Pro Audio Files

The Importance of Headphones in a Studio

One thing that a lot of studios, engineers, producers and musicians tend to not value are quality headphones. Some consider this a less than glamorous purchase. The bragging rights don’t seem as great as buying a new compressor. In reality, buying a great pair of headphones could be more crucial to recording than the purchase of another flashy compressor.

Sound and Color

Headphones have an influence on a performance. If you spend enough time working with vocalists, you’ll notice how much they respond to what they hear in their cans. Singers like to enter into an alternate universe while tracking. They often want it to sound like a fantasy land.

What they don’t want is it to sound like they hear themselves in their living room. This means you should be spending some time adding reverb and even compression in the headphone mix.

I’ve seen too many engineers get impatient with the headphone mix. Spend time getting a monitor mix. Make sure you’re monitoring what they’re hearing first. Don’t fly blind.

A singer might not know it, but having a great set of headphones will help them get lost in this fantasy world.

If you’re giving them headphones that are uncomfortable or sound bad, it will not influence a great performance. As an engineer, you can’t only think about the mic, preamp and compressor for a vocalist.

You must start thinking about comfort. Comfort not only comes in how headphones feel when you wear them, but how the sound puts players or singers at ease.

The Dealbreaker

Recently, I was working with a very talented singer. We had to do some vocal sessions in a nonconventional space (aka: an apartment). The budget wasn’t there for a studio.

Luckily, I had some nice preamps and mics. The first session I forgot to bring my trusty Shure SRH1540 headphones. The singer just wasn’t feeling the session. At the end, she was doubting whether we could really get the performance in an apartment.

I knew I had a pretty good headphone mix going. I was using the Apollo and Console to create a nice mix with compression and reverb.

I was also using an AEA A840 ribbon mic which sounded great on her voice. From an engineering perspective, the recording tone was peachy keen.

Something still wasn’t right though. I suggested we try again the next day with my trusted headphones. The next day it was a completely different experience. The singer was happy as a lark.

What changed? Only the headphones!

Signature Here

I’ve been in quite a few recording studios in my career. All over the world. More often than not, the headphones selection is weak — even when the mic closet is deep with U47s and old RCAs.

This is also partly due to the way headphones get treated. There are few pieces of gear in the studio that get handled by clients. Clients aren’t usually as cautious about the treatment of gear as you, the studio owner. Sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of laziness, sometimes out of inconsideration, clients damage headphones.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. You could make a List of Headphone Rules:

  • Thou shall not leaveth headphones on the floor when removing from one’s personal thinking and singing apparatus.
  • Thou shall place them carefully on headphone mix portal after usage.
  • Thou shall not drape headphones over mic stand holding the U47.
  • If one shall decide to walk from one end to the other end of the sound cavern, otherwise known as the live room, thou shall remove headphones.
  • If one decides to pose for selfies, thou shall not place headphones in a position that is not their natural, intended use.

After a sacrificial ceremony and a notarized contract, you should be safe with your clients to allow usage of good headphones.

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In all seriousness, it’s a good idea to have a conversation with your client about using your headphones. I find that if you explain wearing them will improve their performance, but that they are fragile, they might be a little more aware.

But, it’s still good to keep a nice long ruler at hand in case of the need for immediate disciplinary actions.

Branded

What’s so special about the Shure SRH1540? I like the replaceable cables and the carrying case for starters. They sound really natural to me. When I get sound with them, it doesn’t sound radically different in the control room. They’re also really comfortable!

For many years I used a lot of AKG phones. But they often needed repair. They sounded pretty good, but when they broke it was frustrating to get them fixed.

Umbilical Cord

As an engineer and producer, having a great pair of headphones is like having a tether cord to home base. No matter what studio I go to, I have a frame of reference to something I know well.

This becomes very important when getting tones. You may not be used to the studio’s monitoring system. So, to have something that you can trust your ears on is important.

I’m at a point now that I even bring my SHR1540’s to sessions I’m called to play on. It always improves my experience.

I tend to prefer closed ear headphones both when performing and engineering. There are times I have to do both. In a lot of modern recording situations, I’m the engineer and musician.

Ear Blinders

Being able to block out as much sound in the room as possible is a major advantage. With closed ear headphones, I can hear slight movements to the amp mic or acoustic guitar mic. Running back and forth to the control room isn’t practical in some situations.

Closed ear headphones cut my trips to the control room by more than half.

You should be serious about headphones. Don’t make them an afterthought. With great headphones you’ll catch all kind of important things faster like buzz in the signal, mics being out of phase, clicks and pops, as well as minute performance imperfections.

Headphones are the unsung hero of any recording studio. I know there are less expensive headphones than the SRH1540’s and I’ve used many of them. But remember, you get what you pay for.

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Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall

Mark Marshall is a producer, songwriter, session musician and instructor based in NYC. More at guitaristmarkmarshall.com

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