I’m always amazed how musicians react to their headphones and cue mixes while recording. Some are extremely picky, needing everything to be as perfect as possible before performing, while others can make do with just about anything that closely resembles a mix and a working headphone or two. Rob Tavaglione recently wrote a nice piece at ProSoundNetwork regarding “Headphone Freakout Solutions” that covered a few things that I never thought of, which prompted me to fill in a few more solutions and tricks that I’ve learned through the years. Here we go.
First from Rob:
- Try flipping the phase of the mic. This might open up a hole in the center of the cue mix where the vocal can sit better both frequency-wise, and if you’re providing a stereo mix, panning-wise as well. Just remember to flip the phase of the track back for a playback or when you mix.
- Try some open-back headphones. The isolation of the cue mix might seem too foreign to some players who don’t have a lot of studio experience, so open-back phones might make them feel more comfortable. Watch out for the level so you don’t get too much headphone bleed, or even feedback with vocalists.
Now some of my own.
- Set a mix up for the players. In these days of personal cue mixers, you’ll find that some players just cannot dial in a mix to save their lives. They know what they want, but just don’t know how to get there. That’s why it’s always best if the engineer sets up a basic mix first, then helps each player tweak it as needed. Remember, in a situation like this, fewer choices work the best.
- Give the drummer some isolation headphones. Drummers need their headphones loud (especially the click) because they’re usually right in middle of a big ruckus of their own creation. Save everyone some grief with leakage by having the drummer wear some good iso phones.
For vocalists and overdubs in general.
- The kick, bass, and one main instrument should be prominent in the mix. The kick will keep the singer in the pocket, the bass is the key center, and keeping one basic backbone instrument high in the mix (like a piano or guitar) will help the singer find the pitch.
- Eliminate chorus or modulation effects. Anything that varies the pitch even a little makes it really difficult for some singers to find the pitch center, so they end up not being able to sing in tune. That nice wide chorus on the keys might be a great effect, but a boring mono part will probably help the singer a little better.
Setting up a great headphone mix is an art in itself, but it’s so important to a player or singer’s performance. Follow these tips and take enough time to get the phones right, and you’ll have happy players, singers and producers.