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Engineering Tip- A Better Headphone Mix

Working with Phil Ramone there were a few basic rules that were never to be broken.
Rule One
Engineering should be as transparent and unobtrusive as possible to the artist recording.
Setups were to be done in advance and tested thoroughly. Your experience should allow you to record immediately on the artists arrival, even if you hadn’t had a chance to do a Sound Check or get levels with the band. Having the assistant play as many instruments as possible, setting ruff eq based on mic selection, and having compressors in line with the makeup gain preset to the amount of compression desired but with the threshold set high so it can be dialed in during recording.
Playing a CD through all headphones to be sure they are stereo, in phase and not blown. These are all good starting points.
Phil was very particular about 3 things, Your hands better be on the faders riding or Mixing to tape, always work to have the best monitor mix possible, and you better have a kick ass cue mix. On his sessions the recording engineer should always have a pair of headphones around his neck, and constantly check the cue mix.
Headphones are not really up to the job of studio monitoring , the only exception might be in ear monitors that block outside sound which means they don’t have to compete with ambient sound level. Regular headphones are not able to compete with the level of a drum kit or a loud guitar amp in the room without distortion. Here are two things you can do to your cue mix to make it punchier and reduce distortion.

The first is to EQ just the cue mix. The big thing here is to use a High Pass Filter. Headphones in general are not able to reproduce very low frequencies, 30,40 hz or 50hz rolloff will reduce driver excursion and distortion.  Look even if your headphones are able to reproduce 30 hz they won’t be able to do it at a high SPL. You can add a little low mids (120hz or higher) if you feel a loss of fullness. Next thing we did was just a touch of compression or limiting. Again this can give a higher apparent level and a more forward sound in the cans at a lower level with less distortion.

We always set up the cue mix post monitor fader. I set all levels the equal, and set the pans to match my monitor panning. So with out even listening to the cue mix I know the musician is getting my monitor mix. Any adjustments or improvements I make to my monitor mix will be made to the headphone mix simultaneously. Then I offset that mix to the players personal taste. For example, all my aux sends are set to 1 o’clock, my pans match my monitor mix. I determine that the singer likes his or her vocal level set a 3 o’clock, the Piano at 2 o’clock for pitch reference, and the bass turned down to 12 o’clock.
All my monitor mix changes are fed to the phones post fader. I learn the desired offset for each player, and that way the headphone mix can be pretty much preset before a note is played. Every time I change to a new song for recording or overdubbing I have a better chance of catching the first performance.

Many times an artist would step into the studio to warm up, and do something spontaneous and brilliant. Phil’s head would whip around to see if I was in record, next he would ask me if everything was ok “you getting this? “ if the levels were anywhere near ok I would say yes. Eq I could deal with later. If we got through that first shot at recording with reasonable levels and sounds and without someone stopping because of headphone problems,  I would feel a sense of pride, that my preparation had paid off.
Oh by the way, with Phil there was only one answer to “ You getting this? “ and it had better be yes. He was never the type of producer that spent 12 hours on a kick sound. It was all about capturing the magic. Maybe that was the most important lesson of all.
copyright 2010 Bradshaw Leigh

4 thoughts on “Engineering Tip- A Better Headphone Mix

  1. Thanks for reminding me of the Ramone ethic. Back in the analog, pre-smpte, days, in one of those moments I recorded an overdub off the play head, so it was out-of-sync. Ramone turned to me and said have it fixed by tomorrow. Any guesses how I did it?

  2. Only guess is flip the tape and bounce? Those situations were such great learning experiences.
    When I f-ed up he would say, fix it and go home.

  3. Joe Rogers says:

    Great post Brad. I’d argue that the cue mixes should be pre rather than post fader as I like to listen to a lot of different things during a tracking session and don’t want me soloing something interfering with the folks that are doing the work.

    I will admit that as a young engineer (way back when), the cue mix was one of the hardest things for me to learn, especially if you had say horns and a rhythm section or something that required two mixes. As an engineer, I think that a lot of folks forget that the cue mix is one of the most important tools in your arsenal for capturing a performance. If the mix is there, the artist can focus on doing what they do. If it’s off, it will be reflected in the performance.

  4. Angie Teo says:

    Hear, hear!

    When I was assisting sessions, it was always a bad sign when the engineer walked in and couldn’t be bothered with the cue mixes either because he didn’t think that it was his problem or he treated it as an afterthought. It reveals a lazy, inexperienced, and or arrogant attitude towards the recording process and that makes the day a miserable uphill battle from the get-go.

    This was a great read, Brad. Thanks for that!

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