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No one notices good audio but everyone notices bad audio. It’s true. Audio is one of the most forgotten about (or least talked about) aspects of post-production but funnily enough, can absolutely destroy your project if not mixed properly (I’m looking at you student filmmakers) or bring your project to a new level if mixed well. Having a good mix requires a number of different items. The most important of which is skill. This is something you will need to develop and hone over time. Even if you are an editor, mixing on AirPods or laptop speakers is just not adequate. Luckily, you can mix properly without spending a fortune.
I’ll cover what type of headphones you should invest in and considerations to be made for headphone mixing.
The issues with headphones.
If you have space, invest in a good pair of studio monitors. Most people watching your content will either be watching through a TV or their phone and studio monitors will give you the best environment to mix in. Headphones are a good alternative if you don’t have space but there are considerations to be made. The most important is the Stereo Image & Crossfeed.
This is by far one of the most important considerations to be made when editing on headphones. Because the left and right channels are 100% isolated, a mix with noticeable panning that was performed on studio speakers might sound completely exaggerated on your cans. My favorite example of this is “Space Oddity” by David Bowie (2015 remaster). On a studio speaker setup, the mix is incredible with fantastic/dramatic panning of all the instruments. It’s almost as if you are listening to him live. However, on a pair of headphones… it’s almost unlistenable. The panning is so overemphasized that the entire mix comes off as unbalanced. Why is this? On speakers, part of the left channel is bleeding into the right and vice versa. On headphones, there is no crossfeed which means dramatic pans will not sound good at all. This can be fixed by easing off your dramatic pans by 10-15%. Additionally, there are plugins that simulate crossfeed though I don’t think you should use them. It’s unnecessary and I guarantee you your audience is not watching your videos through Pro Tools with a crossfeed plugin. Additionally, you should not be using a plugin to make your studio monitor mix sound good on headphones. Your mix should sound good on both, no plugins required.
The stereo image is noticeably wider on headphones for the reasons I explained above. In addition to the lack of crossfeed, the image of sound is very much between your ears as opposed to out in front of you (like it would be on speakers). This is something to be made aware of and is more of a unique characteristic of headphones than a challenge to overcome. Be aware of your panning and the lack of crossfeed on headphones and this should not be an issue. Additionally, certain types of headphones will handle imaging better than others. Open-back headphones are the closest you can get to replicating the stereo image of speakers. Obviously, there won’t be any cross-feeding but the image of the sound will appear much further away from your ears than a pair of closed-back headphones or earbuds will. This allows you to have greater precision over the panning of your mix as minute differences in imaging are more noticeable; just like how it would be on speakers.
Choosing a pair of headphones.
As mentioned earlier, investing in a good pair of studio speakers is always preferred. However, when you are just starting out, budgets are tight. It is completely possible to mix with headphones but you need to understand your headphone’s characteristics and how your mix choices will translate to speakers. With that being said, let’s look at some headphones.
But first, the amp.
I know, I know. We will get to the headphones in a minute. But first, I need to tell you about headphone amps. First, they are 100% necessary. Don’t invest in a pair of headphones over $100 if you don’t have an amp. Headphones require power and lots of it. My Beyerdynamic’s require 250ohms minimum to power and when they can’t get that power… they suck… HARD. Unfortunately, most computers can only send around 18-25 ohms of power. That power is totally fine for a cheap pair of beats as they are made for consumers with low-powered devices but for higher-end headphones… it won’t cut it.
Schiit Magni Hersey
This amp is the Schiit. Honestly, for the price, there is absolutely nothing that even comes close to beating it. It isn’t some cheaply made product either. It’s made right here in California and after 2 years of continuous use; it is holding strong with zero signs of wear. At $100, it is incredibly affordable and holds its own against amps costing hundreds more. 20/10 would recommend it. Here’s a link: Schiit Magni Hersey
Don’t forget the cables. Monoprice makes a great affordable pair: Monoprice Audio Cable
A DAC stands for Digital Audio Converter. In a computer, the CPU handles the digital to audio conversion and it usually does an “okay” job. However, if you are editing on a computer with a cheap motherboard… then you need to invest in a DAC. Apple computers however have above-average DAC’s and I would say that you are probably fine without one. Though, if you are serious about audio, then I would get the Schiit Modi. Just like the Hersey, It’s $100 and is absolutely stellar.
Sony MDR 7506
The pair that everyone has. For on-set audio mixing, these are great and are what I used (and every other mixer) when I was a sound guy. They sound incredibly flat (which is a good thing) and almost every post house I’ve been to uses them. Even though I have much nicer headphones now, I occasionally listen to them to know how my audio mix will sound on a completely average audio device. For $100 I would not purchase anything else.
In my opinion, however, they lack sonic clarity and have absolutely zero spatial audio (meaning they sound very “in your face”) which is why I don’t mix with them in post-production. The sound is completely dead. Which, as negative as that sounds… isn’t a terrible thing. Sometimes you just need some cans that are completely average and these are them.
Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO
Incredible. Every time I put these on I am absolutely wowed by how amazing they sound for $150. Besides sound quality, this will be the most comfortable pair you’ll ever own. I can wear these headphones all day long and suffer zero discomfort.
Because of the DT 990’s open-back design, they have an incredibly wide sound stage that is perfect for crafting your mix to perfection. Do keep in mind however that since they are open back, they do let in external audio sources (like a noisy roommate) and they do bleed quite a bit (so no listening to anything… questionable). However, this is just a trade-off that all open-back headphones have to make for a wide sound stage.
If you want the closed-back version, pick up the Beyerdynamic DT 770. I love these just as much but they are more suited to vocals and studio tracking due to the reduced sound stage of the closed-back design. The audio quality is the exact same as the DT 990s (as it uses the same driver).
Paired with the Schiit Magni Hersey, these headphones sound like pairs that cost hundreds more.
Sennheiser HD 650
This is the most I’d spend on headphones as a video editor. Once you got past $350 you reach the point of diminishing returns. However, as far as mixing audio for the film goes, the Sennheiser HD 650’s are the holy grail. The sound stage is immaculate and the clarity is perfect. Besides the expensive price, there really isn’t anything out there that is noticeably better without spending $1000+.
The only thing I am not a fan of is the cable… I much prefer the cable on one side only as it is easier to manage. But who cares, they sound like heaven.
Just like any professional headphone, this will require an amp so invest accordingly.
You indeed can mix on headphones. But keep in mind that you need to listen to your mix on speakers (even if it is just the soundbar on your TV) to ground yourself as to how an average consumer will be listening. Headphones make it a lot easier to notice details and because of that, dialogue tends to get buried under the other tracks. Make sure that your dialogue is not buried by, you guessed it, listening on some speakers. If you are still overwhelmed by options and not sure as to how, where you will be editing, or don’t want an amp, get the Sony MDR-7506. Though they have some pitfalls, everyone has them, and is the de-facto standard in film. However, if you are serious about audio, the DT-990s paired with the Schiit Magni Hersey will blow you away.