Beginners Question answered : Do I need good speakers or can I use headphones?

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Hey FP!I'm new to the site,but I've been an engineer and studio owner for over 20 years now.One of the most common questions I hear from aspiring engineers and music producers is "Do I REALLY need good speakers for a crisp mix?". I wrote this post up to help guide those who may just be starting out


One of the biggest concerns when recording with a laptop or a home computer is the monitoring capability. You simply cannot expect to be able to hear what you need to hear through the $19 speakers that most laptops use or the $30 set that you picked up to plug into your PC. The simple lack of bass, or low-end response, should be very, very obvious from the minute you try to listen to them. High-end response is very limited as well, and obviously you won’t be able to push any real volume. For watching youtube vids of funny cats and people falling off skateboards they’re just fine. For making YOUR music sound good on car speakers, headphones, real speakers, and a PA, they’re a very far cry from sufficient.


Here’s a simple, quick example: Let’s say you’re recording some hip-hop and want the trademark heavy bass. You’re using Reason or FL to create a beat. You start with a string line that’s been in your head for days. All is well so far. You then put down a nice, crisp hi-hat. Still fine. Now you move on to an 808 kick/bass sound. You hear it, but it doesn’t push well, so you turn it up. It still doesn’t sound like it does in your head, so you crank 60 or 80 Hz up a few decibels. Still not enough. You crank it a little more. It gets a little louder, but you heard a little crackle of distortion, so you back it off until it sounds clean, then you move on to your snare. Fast forward now to a point where you love the beat and you want to cruise around in your car and critique and enjoy it. You pop it in, turn it up and BLAM! distortion and HUGE, OVERPOWERING BASS EVERYWHERE! Obviously, this is not acceptable. This is caused by your tiny laptop speakers’ inability to produce bass, making you turn it up louder than it should be.



In my studio it’s quite common for a rapper or a singer to bring in a production created by a friend. It’s crushing when someone brings in a beat that they’ve only listened to on a phone only to hear it completely out of balance and unusable - even distorted - when it’s played on high-quality speakers. It’s simply the result of creating music on speakers (like laptop or small computer speakers) that can’t reproduce frequencies accurately.


Bass is the most common frequency range to have problems with in this area, but certainly not the only one. Simply put, you NEED accurate speakers in order to create and mix music. There is not a laptop or $40 pair of speakers on earth that can give you this. Sure, you can reason that you should just use a little less bass and maybe reference back to your car or your buddy’s speaker system, but that’s only going to help a little, and it’s a hell of a lot of playing around.

There’s a reason that professional studios spend the money they do on great monitors and usually multiple monitors. No one expects you to buy a set of $5000 speakers for your home setup, but there are options that can help quite a bit - especially if you’re able to treat your music right and send it to a pro for mixing.



Here’s where it gets tricky yet again. We have two issues; the monitors themselves, and the monitoring environment, or the sonic space in which the monitors sit. Let’s pick them apart one at a time.

Monitors come in two basic flavors; unpowered and powered. Simply put, the powered ones have their own amplifiers built in, so there’s no need to buy a separate amplifier. Which one’s better? Well, that’s for you to decide. The powered monitors are more expensive on the surface, but that’s because the amplifier is already taken care of. It’s less flexible this way because you can never just upgrade the speakers or monitors separately, but by the time you’ve outgrown them you’ll likely outgrow both, anyway. They’re also more difficult to fix because there are more parts. The simplest way is definitely with powered monitors. Don’t go for the cheapest you can find… they’ll sound just like that. Spend a few hundred bucks at least on a pair of powered two-way (one woofer and one tweeter in each) speakers and call it a day. You’ll be upgrading and switching things until you die or go deaf, so don’t get overly tied up in one decision. Musical gear has decent resale value as long as it’s kept in good condition.


SUBWOOFERS

Purchasing a subwoofer to go along with your speakers is a great idea. You do have to keep in mind, however, that not everyone has one. Also, a subwoofer turned up too loud can cause the exact OPPOSITE problem that tiny laptop speakers cause. Another example: Let’s say you have your sub turned up quite a bit. When you’re mixing or recording a bass guitar, for instance, you’re artificially hearing too much bass and you’ll end up turning it too low for normal speakers and headphones. There’s no magic setting for the volume of a subwoofer or for the “perfect” bass level. It all comes with experience.Trust your ears !



A/Bing

One VERY helpful method is to compare, or A/B, your music to something that you’re accustomed to listening to. Compare their mix as it sounds on your system to your own mix. This way, you can aim for your mix to be something like an established product that’s acceptable to industry standards. Now, obviously you won’t have the equipment or the recording environment to match that commercial mix, but it will aid you quite a bit.


A major drawback to this method is that you’ll be hearing mastered versions of the commercial mix and your mix will not be to that point. There are magical things that happen when a track is mastered that will make mixes wider, louder, deeper, and crisper than can be accomplished through mixing alone. It doesn’t hurt to come as close as you can, but don’t be discouraged when your $4,000 setup can’t get the results of a $400,000 studio and a mixing and mastering engineer with decades of experience.Make sure you're maxing out the potential of your set up instead of being upset that you don't have a more expensive one.


If you do get discouraged, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Commercial studios are here for a reason. Not everyone is cut out to do it. It can be VERY difficult to do both the technical side and the musical side of things.If you realize that the mixing side isn't for you,find someone who understands your vision and can make it come to life.This way,you can focus on writing amazing music and the engineer can make it as polished as possible


Give It A Try

Try it out on the simple, cheap side and see what you think. Most people will be immediately hooked or immediately find out that they should find a great studio to make their dreams come true. If you’re in the middle and can’t decide, just spend some more time. It will soon become clear whether you’re cut out for it or not


 
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mycbeats

uptownxlonely
Great post, I hope this clears it up for everyone who is currently asking and will be asking this question in the future.
PM Bandcoach and see if he can pin this thread.
 
That's some great information there. I have experience but I love reeducating and reinforcing what I've learned. A producer should never get too comfortable. Great advice!
 
i am producing now for 4 years(hobby), and i know 1 thing is sure, u cant produce a solid track on headphones, sure u can buy very expensive ehadphones that is good enough for producing, but really u need to hear all the details over the speakers!!
 

Ametrine

Audible Chocolate
I actually do produce on headphones, but I don't master solely with them. You can mix on headphones, but they can't be cheap ones bought at Best Buy or the like. I use SONY MDR7506 headphones, which with a few EQ adjustments, aren't so bad. You certainly can't expect to use skullcandies or something else similar to make a great track.

Mastering is a different story. I think the more sound systems you have to play your track on, the better it is. I use car systems, surround sound systems, regular speakers, and headphones to master tracks. Of course, I'm no expert, but I think it works for me.
 
I have Event Monitors... Dropped them a few times by accident & they still slap. Had them since 2008. I'll end up upgrading soon, but they definitely held me down & they are my favorite thing to mix on.
 

Dieselbeats32

New member
You should be able to mix through headphones as well as a good pair of monitors. Key word monitors because you wont be able to mix anything properly with computer or desktop speakers. I have a pair of KRK monitors that were at a good price. They work fine.
 

itsatrap

New member
First of all, great post! I am producing for over a year and I never had enough money to buy monitors. I still do not have enough money for monitors because everytime the money is spent for other things. As I said, I produced for over a year and I know some friends that wanted to produce as well. They all said that they needed "gear" in order to start (Also monitors). I had no "gear" and I just started, and now I am one year further and I am still producing with no monitors. Yes I have those $40 speakers (A crazy 2.1 hehehe) and all of my work came from them. I did try real monitors (the krk 8's in a studio) and I must say that it opened my eyes.

What I could afford were headphones, I bought the Sennheiser hd280's and they are great, not as great as real monitors but still very good! I will keep producing because I love it and will possibly buy monitors this year. What I am trying to say is that monitors are actually a must have BUT having no monitors does not mean that you are not allowed to produce music and you don't need them in order to start producing music.
 
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Well said ! Don't let a lack of good equipment stop you from creating music,but,understand that to take it to the next level you either need to have the right tools or give your music to someone who has the right tools .
 

emo147

New member
what about headphones. i know a musician who told me the use of headphones is fine and dont rely on speakers.
 
what about headphones. i know a musician who told me the use of headphones is fine and dont rely on speakers.

Headphones are good to reference once in a while as a third or fourth reference, but they are definitely NOT fine. Try this: Put on a set of headphones and put 2 ounces of pressure on the outside of the right headphone. Notice the incredible difference in volume, and if your ears are keen enough, notice how much more bass you hear than anything else. This is just one of many reasons that headphones are not advisable at all as a primary sound source for mixing. Any change in the position changes what you hear. Not only volumes, but more specifically frequencies, panning, and a whole list of others factors change with positioning on your ears. Earbuds are ten times worse. Please don't even consider those.

Here's another MAJOR reason that headphones are not advisable. Headphones, much more than speakers, are hyped. This means that the manufacturer purposely augments some frequencies to make them sound "better." Now, this is fine if you're just listening to music. You can listen to a bunch of headphones, pick the one that sounds best to you, and go on your way. When mixing, however, we want ACCURACY, which is not necessarily giant pounding bass and super-crisp high-end. That doesn't mean - I repeat - that DOESN'T mean that we can't have thundering bass and great sounding highs, it just means that we don't want these injected into the headphones beforehand, because that will actually make you falsely think that you have huge bass when you don't, and you'll mix less in, thereby giving LESS bass to the eventual listener who's listening on a different system. Multiply that by all of the different frequencies and other factors, and you end up with PLENTY of reasons to run from headphones as a primary mixing tool.
 

Ametrine

Audible Chocolate
I see no problem with mixing with headphones as long as you bounce your final track off of at least three different sound systems. The point of mastering is making it sound as best as it can for as many people as possible :)
 

Profizeus

New member
The best tool to improve your mixdowns are your own ears. You need to listen a LOT of tracks and pay attention on every little detail there is. It is frustrating for sure but it's the best way. I personally prefer to start up with good headphones (beyerdynamic DT770 pro for example) and get used to the sound. Accurate source of music is everything that counts when you need to listen carefully. Monitors are good also but many of us don't own studio or decent acoustical place to mix in so first off I would prefer decent headphones.
 

Apocalypsebeats

New member
I have always used some ancient (but good) B&W DM5 speakers. Now thinking of purchasing some quality studio headphones to get a wider range of sound.
 
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