Case Study No.2: Headphone Mixes

Hardware VS Software

Hi Everyone!

The title may looking a little daunting and something you’d skip past, but don’t worry! This post isn’t going to be me being highly opinionated and telling you what I think is the best. Just me simply explaining how headphone mixes are set-up using Hardware and Software and the benefits of each.


For the purpose of this study I will take the case of a multitrack recording of The Neon Tigers (supplied) and the scenario of overdubbing a new vocal and rhythm guitar part.  You will need to set up two separate headphone mixes for each musician and comparing a Hardware technique and a Digital Technique.

 1. The singer would like to hear reverb on their voice while recording but you do not want to record the reverb. He also wants to hear the whole band but not the existing guide vocal.

 2. The guitarist wants to hear the new vocal as it is being recorded along with the bass, drums, keyboard but not the old guitar track. He also wants to hear his incoming guitar signal.

 3. The singer and guitarist are recording at the same time.

 Set your session up so that the drums can be changed in the headphone mix as easily and quickly as possible.

Overdubbing Vocals:

All singers are different within the studio, so setting up the mix to suit the needs of the artist is crucial. For instance, adding a little bit of reverb to the singers track going to the headphone mix helps with tuning and boosting their confidence. This is a very effective way of getting the best performance from the singer! On the other hand some singers do not want hear themselves through their headphones, this is fair enough as this is a personal opinion.

The Analogue Technique:

This analogue technique uses a specific set-up comprising of a TLA M4 32 channel mixing desk, a patch bay, headphone amp and a Mac using Pro Tools HD 32 in/out. A diagram of this set-up can be seen below.

analogue set-up diagram

The TLA M4 mixing desk has 32 channels to choose from, meaning that building a headphone mix on the desk while recording is very possible. The patch bay cutting straight through the middle of the connections makes it possible to re-route signal paths, in this instance  a certain headphone mix going to the assigned channel on the headphone amplifier.

Building a mix on the desk requires you to make the output of each track individual, in this instance a channel on the desk. The next step is to use the Pre-fader auxes 1 and 2 to control each component of each headphone mix. Creating the route for the two headphone mixes needs us to use the patch bay, redirecting the signal.

The aux 1 and 2 outputs of the desk need to be rerouted and sent straight into the headphone amplifier. In this case Aux 1 to a ¼” jack converter and then into the aux input of the specific channel of the headphone amplifier.

This is possible because the patch bay is set-up being semi-normal. This means that a cable can be plugged into the top row without breaking the signal on the bottom row. this is very sufficient for creating analogue headphone mixes.

Adding Reverb

Using a hardware technique is very effective but can have one massive downfall, latency. You have a choice of two mixes: Desk and then straight to the headphones or desk, Mac , Reverb Unit and then the headphones. This latter route is when latency can occur.

Let’s take the latter route!

The singer would like some reverb on his vocals going into his headphones, but we definitely do not want to record this reverb, as reverb can be added to taste within the mixing process. The reverb must ONLY be in the headphones! Sending the reverb through an Auxiliary on the desk using the Lexicon Reverb and the patch bay is the way to go.

The technique I am about to explain is limited to this specific studio! Unless you have an exact copy this studio control at home. If this the case that is slightly creepy but I’m not one to judge!

Moving swiftly back to the subject at hand!

The vocals is coming in on Channel 1 of the mixing desk, this should be set to Pre-Fader listen to be a monitor mix. Aux’ 1/2 are Pre-Fader whereas Aux’ 3/4 are Post-Fader. In this case we shall be using Auxiliary 3 as effects should used in Post-fader. Below is a diagram of the route the vocals shall take through the patchbay to get back to the headphones.

reverb patch jpeg

The singer can now be turned up on Aux 3 as well as the reverb being control channels 31, 32 and both auxiliary 1’s (Pre-fader) on each channel, the reverb would have to be 100% wet and adjusted to the singers taste on Aux 1. Acting as reverb send to headphones.

The advantage of this method as it exhibits Zero Latency Monitoring. The only disadvantage is that this technique is married to this specific patch bay and control room set up.

The Digital Technique:

The Digital technique is purely within Pro Tools and multiple outputs via an audio interface, in this instance the Profire 26/26.

The Profire 26/26 is connected to the Mac via a Firewire connection and has 8 in and 8 out. Two of these devices are connected to the Mac. The second Profire 26/26 is connected to the first via an Alesis Digital Audio Tape (ADAT) connection. An ADAT connection uses TosLink Fibre Optic cables. It carries 8 channels of audio and clock signal for the synchronization of both devices.

But where would you start within Pro Tools? Organisation!

Clearly labelling and setting up the little things makes the session go even smoother when faced with building headphone mixes. The first way is that within Pro Tools renaming buses as Headphone mixes (Hp1 or Singer etc) is a very quick and easy way to help keep your routing precise, organised and quick and easy whilst recording. This can be done within the I/O  option in Pro Tools. A screenshot of this can be seen below.

rename bus jpeg

Another time saving task that you can do within Pro Tools is grouping. Grouping tracks together enables the user to easily select groups turning up or down multiple tracks all at once. Grouping is one of those little things that save 10 seconds that makes the recording process easier and quicker by improving workflow. Not just for you but for the artists.

Digital Headphone Mix

Creating two individual headphone mixes within Pro Tools requires you to use two buses, two stereo auxes and the sends.

Assigning the correct bus to the correct input of the correct aux is essential. For instance, as you can see above the singer has been assigned their own aux and namede “Headphones 1”. Where as the guitarist has been allocated “Headphones 2” on their own stereo aux.

The next step is to route what the singer and guitarist want to hear correctly via the sends. Sends can be found in the “view” drop down menu. You can choose which sends you would like to see by “assigning” them. This can be seen in the image below.

Aux in and out jpeg

send assignments jpeg

Using send A for “Headphones 1” and send f for “Headphones 2” I routed the specific tracks that the singer and the guitarist wanted hear. The volume of each track within the singer and guitarists headphone mixes can be determined by the small faders seen in the sends. Also make sure the little “P” button is blue as this means it is in Post-fader. This can be seen below.

Singer headphone mix jepeg Guitarist HP mix jpeg

Adding Reverb:

Adding reverb to the singers headphone mix using Pro Tools is relatively simple and fast! All you need is a stereo aux, sends and a reverb plug-in of your choice.

Digital Verb studio 5 jpeg

The output of this aux should be your singers cans, so in this case “Headphones 1”. In this auxes inserts section insert a reverb plug-in and make sure that that the reverb is set to 100% wet. The input of the aux track should assigned to a bus, as seen above I used bus 3. This bus can then be used in the sends of the “Headphones 1” aux track. Make sure that the bus 3 send is in Post-fader this can be seen if the little “P” button is blue.

You can know control the amount of reverb the singer would like through their headphones using the small fader seen in the sends.

Using this digital technique has many advantages! The fact that you can save this set up and have it whenever you need, whereas with the analogue technique you cannot save your set-up.

The speed of the process is undeniably faster than the analogue technique. Yet on the Profire 26/26 you cannot change what your headphones are listen to. They are specifically assigned in design to listen to two channels only. Whereas in the analogue set-up the patch bay allows you to swop and change this!

Short and Sweet Conclusion

To conclude, both techniques can be used efficiently when building headphone mixes. They both get the job done, it’s not always about whether your equipment is analogue or digital, it’s how you use it as an engineer or producer to get the best results from the artists.


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