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Music production has now become more accessible and financially feasible than ever before. Sure, professional recording studios have their own special place, but they aren’t the only option, especially for emerging artists.
Home-based music production on home studios has now become a thing. It is now possible for emerging artists, who cannot afford big record labels, to produce their music on their own. And it’s through the development and affordability of music production tools, including studio headphones, which make it possible for beginners to build their own recording rig at home.
This post can be a great starting point for you if you are very new to music production and want to get the basics right. Or if you already know a thing or two, you will not run short on options for headphones that suit your requirements.
Uses of headphones in music production
When it comes to top-tier, professional-level music production, headphones are generally a secondary option and not primary. However, there are many cases in which headphones become a primary option.
In the context of home-based music production, studio headphones come as an alternative to studio speaker monitors. Apart from direct and input monitoring, studio headphones also work well for mixing and mastering audio tracks.
Headphones for monitoring in music production
Monitoring is a crucial part of music production. It’s basically listening to your input, whether that’s your vocals or your instrument. Although speaker monitors are the preferred choice for monitoring, headphones do work well. Similar to speaker monitors, studio headphones work well for direct as well as input monitoring.
Direct monitoring is listening to your input via your audio interface live. On the other hand, input monitoring is listening to your input after it is processed with effects and other tools in your computer.
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Headphones for mixing and mastering in music production
While monitoring comes into play during the recording stage, mixing and mastering are the next two stages essential for music production of any style. Mixing is combining all the tracks that have been recorded; the tracks can include multiple vocal layers, musical instrument takes, and additional sound effects.
Here’s a basic look into blending multiple audio tracks as part of the mixing process.
Image credit: Pro Tools Expert
With one of the best music production headphones, it becomes easier for you to hear all the details, including subtle adjustment in volume levels, balancing the headroom of every audio track, and matching their loops with the beat or bar.
Mastering, on the other hand, is shaping the overall sonic picture of the song after all the audio tracks are mixed together. Similar to mixing, it’s important to hear fine details during the mastering stage with a pair of proper headphones to make sure that the final polishing you do, including balancing compressors and fine-tuning the song with linear-phase EQs, is on point.
Here is a comparison between an unmastered song track and a mastered song track. Notice how the audio waveforms on the unmastered song track (labeled in purple) are uneven. On the other hand, the mastered song track (labeled in red) has even and consistent audio waveforms.
Image credit: CreativeLive YouTube
When to use studio headphones?
Using studio speaker monitors is always the best choice, even for home studio recording. This is because the speakers that studio monitors use are larger in size and therefore deliver a wider headroom and better playback.
However, using studio speaker monitors is not always economically or practically feasible for many. Here are some reasons why you’d want to get your hands on one of the best music production headphones instead of professional-level studio speaker monitors:
Lack of proper room acoustics
If you have a home studio that hasn’t been acoustically treated, it’s best to use headphones for monitoring. This is because audio from speaker monitors reacts to the overall dimensions and the materials of the room. As a result, the output audio from the speaker monitors you hear may not be true to the recorded tracks as it may bounce off the walls and cause reverberation or get absorbed on materials such as clothing fabrics.
No budget for professional-level speaker monitors
Not everybody has the budget to go for professional-level speaker studio monitors, such as the ATC SCM25A Pro. If you cannot invest in mid-range or top-tier studio speaker monitors, it’s best to go for one of the popular headphones for music production in order to get the best value out of your budget.
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Lack of space for speaker monitors
Speaker monitors can take up quite a bit of desk space. And since it’s always recommended to use speaker monitors in pairs for stereo sound, you may not have the desk real estate needed to conveniently place a pair of speaker monitors while ensuring there’s desk space left for your computer keyboard, midi controllers, audio interface, and other accessories.
In such a case, it’s best to choose one of the best headphones for mixing and monitoring over a pair of speaker monitors.
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Mix and master music on the go/while traveling
If you are someone who prefers to work on your music production projects while on the go, similar to pop record producer Oak Felder, having a pair of dynamic studio headphones can help you intricately hear your mixes or mastering drafts.
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What types of headphones are best for music production?
Although commercial headphones, especially popular models, are great for enjoying a great music listening experience, they aren’t the perfect choice for music production. This is because most commercial headphones have audio performance that is tweaked to make the music listening experience enjoyable, such as boosted bass and refined mids and highs.
During music production, you want the audio to be as natural sounding as possible in order to get your vocals and instruments recorded right. There are two categories of headphones that are well-suited for music production due to their natural audio reproduction performance.
Open-back headphones are the best headphones for producing music in the studio or at home. Unlike commercial headphones that have a closed-back design, open-back headphones have openings on the outer enclosure of the ear cups.
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Open-back headphones deliver natural-sounding audio. This is because the opening on the outer enclosure of the ear cups doesn’t limit the movement of the sound drivers and therefore allows for a more dynamic audio performance.
Flat response headphones
Headphones that have a flat frequency response are another top pick for music production. These types of headphones deliver consistent audio responses across a wide frequency spectrum and make sure that frequencies in audio tracks aren’t overrepresented or underrepresented. As such, they make some of the best mixing headphones.
Here’s how a flat frequency response looks like:
Image credit: Audio Dynamics YouTube
When compared to uneven frequency response, flat frequency response is notably consistent.
Image credit: Audio Dynamics YouTube
6 best headphones for music production
Although there are no shortages of options for music production headphones, not all deliver the best value. Here, we have carefully selected some of the best music production headphones for the money:
1. Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro – check it out here
Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro is one of the best mid-range headphones for music production in the open-back design category that you can get your hands on. Although marketed as a reference headphone for mixing and mastering, this model excels at monitoring as well.
Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro uses 45 mm tesla neodymium sound drivers to deliver a dynamic audio performance that’s essential for transparent audio track monitoring, mixing, and mastering.
2. Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro – check it out here
Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro is well-suited for professional-level monitoring. This model comes as an unmistakable choice especially if you want to record loud musical instruments such as drums or lead guitars. This is because the closed-back design of the headphone helps you suppress ambient noise and clearly hear the direct or input monitoring of the instrument.
Unlike other closed-back headphones, Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro offers well-balanced audio that stays true to the input audio. Also, the adjustable ear cup paddings ensure superior comfort even for long hours of usage.
3. Shure SRH1440 – check it out here
If you want to get your hands on one of the professional flat response headphones without spending too much, Shure SRH1440 is an unmistakable choice. This open-back headphone works well for monitoring as well as mixing as it delivers full-range audio with its 40 mm neodymium sound drivers.
Shure SRH1440 offers critical listening, thanks to its plush ear paddings that ensure just the right amount of ambient noise insulation.
4. Audiotechnica ATH R70x – check it out here
Audiotechnica ATH R70x is one of the most versatile music production headphones on this list. As one of the flagship studio headphones in Audiotechnica’s catalog, this headphone doesn’t fail to live up to professional music production standards with its natural and acoustic sound.
This open-back headphone works great for monitoring as well as mixing and mastering. The dynamic 45 mm sound drivers of the headphone deliver transparent audio performance that’s just right for music production.
5. Sennheiser HD 200 Pro – check it out here
Closed-back studio headphones are a great choice if you don’t have your home studio acoustically treated. Among several closed-back studio headphones in the mid-range price category, Sennheiser HD 200 Pro comes as one of the best options in terms of practicality and professional-level audio performance.
This headphone lets you hear all the fine details with superior ambient noise isolation and dynamic audio performance. Also, the well-balanced flat frequency response of this headphone does not fail to help you mix every single audio track the right way.
6. Pioneer SE-Master 1 – check it out here
Pioneer SE-Master 1 comes as one of the best studio headphones for you if you prefer speaker monitor-like performance on a pair of headphones. This headphone stands out with its large-sized 50 mm neodymium sound drivers that deliver audio performance with full headroom.
The mesh grille opening on the outer enclosures of this headphone works to your advantage of listening to transparent monitored audio. The dynamic sound drivers of this headphone adapt to almost every music genre which makes it possible for you to work on almost all types of music production projects.
Important points to take note of when using studio/music production headphones
Although studio/music production headphones are similar to commercial headphones in several aspects, including design and ergonomics, they are different in many ways. Therefore, it’s important to know what to expect out of music production headphones and how to properly use them.
Studio/music production headphones do not sound enjoyable
As discussed earlier, commercial headphones deliver audio performance that is tweaked to make the music listening experience enjoyable. Doing this involves boosting the bass, and refining the mids and highs.
However, this is not the case with music production headphones. In most cases, studio/music production headphones do not sound pleasant as the audio performance they deliver is true to the actual audio that is recorded on your computer. In other words, a studio headphone can sound bland to you if you’re using it for the first time. This essentially means that it’s best to not use studio/music production headphones for entertainment purposes such as casually listening to music, watching videos, and playing games.
They do not have fancy features such as active noise cancellation
Proper studio/music production headphones do not come with fancy technological features such as active noise cancellation, built-in equalizer, a dedicated smartphone app, and audio sharing features.
Professional studio/music production headphones are designed with only one priority, and that is to deliver as natural-sounding audio as possible. Although you may come across several studio/music production headphones with wireless connectivity, it’s always best to go for wired connectivity as there is no audio latency or lag.
It’s best to invest in a mid-range or a premium studio headphone
It’s always a good option to go for mid-range or premium models if you are planning to get your hands on professional studio/music production headphones. Studio headphones that are priced in the mid-range or premium category are often built with high-quality internal components, including dynamic sound drivers that use high-quality and long-lasting magnets.
Also, make sure that you go for a studio headphone that has large-sized sound drivers, preferably 40 mm or 50 mm sound drivers. This is because the larger the sound drivers, the more natural and articulate the audio reproduction.
It’s not possible to get a true flat frequency response
If you are planning to get your hands on a flat response headphone, it’s best not to be a harsh judge on the frequency response performance of the model you plan to buy. This is because it’s not possible to get a true flat frequency response.
According to a post by Audiocheck, human ears aren’t the best at judging flat frequency response. This is because human ears are sensitive to higher frequencies and therefore audio in the upper medium frequency range tends to sound louder than they are.
Image credit: Audiocheck