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Written: September 30th, 2010 By:
David Meyer
David Meyer
Sound and Music Director

Nowadays, music equipment is not the niche market that it used to be.  Technological advancements have made the ability to create and record quality music more accessible to people.  It seems like music creators are everywhere!  At the same time, it can seem overwhelming at first to know where to start your music equipment arsenal.  Some equipment can be very expensive, and the majority of us cannot afford to go out and buy a complete pro studio at once.  So where should you start?

There is one piece of music equipment which I purchased at one point which I can safely say has, out of all the equipment that I’ve ever used, had the most dramatic impact on the quality of my music, and it’s probably not what you’re expecting:

Headphones.

That’s right.  Not just regular headphones, though—studio headphones.  What’s the difference?  Why are they so important?

The difference between regular headphones and studio headphones is in their purpose.  Regular consumer headphones are designed to sound good.  I mean, that’s what people typically want when they buy headphones.  They want them to sound good.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but it presents a problem when these headphones are used during music production.   Regular headphones often augment the audio signal coming through them in some way in order to make a poor signal sound better when played through those headphones.  This can deceive you into thinking your mix sounds good, when in reality, it’s a poor mix.  Studio headphones, on the other hand, have the purpose of accurate sound reproduction.  In other words, they won’t lie to you.  If your mix is bad, it will sound bad.  If you can get your song to sound good through a good pair of studio headphones, then you know you really have a good mix!

Why is a good pair of studio headphones important?  Well, say there was a photographer who had poor eye-sight.  Unaware of his problem, he takes a roll of pictures using a manual-focus camera, which he felt really good about.  But when he gets that film developed and he looks at the pictures closely, he notices that they are all blurry!  Since he did not have clear sight when he was focusing the camera, he was not able to focus it well in order to make a clear image.  In the same way, someone who is producing a recording who is not using a good pair of studio headphones may feel good about his mix, but when he plays it through another device, suddenly the mix is muddled or unbalanced and you cannot clearly hear all the elements.  Accurate headphones are as important to a music producer as clear eye-sight is to a photographer.

I should note that studio monitors might be used in place of studio headphones.  The reason I am focusing on headphones in this article is because a great pair of studio headphones is less expensive than a great pair of studio monitors, and I find myself using the headphones more despite owning both, since headphones afford better stereo separation and, in come cases, clarity and dynamic range.

So what should you look for when choosing studio headphones?

  • Price: A good pair of studio headphones will cost over $100.  Be prepared to pay that much or more.  They will last you a very long time, though, so it’s worth it.
  • Sound quality: The best way to determine sound quality is either by comparing them in person or by reading user reviews online.  Look for clarity and accuracy.  Good bass response is desirable, but the bass should not be “boosted” or overpowering.  Treble should be clear without being aggressive or piercing.  Mids should be clearly discernible in spite of the clear treble, but also without overpowering the mix.  If you prefer to compare specifications, the frequency response should go well beyond 20 kHz, and the response curve should be as flat as possible within the 20-20,000 Hz range.
  • Durability: Since you will be investing some money in these headphones, you want them to last a long time.  Compare user reviews and the length of the manufacturer warranty.  Also, high-end models should have replaceable ear pads, which are typically the first part to fail, either by soaking up dirt and oils and looking bad or by disintegrating, depending on the material they are made of.
  • Isolation: This feature is not important to everyone, but many studio headphone models will block outside noise to varying extents.  This can be useful not just for working on music in a noisy environment, but also by blocking ambient noise, it effectively increases the perceivable dynamic range and helps with balancing the mix or detecting subtle imperfections.

Personally, I use Beyerdynamic DT 770-PRO headphones.  They run about $180.

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