‘You can’t mix on headphones’ ?
Conventional wisdom tells us that you ‘can’t mix on headphones’. While I think this is probably the case for some kinds of music (beat based stuff primarily), I don’t think this is necessarily set in stone for ambient. I create all my ambient material on headphones. I can’t do it with monitors / speakers, I need to be able to hear the subtleties going on as only headphones allow. I’ve used headphones as the primary listening medium pretty much all my ‘musical life’, so I’m very used to them. I use standard phones for day to day (compositional / work-in-progress) use and in-the-ear types for critical listening.
As regards mixing and mastering, I find the in-the-ear phones have considerable benefits:
Being able to hear all sorts of hiss, distortions, clicks etc. much more easily.
Sound isolation – enhances critical listening.
Takes away the problems of poor room acoustics.
Checking the stereo balance / spatial field.
On this last point, the subject of ‘incorrect spatial image’ seems to crop up regarding headphone usage repeatedly, I wonder what is considered to be ‘correct’ anyway ?
I studied surround-sound systems in the past and came to the conclusion that the standard stereo speaker set-up is hardly optimal in some respects – two point sources placed at a certain angle to the listener in a room. If stereo is intended to replicate a live performance environment, from the point of view of realism (specifically recreating natural reverberation), it’s not ideal. As a side note, I find its interesting to observe that sound sources can be ‘omni-directional’, in that they emit sound not just from the ‘front’ (like a speaker), but in many directions and the relationship between the sound, the listener and the (sonic) environment in which the sound is heard is relevant. Listening to the sounds whilst in a city, for example, walking around into shops, by roads, moving from interior to exterior spaces etc. and hearing the acoustic changes is revealing. I’ve gone out and about and have made a large number of binaural recording in differing spaces and I find it’s very interesting to hear these ambient recordings back at home.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the two speaker stereo set-up as such, I’m just contrasting it to the headphone listening experience, which I feel can be more ‘immersive’.
For my ambient music, I try to work with the spatial field as a musical parameter, using techniques I’ve developed over time to create an immersive sound-field.
It’ll sound different over speakers for sure – but it won’t be ‘wrong’.
I would imagine that its not uncommon for a number of listeners of ambient music to listen on headphones in a darkened space in order to drift away…
I currently use the following phones:
Shure E500 – oldies but goodies, great sound
Sennheiser HD280 – considered to be a good, flat response studio phone.
GK Ultraphones (modded for better sound isolation) – they use the drivers from Sony’s MDR-7506 phones, which are considered to be a standard for live / broadcast recording monitoring.
Etymotic ER6i – for when out and about, very good noise isolation and pretty good sound.