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How to Create a Headphone Mix

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When you’re in the tracking phases of a recording project and need to get the best takes out of each musician you’re working with, one trick of the trade is setting up headphone mixes. Musicians are able to perform at their peak when they’re getting the musical information they need to make the next take great — and that information may not make itself clear in the overall mix. Here’s how to create a headphone mix in Pro Tools.

Step 1 — Make Good Use of Auxiliary Channels

If you’re only recording with a few instruments on 4-8 tracks, feel free to skip this step. With larger sessions, creating a headphone mix — and mixing in general — can become difficult. Ensure your main instrument groups are being sent to an auxilary instead of directly to the master fader. With rock tracks, I tend to use an aux for vocals, guitars, and drums. Since bass guitar usually only needs one track, I leave it without one.

To do this, create a stereo auxiliary track, name it appropriately and set the input under the I/O section to a free stereo bus. Then click on the output selector under the I/O section of each track you want to route and set it to match with the bus selected for the aux track’s input.

In the image above are the individual drum tracks in the mix I’m working with; without routing these to an auxiliary, creating a mix — whether it be headphone or master — would be hell.

Here’s our original mix, still in the tracking phases, but with some compression and EQ applied to control things:

Step 2 — Create a Headphone Auxiliary

Create a new stereo auxiliary track as you normally would and set the input to a new unused bus. Name this track Headphones. On each main instrument group auxiliary and any effects auxiliaries you are using, create a new send and select the bus you configured the Headphone aux to accept audio from.

Step 3 — Consult with the Artist

At this stage you should have the artist in the recording room listening to the track and performing along with it. My project has everything except vocals tracked, so in this case we’d be working with a singer. Remember that the drummer, guitarist and singer are all going to want headphone mixes designed for them, so don’t use the same on all of them. Once you have a rough idea of which starting levels they’d like, it’s time to start mixing.

Step 4 — Begin the Mix

Go through each of the sends on your group auxiliaries and set up a basic mix. Make your starting mix identical in levels to the main mix, since your musician will have asked for changes based on that. Go through the list of modifications and start experimenting — this whole time, of course, you should be using the send faders, not the track faders. Continue to get feedback from the artist through talkback (assuming they’re in another room).

The vocalist wanted a dryer mix — the delay and reverb is often distracting — with much less guitars so the rhythm of the track would remain at the forefront. The bass and drums are the main feature of this headphone mix, which means no distractions and all the information required to know where we are in the song and keep the rhythm strong.

Here is what the headphone mix sounds like at this stage:

Step 5 — Hunt Down Problems

Even with those changes, the singer found the mix too roomy despite the lack of delay and reverb. The problem in this case was the variety of overhead, room and hallway tracks on the drums. We muted these and the singer was much happier:

Unfortunately, as you can hear very clearly, the noise gate on the hi-hat is really audible without those drum ambience tracks, so we bypassed the plug-in. With the ambience tracks on, a bit of extra room noise on the hi-hat track was just sounding too much but since those are off for the headphone mix this isn’t a problem.

Step 6 — Roll Off the Highs

Depending on the headphones and microphones the artist is using, microphone bleed of the high frequency variety can become a problem. If that’s the case, roll of some high frequencies with an EQ on the headphone auxiliary.

Step 7 — More Advanced Control

At some stage most artists will want more minute control of certain tracks. Instead of asking for more overall drums, they may ask for more kick drum but want the snare lowered. In this case you may want to leave that particular track out of the instrument group auxiliary and create a send directly to the Headphone auxiliary. Remember to compensate for any loss in gain if you have limiters on your group auxiliaries.

Here’s our headphone mix with plenty of kick and not a whole lot of snare:

There are a few ways to do headphone mixes, but this is one that’s worked well for me and strikes a balance between making the actual mixing easier while providing options for making smaller single-track level changes.

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