.
While I don’t think the intention of Abbey Road Studio 3 is for you to sell your speakers or put aside your aspirations for a professionally treated studio, the plugin brings significant benefits for referencing, and practical advantages that will greatly assist many contemporary producers and mixers. With headphones catering to people’s busy lifestyles with the advantage of portability and ease of use, tools like this plugin, which turn working on headphones into a much more trustworthy environment, will start to open the professional market to many more producers.
Want more on Abbey Road Studio 3? Watch Producer Giles Martin discuss mixing on headphones using the plugin.
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