Headphones

Studios buy things like the ubiquitous Beyer DT100’s not for their amazing sound quality, but rather their practically indestructible construction. Often, you’ll see the actual foam around the ears starting to rot and smell like a wet dog before that model of headphone would break, and even if it did, everything is replaceable. This is a fine thing, but not always the best for sound quality for the musician, and in turn the effect on performance. Singers are especially sensitive to these kinds of things, so a midrange heavy, bland headphone with no detail like a DT100 may not be the best option - the same for bassists - they deserve some bass! Unfortunately musicians are also pretty careless, like to step on things, bounce them off walls in fits of rage..you get the idea. I’ve had more than one session where the headphone destruction cost more than the session fee. They make the cables in most low cost headphones from this crazy, unfixable (reliably at least) lacquer coated wire that is usually impossible to re-solder for a mere mortal which make buying anything cheap a false economy. My advice is get at one good enclosed back pair for tracking as an engineer, take them to sessions, let your singers use them, and look after them.

Drummers often have a hard time too. I’ve seen the headphones metal headband bent into a vice-like V to stay put, crushing the poor drummers skull giving them a headache, a sweatband around the outside, or even yes...duct tape on a beanie to keep them put. Try a pair of earplug style earbuds for drummers, and putting a pair of noise protectors over the top, or failing that, a pair of headphones that aren’t plugged in. The outer cans will provide a high degree of isolation, and the earbuds can work really well. Tape the cable to the drummers back, keeping it out the way, and remind them to unplug before leaving the drum stool. (They'll get it after a few accidents almost falling over the kit) This method allows you to keep the click level down, the drummer has a better chance of not going deaf, and they are inexpensive. More drummers these days are using in-ears live, but this is also a good option if they don't own any.

Ok, so now we have headphones, but what are they listening to? First rule: actually listen to the headphone mix. You’d be surprised how many people don’t, wondering what the hell the artist’s problem is and why they are complaining when the sound they are being given is terrible. A good engineer has this down from the start. Most serious studios have fancy-schmancy headphone systems which allow the musician to make, or at least partially make their own monitor mixes for their own headphones. This has it’s pros and cons. The more complicated the system is, the more often it gets weird as the special network cable the headphone box uses fails to fit properly, one wire is loose, the usual nonsense which on a busy session - is your fault of course, so be prepared! Still, when they work, they work well. There’s a lot to be said for sending a really good stereo mix to the headphones, and listening to it. For me, stereo seems to always work better than mono and the better it sounds, the better the performance you’ll get.

Of course, sometimes...maybe you can just scrap the headphones. Maybe your singer likes to be in the control room with a handheld mic, which according to “the rules” is a no-no. The first session I did with Julian Cope had him screaming into my face from six inches away to see how I'd react, and it seemed to work out just fine for the next headphone-free decade of craziness. You’re not going to get a lot of bleed with someone shouting directly into a mic pressed to their lips. There’s also another way, which works like this: set up a pair of speakers at mic height pointing inwards to you at 45 degrees, then flip one of the speakers phase; by that I mean reverse the order of the speaker wires. This can create a weird, strange...almost underwater sound, but offers a lot of cancellation and works for some people. You could also not bother to flip the phase of anything and see what happens as it sounds a lot more natural. Maybe the bleed is fine after all and you don't have to deal with the phase weirdness? As with most things in recording, whatever works applies.

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Adam Whittaker