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Why you should also monitor on damaged headphones

Your market doesn't listen on loudspeakers that are anywhere near as good as your studio monitors. And their headphones may be even worse...


I was soloing through the instruments of a mix sent to me the other day. As someone whose business it is to help people learn audio, I'm always on the lookout for interesting examples of individual instruments, well recorded or not-so-well.

As is my habit, I was listening on headphones because I want to be able to hear very small details of sound very clearly (although for monitoring during recording or mixing I would always use loudspeakers).

And then I came to the bass guitar track...

Arghh! The right side of my headphones started to buzz. Even though I am far too protective of my hearing to monitor at high levels, the sheer quantity of very low frequency energy in the bass guitar track had separated some of the turns of the coil in the driver. Good job I have a spare in stock. It's quite a while, years in fact, since I last had to change one.

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But the damage didn't completely ruin the headphones. The driver would only buzz on high-level deep bass, anything with bass at normal levels sounded fine. This in my experience is not at all unusual - a headphone driver or loudspeaker that buzzes on bass but otherwise sounds OK.

Turning to my loudspeakers, and turning down the monitor level, it became clear that this particular recording of bass guitar was simply far too bassy.

Now there's good bass and bad bass...

Good bass is the stuff that thumps you in the chest and energizes your whole body. It's exciting.

Bad bass is the stuff that you can't really hear but makes your insides wobble uncomfortably. It also takes up space in the mix that could be occupied by something more useful. It limits the level achievable on playback and on occasion can damage speakers and headphones.

This isn't so much of a problem to deal with though. It takes just a few seconds to insert an EQ and bring down the very low frequencies to an acceptable level, and it's easier to do this than to put bass in where it is absent completely.

But this brings me to my point...

Why you should also monitor on damaged headphones

People listen on all kinds of playback systems, of all levels of quality. And many listen on 'earbuds'. A typical iPod owner will start off with the Apple earbuds that came with their iPod. Then these will get damaged and they will buy a cheap replacement from eBay. You can pay as little as one UK pound (£1), including shipping from China. I suspect that on the US site you can pay less than a dollar.

So, given a little real-world use, how many of these sets of earbuds are going to be in full working order? How many of them won't buzz when the bass is overly-wound up?

The mix you have carefully crafted on your expensive studio monitors, and checked on genuine Apple earbuds that you always keep in a protective container and never allow anyone else to use, may sound rather different in the real world. And the real world includes people who listen on buzzy earbuds.

It would make sense therefore to check your mixes in real-world conditions. And that means checking them on a pair of earbuds that you have let small children or teenagers loose on for a month.

Realistically, I don't think I will actually be doing this. I feel that after many years of experience I know how much bass is enough and how much is too much. And I play back my work on a variety of properly-functioning systems. But a reality-check once in a while does no harm whatsoever. Put yourself in the position of someone you expect eventually to hear your work and experience things the same way they do.

P.S. What if the record company exec you are trying to impress listens to mixes in their car? That might be more of a problem to replicate.

By David Mellor Monday September 19, 2011