Mixing and earbuds

Discussion in 'Tracking / Mixing / Editing' started by Sean G, Jul 27, 2016.


Do you check mixes with earbuds?

  1. Yes, always

    1 vote(s)
  2. No, never

    2 vote(s)
  3. Sometimes

    2 vote(s)
  4. I only use earbuds to clean the wax out of my ears

    2 vote(s)
  1. Sean G

    Sean G Well-Known Member

    I thought this would be a good topic to throw open for discussion.

    I recently mixed a song through the monitors, A/B'ing them with a second set of monitors and even checked them on a high quality set of monitor headphones.

    The mix sounded really good to the point I was happy with it, but then I thought I would listen to it through a set of iphone style earbuds...not something I really do with my mixes but every now and then I may check just to listen to how they translate.

    Disaster...the mix sounded like I was listening to it through a set of soup cans. All those lovely clear mids and warm low end had all but disappeared and the whole thing sounded like mud through said soup cans.
    It sounded like I had overdone the reverb to the point of ridiculous and the mix sounded like it had a stereo spread about 60 foot wide...but when you listen to it through monitors or headphones it sounded fine.
    Thinking it may be the earbuds I reached for another pair...same result only slightly better....then another pair...same result.

    Whats the point in compromising a mix that sounds great through monitors just for the sake of making it sound half decent through earbuds?
    Are we just mixing to the lowest common denominator when we take into account how its going to sound through $5 earbuds compared to those big-dollar monitors we spent a months' pay on?

    I know that there is the whole "but everybody is listening to music on earbuds these days..." arguement, and the target audience and their listening habits are a consideration, but should the sound of the fininshed mix have to be compromised to cater for how it sounds through cheap earbuds?

    My view is that surely anything I do to try to improve how it sounds through earbuds it going to have an effect on how it sounds through the monitors, and dare I say a detrimental effect at that.

    So, say I'm mixing for a client and they plan to upload their music to a platform where their music is going to be streamed or downloaded and listened to by the majority through those $5 earbuds, do I just do away with those expensive monitors and spend my days A / B'ing through 5 sets of cheap earbuds just to cater to that?..
    Or do I just continue mixing through the monitors and monitor headphones and not care how things sound through cheap earbuds or worry about the lowest common denominator?
    Or do I do two mixes, one that sounds great through the monitors and one that sounds great through earbuds and hope they upload the right one?

    With more and more music being downloaded and streamed by the day, is this something that we have to start incorporating more into our workflow?..checking the mix through yet another medium?
    There seems to be polar opposite schools of thought depending on where and what you read. Some say it should be something that is taken into account nowdays whereas there are some who believe its a bad idea.

    Its something that has got me second-guessing my mix now.

    What say you...what would / do you do?
  2. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    The "ear-bud mix" was a problem for me until I made more extensive use of the mono button during the mix. I was finding that things like some of the stereo reverb settings I used were sounding muddy in mono, and this forced me to find alternative reverb types that sounded reasonable in stereo but survived a mono test.

    Funnily enough, I had checked the offending mixes on standard headphones, and they sounded acceptable. There is something different about the acoustic coupling of ear buds to the ear canal that is significantly different from that of outside-ear sources, whether that be loudspeakers or standard headphones.
    audiokid and Brien Holcombe like this.
  3. Sean G

    Sean G Well-Known Member

    Thats a really valid point about the use of mono Bos...I must keep that in mind.

    Strangely enough, I just sent a copy of the offending mix in WAV file format to my Samsung phone via USB and played it with the google player, convinced it can't really be that bad, can it?

    It sounds like the monitor mix...WTF???...now I'm going to go back and see if I can find out why it sounds so up to sh*t through my monitor station.

    I had the monitor level on about 3 when I first listened to it, then I plugged the earbuds straight into the interface headphone socket which was not much better...so I don't think I was driving the hell out of them, but now I am wondering if they are just not rated for the task.

    But the point you raise about the acoustic coupling to the ear canal with earbuds as opposed to over the ear style headphones and speakers for that matter, and the effect it must have on how we hear and interpret the sound gives considerable food for thought. I remember the first time I tried earbuds years ago...the sensation was like I had two speakers placed hard up against each side of my head (which essentially you do).

    I thought I was either losing my touch, my hearing or my mind at one stage with this mix o_O
  4. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    The only time I use earbuds to refference mixes is when I work live. I do my mix and get my in-ears (earbud modified with molded silicon) to reference the mix. It's sometime easier to pinpoint problems and frequencies with my in ears.

    In the studio, monitors and headphones are enough to get me on the right path..
    Thing is, when listening with monitors, some of the right channel gets to your left ear and the left to the right. . . this isn't happening with headphones or ear-buds unless you use a room simulator...
  5. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    True, but how does that explain the differences between headphones and ear-buds? The answer could well havc more to do with human anatomy and physiology than with audio engineering.
  6. bouldersound

    bouldersound Real guitars are for old people. Well-Known Member

    Maybe bone conduction is causing some amount of cross-feed with headphones that you don't get with earbuds because their actual acoustic output is lower due to being closer to the eardrums.
  7. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    Of course anatomy and proximity maybe at play. . . Thing is ear buds fill in closer to internal bones and internal ear, that may be a lead ;)
  8. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    I'm only guessing here, because I don't know, but I think that some of these above posts are headed in the right direction: the fact that ear buds are actually inserted into the ear and are making contact with the bones and cartilage of the ears - while headphones are simply speakers that you wear on your ears - is probably a factor.

    Beyond that, I don't know. An ear doctor might be able to provide insight - but I can't help, because the day they were teaching that particular class at Harvard Med I was studying "pharmaceuticals" instead... :p
  9. Sean G

    Sean G Well-Known Member

    You know, I thought that was you sitting in front of me in that class Donny...;)

    But all jokes aside, the contributions to this thread has made this an interesting topic of discussion.

    I did go back after reading Bos' post where he mentions using mono more, I did check the mix in mono and although there was not a lot of discernable difference when the reverb plug was switched off and on while in mono (I used Studio Ones' native Open Air plug-in and the Bricasti M7 Studio K's M-S impulse response) I ended up changing it anyway...but taking this advice and using mono more in the mix is sage advice.
  10. paulears

    paulears Well-Known Member

    The project I'm working on at the moment is important so I've been putting the day's end products onto my iPod and listening when I get into bed, using my IEM moulds. Looking for mistakes really. Perhaps little odd noises, or glaring mix problems,nor that quiet wrong note. While I have spotted a few issues, virtually every track I mentally approve I then find more errors in when listening on the monitors a day or two later. This makes me wonder why I don't hear these on in ears? I don't think hearing these things should be hard. Maybe it's this near the centre problem? The issues come from things in or out of phase near the centre?
  11. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    I'm sure you don't listen to 24bit 96khz files on your ipod. Did you make an mp3 or wave file ?
    Any export and/or rendering would affect the audio
    Also I'm sure the DA of the Ipod doesn't match the quality of the one in your studio.. ;)
  12. paulears

    paulears Well-Known Member

    320K Mp3 for the iPod, and to be very honest that drop in quality and transparency from the DAW to the mp3 is tiny compared to the physical mistakes I hear. The current project involves over 20 tracks of backing vocals - harmonies spread all over the place, and detecting a sniff, or throat tickle that can't be seen is a pain. I also found a tom hit that I'd not noticed was almost tuned to a bass note, so I heard what I thought was a muffed bass note, only to discover it was the mid tom going boooooong! These things I can hear on the IEMs - but now I'm worried that maybe this isn't foolproof, as some things just seem to vanish. On speakers I detected a very strange ting - tracked down to a harpsichord sound that got forgotten about in the automation.

    I think I may well be in the minority, but I actually like the mp3 'tone', and also loved the old mini disc Atrac system. I realise what they do, and how bad they are, but I liked it. There again, I always recorded on cassette with dolby B on, and replayed with it off, and the HF down a tad.
    pcrecord likes this.
  13. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    i'd say. (y)

    Mono is our best friend.
  14. Sean G

    Sean G Well-Known Member

    I agree, I do use mono a fair bit in the mixing stage to check things as I mix, but in this case I never did prior to inserting the reverb on the send. :rolleyes:

    Having said that, I think the primary offender was a 1/8 inch to 1/4 inch adapter on the end of the earbuds going into the monitor station...I swapped this one out with another and there was a marked improvement. The $2 adapter I bought 15 years ago at Radio Shack proved better than the gold plated one that came with my monitor headphones. {facepalm}

    I still believe this topic has merit and is worthy of further discussion, considering how the way we aquire music has changed listening habits today in the digital age.
    ChrisH and pcrecord like this.
  15. Brother Junk

    Brother Junk Active Member

    I have been struggling with that question since the day someone told me to do it. I mix it, it sounds great on the monitors, speakers, headphones etc. Decent on a phone, but lousy through ear buds. Why compromise the integrity of 3 diff listening devices, to make the 4th, and crappiest, sound good? I will try the mono thing, but as of yet, I've not been able to find a happy medium.

    It's a good thought, but IEM's like the JH-Audio 13's et al do the same thing but sound great. They are formed to fit the ear so it would be less stress perhaps then ear buds but they feel "heavier" in the ear than ear buds. I think it's mostly due to the cheapness of the drivers. Because "expensive" ear buds, don't sound like that. There is only so much performance the EB's can deliver, and stay that cheap.

    The Bi-naural effect with headphones/buds is def different. This is easy to see with panning. It's harder to get variations between center and hard left/right than on monitors. And this is just my guess, but I think it's due to the speed with which the sound reaches the processing point. Something that was medium left before, is now hard left. Bc of the distance to the ear, the panning effect is now exponential.

    I have to think about it more, and perhaps play with some examples, but I think this is how the mono idea mentioned earlier might help. The stereo effect obviously isn't working the same, and might be responsible for cancelation issues, phase problems etc. The multiple driver design of the JH-13's may be superior in that they don't cause this.

    Just speculation that may help the discussion along. I'd love to figure out this problem too.
  16. bouldersound

    bouldersound Real guitars are for old people. Well-Known Member

    If something sounds good on monitors, in good headphones and in good IEMs but not in earbuds, it's the earbuds' fault. People using them are probably accustomed to the bad sound anyway.
  17. Brother Junk

    Brother Junk Active Member

    lol, that's how I feel about it. How much performance can we expect from something that costs $15 retail?

    For the people who manage to make it work though, I'd be really curious how.
  18. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    A valid point. I'm not sure that the latest Peter Gabriel or Sting album would sound good through $4 earbuds, either.

    Another solid point. Listeners have become "accustomed" to what we consider to be "bad" ( or at least, "less than good") sound quality. We are more discerning than "civilians" are, because it's our job to be... but at the end of the day, most music released is being listened to by younger people who've never had anything to compare their cheap ear buds to. They've only ever known that particular type of listening method. And, the people old enough to remember listening to music through hifi systems in the past have become jaded as they've jumped on the earbud bandwagon. There are still, without a doubt, audiophiles out there... but they aren't the general rule of thumb anymore.

    My personal wager is that the cheapest, worst sounding speaker-based hi-fi system would still sound better than the best earbuds... further, I'm not entirely convinced that the old Silvertone mono record player I have in my attic wouldn't still sound better than the typical $6-$10 ear buds that people buy at the local Dollar Store.

    I've seen quite a few of the "Beats" headphones being used lately, maybe these are better ( ?) because at least they are actual headphones - as opposed to ear buds, which are inserts, of which have the "decoupling" nature previously discussed.

    While I will continue to pay attention to how mixes sound on various/newer car sound systems, ( because I think that this is is probably the second most popular listening method), I don't believe that I'm going to start mixing "for" ear buds, or be all that concerned with how my mixes sound on the all-too common, overly-popular and cheaply priced $8 ear bud models ... I'm gonna stick with using monitors as my main reference (for the time being, anyway).

    @Sean G, @bouldersound, @audiokid, @paulears, @pcrecord, @Boswell
    That all being said, I do think that this is a good thread, and a topic worthy of discussion....because this is the world that we now live in, and we have to ( at least) take this listening system into consideration... whether we like it or not. ;)

    IMHO of course, ;)

  19. Sean G

    Sean G Well-Known Member

    We should start another thread...the $5 earbud mix challenge...where we all mix the same stems with nothing but cheap earbuds and repost the results.

    It would have to be an honesty system though...no checking them on monitors until you have posted your mix back to the thread.

    Who's up for it?
  20. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    I'm in Sean, it's an interesting idea ;)

    In the past, I had cheap speakers to compare my mixes on. But since I got the Yamaha HS8, I don't feel the need anymore.. My mixes translate well enough on other systems..
    I wouldn't use earbuds to confirm my mixes are ok but the earbud mix challange would be fun ;)
    Sean G likes this.

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