One of the things that separate a good engineer from a great one is the quality of the headphone mix that he or she provides for their musicians. Do a session with one of the A-listers, and you’ll be surprised at just how much time is spent on the headphones, even if the musicians have the capability of setting their own mix up for themselves. Why? A happy musician or singer means a better performance. So, here are a number of things to consider when creating your next headphone mix, especially as it pertains to singers.

  • Make sure that you use the best headphones possible, and that they’re not broken or intermittent. Nothing stops a session quicker than a player with a headphone problem.
  • Set the level of the kick drum, snare, and bass high in the mix. This will ensure that the musicians can feel the rhythm of the song so they can stay in the pocket easier. The singer also needs the fundamental key of the song provided by the bass to stay in pitch, while the drummer needs it for reference as well.
  • Next, add the chordal instrument, like a guitar or piano, at a level that’s not quite as loud as the bass and drums. Once again, every musician needs to hear the other instruments to cue off of.
  • Make sure that you don’t add anything that’s modulated with a chorus or flanger, since that could cause the musician to search for the pitch. If necessary, just give them a mono instrument feed without the chorus.
  • Put all other instruments into the mix at a level slightly below the bass and drums. Only increase a level if a singer or musician asks for it, if you’re providing their mix through aux sends. If musicians have their own personal headphone mix, this provides them with a good place to tweak their own mix.

For singers:

  • If you need to have a vocalist sing harder, louder, or more aggressively, turn down the vocal track in the phones a bit, or turn the backing tracks up.
  • If you need to have the singer sing softer or more intimately, turn the singer's track up in the phones, or turn down the backing tracks.
  • Adding a touch of reverb or delay to the vocal can help the singer feel more comfortable with the headphone mix.

Personal Headphone Mixes

Perhaps the best thing to come along in recent years has been the introduction of the relatively inexpensive personal cue mix system. These systems allow the musician to personally control the headphone mix by supplying up to eight channels for the musician to control. Each headphone mixer/box also contains a headphone amplifier that can usually provide earsplitting level.

Hear Technologies’ Hear Back is one of the many
personal mixing systems that give multiple
performers control over their own headphone mixes.

With a personal mixer, you can supply your musicians with individual track sends instead of setting up individual mixes for each of them. Regardless, it’s best to provide a stereo monitor mix, as well as the kick, snare, and vocal tracks — and whatever other instruments are prominent — so that the players can mix in a way they feel comfortable. The stereo mix that you provide acts as the main mix, and the other tracks enable them to boost another mix element as needed.

The Click Track

Having a click track in the headphone mix has become a fact of life in most sessions these days. Not only does playing at an even tempo sound better, it makes cut and paste editing between different performances in a DAW easy. Having a track based on a click also makes things like timing the delay and reverb easier to determine during the mix.

Providing just a metronome in the phones often isn’t that inspiring. Here are some tricks to make the click listenable while still being able to cut through the densest mixes.

  • Pick The Right Sound. Something that’s more musical than an electronic click is better to groove to. Try either a cowbell, sidestick, or even a conga slap. Needless to say, when you pick a sound to replace the click, it should fit within the context of the song. Many drummers like two sounds for a click track; something like a high go-go bell for the downbeat and a low go-go bell for the other beats.
  • Pick The Right Number Of Clicks Per Bar. Some players like 1/4 notes while others play a lot better with an 1/8th note click track. Whichever it is, it will usually work better if there’s more emphasis on the downbeat than on the other beats.
  • Make sure the drummer wears isolation headphones. Drummers like the click loud — and I mean really loud. This isn’t because they’re all deaf, but because of the acoustic din of the drums around them. When the click is that loud, it can also leak into the open mics. That’s why a good pair of isolation headphones really helps. Not only will it keep the surrounding acoustic sound out, but it will also seal the click in around the drummer’s head. A nice byproduct of this is that the phones no longer have to be as loud, which saves the drummer’s hearing as well.
Isolation headphones make it easier for drummers
to hear click tracks during recording.

You’ll often find a player who doesn’t like to play, or plays stiffly, to a click. If that’s the case, don’t be afraid to go without one, since there’s been plenty of huge hits that never had a click track in the past. That said, in this world of drum machines, loops, sequencers and DAWs, most musicians today have grown used to playing with something that provides steady time.

Regardless if you’re using a click or not, remember that if you want to get the best out of any player or singer, always make the headphone mix a priority. There’s no better way to ensure that your session will run smoothly.
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Bobby Owsinski is a producer and music technology consultant who is the author of 16 books about recording and the music business, including The Audio Mixing Bootcamp and The Recording Engineer’s Handbook. Read his music marketing blog at Music 3.0 music industry blog, and his production blog at the Big Picture production blog. You can read about his books at bobbyowsinski.com, or follow him on Twitter for daily blog updates.