Mixing on Headphones
Mixing or referencing on headphones has become more important than ever. What was once a joke in the pro audio industry has become an absolute necessity. Everyone seems to have a pair clamped to their heads. They've become as much a fashion statement as a conscious decision to improve mobile audio quality. It's inspiring to see listeners trying to get closer to music though. Companies such as Beats have cornered this consumer market while boutique companies like Audeze target the audiophile niche. There are many, many other companies jumping into this market and even earbuds have reached critical mass.
As for those of us "behind the glass", there is a whole 'nother sea of studio mixing headphones to choose from and most are heavily colored. I have personally plowed through 3 pairs of the Sony MDR7506 headphones over the years and was pleased to learn that they can be calibrated.
Achieving a truly flat studio monitor playback in a game audio studio is challenging and few ever attain this ideal environment. Every mix room is a different shape and construction, causing various "sonic warts" and a host of other problems. Fixing such issues can be incredibly expensive for those on a tight budget. Luckily, you can now travel around with a perfect acoustic environment on your head. In a world of rising headphone usage, it's important to get them as flat as possible, so you can actually hear what you are working on. All headphones are colored to some extent and now you can remove that coloration with a single button push:
Sonarworks is a company based in Estonia with a real-time calibration plugin for headphones. Only certain models are supported and they are baked into the free trial (AU, AAX Native, RTAS and VST). Let their list be your guide for headphone shopping. Stray from it at your own peril! The following shows the dramatic before and after of their calibration, resulting in greater neutrality and accuracy in mixing:
This is an important plugin for mixing game audio folks as well as prfessional audio in general. Every pair of headphones is colored to some extent, so being able to flip a switch and remove the coloration is incredibly helpful. I highly recommend coughing up the $69 for the full version. Kudos to Sonarworks for this brilliant piece of software. Get your free trial HERE
Which Headphones are Best for Game Audio?
There are two kinds of headphones: Open and Closed. The traditional closed design shuts out sounds around you isolating the audio inside. Closed are by far the most used by consumers while the open design lends itself to longer session of mixing and cricitcal listening. The open back design leaks a bit of the sound outside the headphones. This also means more of the outside environment can be heard. Open design headphones tend to relieve the pressure of long mix sessions thus making your ears less fatigued, however, they are not nearly as "real world" as closed headphones. Keep in mind, that headphones *can damage your hearing* if used at excessive volumes. Take breaks every 30 minutes and go walk around or grab a taco. This cannot be over emphasized so proceed with caution, only checking high volumes occasionally. The best engineers in the world tend to work at very low volumes and this has been heard time and time again in interviews. Here are the absolute best headphones for mixing, starting with the lowest budget and moving up.
Best Closed-Back Headphones
Status Audio CB-1 ($79) Review
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro - 32 ohm ($129) Review
Audio Technica M70x ($249) Review
Best Open-Back Headphones
Superlux HD 681 ($33) Review
Beyerdynamic DT990 Pro ($154) Review
Sennheiser HD 660s ($449) Review
The above models were selected from Sonarworks list of supported models due to their heavy praise on forums and near-perfect buyer reviews. Price is also a major factor and these deliver the best cost-to-value ratio. It's great to know you can flatten them and remove the coloration, as pleasant as it may be. It's also important to check the impedance for headphones. Most audio interfaces have a headphone jack rated at 32 ohms or less and matching this on your headphones will result in heightened accuracy. Just get as close as possible, but keep in mind the cast majority of consumers will be listening at 32 Ohms or less:
Earbuds are still the preferred playback choice for smartphones, tablets and even handheld game consoles. The size and convenience is appealing for use with games, music and movies. The entire population is listening to heavily compressed music streams and game audio content through them. The sound quality of earbuds has improved over the years and they can deliver surprisingly decent audio quality. While it's generally not recommended to mix on them, it is important to check your work on them. We now have high end in-ear monitors from familiar pro audio manufacturers. The line is getting blurred between audiophile and professional grade gear. Consumers now demand a neutral and analytical listening experience. This becomes even more important when you consider how close the speakers are to the ear drums. Hearing damage is a real danger when listening to earbuds at high volumes and volume should be more conservative than larger, over ear headphones. The following is a list of the best in-ear monitors at each budget. The drivers and internal components work together to faithfully deliver modern audio content. These have a smooth overall sonic signature and consistently outperform earbuds costing 10 times more.
It's a good idea to check your final audio work on earbuds, especially if it's for mobile games. Using standard Apple wired earbuds or Airpods is a good idea if you are working on an iphone game, since a vast majority of listeners will be using the exact smae model. Otherwise, the $9 Panasonic RP-HJE120-K are quite possible the most widespread earbuds and this can be seen by their staggering amount of reviews on Amazon. They are perfect as a real world reference and sonic meaasuring stick. There are also high end earbuds costing upwards of $3000. Yes, you read that correctly, three grand for earbuds. While such high end in ear refernce monitorts can sound amazing, this corner of the market is also being disrupted by low cost, high quality products. For budgets closer to $49 the Status Audio IEM2X have a pleasant sound signature as well as a slight bass boost, common with many consumer listening devices. Moving up the price range, the $349 Sennheiser IE80S brings audiophile quality to earbud listening and features adjustable bass reponse, which is rarely seen on earbuds.