October 15, 2019
Headphones or Studio Monitors – A Musician’s Dilemma
In today’s era, music-making has reached previously unscalable heights. Now there are no rules. Every type of music has enormous reach and is being produced everywhere. Effects can be automated in unimaginable ways. But even though there is no end to what can be done, not all music is tasteful. That is why there is a certain way to produce music so that maximum people can enjoy it.
It is the job of the music producer to oversee the recordings and the production. The job entails varying roles during the whole process. Gathering ideas, collaborating with artists, improving upon the lyrics, are all big parts of the process. The basic process can be divided into fundamental stages like songwriting, tracking, arranging, editing, mixing, etc. These are not rigid patterns, but are the personal choice for any producer.
Throughout this process, the medium chosen to carry out the tasks becomes the key. The most common devices used for such purposes are the studio headphones and monitor speakers. But there is a considerable amount of confusion as to which is better between the two.
While speakers have been traditionally used, headphones do have an edge sometimes. Let’s first take a look at them one at a time.
They are broadly of three types: closed-back, open-back, and semi-open. Closed-back is usually used for recordings. These are suited for hearing finer details in the music. But sometimes the sound may get distorted after being reflected from the interiors. Pressure is also built up in the ears.
Open-back headphones have perforations which allow sound waves to travel freely. Therefore, sound production is more accurate and useful in mixing or mastering. But due to the vents, some external noise may be picked up while recording. Secondly, sound tends to leak out as well, sometimes leaving out minute details of the track. Nevertheless, open-back headphones are the closest things to the studio monitors.
The semi-open headphones are halfway between the other two models. They are pretty similar to the open-back ones in terms of sound, but still experience some sound leakage.
Based on usage, there are broadly two types: near-field and far-field.
Near-field monitors are typically used at a smaller distance from the listener, usually a couple of meters. They provide the best sound in smaller spaces where conditions are not optimal. However, the sound production is not good at the lower end.
Far-field monitors function optimally at larger distances, preferably in rooms that have been acoustically treated. Sound signals at lower frequencies are formed properly at approximately 50 feet, so they are very effective for getting the bass response. Understandably, they are not suitable for small rooms.
At first glance, the monitors might seem like the way to go. They are bigger, equipped with many speakers, and are enclosed. The sound they produce is often more robust and precise. But the sound doesn’t interact with the ears directly. Being placed in a big room, the sound ricochets off of walls. Due to the interaction of the sound with the space, it may change drastically.
The headphones reduce all these cons, but they have a few of their own. As they are small in size, the response is not as good. The sound does come to the ears directly, but the low-end sound is not as good as that of the speakers. But headphones can be used to fine-tune minute details which the speakers might miss.
It also depends upon the stage of production someone is working on. For mixing, monitors are better suited, while for monitoring, headphones are the way to go. For mastering, far-field speakers are used almost invariably.
Sometimes it may also depend upon the environment of work. In a fully-equipped room, it makes sense to use monitors. The monitors can be used in various configurations to mix more efficiently and the sound is more faithful. Studios are usually acoustically treated which further enhances the sound. At the same time, headphones are very useful when you’re on the move. Studios are not always feasible, making headphones invaluable assets to some producers.
In conclusion, there is a lot of debate as to which is better suited, but there no clear winner. Regardless of their design and prowess, both products are suitable for a lot of purposes in different situations. A studio could use both of them for the best production. Depending upon the style of work, budget, environment, urgency, etc., both of them have their uses.