I ask the question, should we do a final check of our mixes on a standard set of Earbuds? I can hear it now, why do that, they don’t sound great and I can’t get an accurate measure using them. Yeah I get it, but hear me out on this. It might not be a bad idea to do this because a vast majority of our mixes are heard on this listening source.
Let me fill you in on a practice in the mixing world if you don’t already know about it. Back in the 1980’s I was working in the audio industry and got my hands on a set of Yamaha NS 10M studio speakers. I got these at cost from Yamaha and because I saw them in every major recording studio I thought that these had to sound great. Yes I did take a listen to them prior to buying them, but heck I was a kid and thought my ears couldn’t possibly be better than that of a trained Mix Engineer and a Producers ears. So I hooked them up in my studio and after about three months I hated them. I thought that these (now considered classic and still in use) speakers sounded horrible. I sold them off and never thought about it again till recently. So what does this have to do with Earbuds you say? Well, the reason that these Yamaha NS 10M speakers were in use in all the major studios was because they did indeed sound terrible. The reason that the major recording studios used these studio monitors was really a reverse thinking method. Instead of getting the best possible sounding monitors out there, they went with the idea that if you can make your mix sound good on these things, that they will sound good on anything. These speakers were never really expensive and they fit nicely on top of a mix console. They also looked pretty cool. But, their sound revealed all of the flaws of the song at the same time never sounding full or rich, but they did sound flat which is a plus.
To this day I don’t know if Yamaha is proud of the NS 10M or not, but they were making money on it and I can see why they never changed the design. They stopped making the Yamaha NS 10M because the paper needed to make the speaker cone came from a tree that is now extinct. Ok that sounds far fetched to me but it might be a reason they sounded they way they did.
So I know, what does this have to do with Earbuds? Well I am taking up the idea of before releasing any mixes to my clients, that I should run the mix past a set of standard Earbuds. The reason for this is kind of tied to the theory of the Yamaha NS 10M story. If the music can sound good on a standard Earbud, could the music sound good on anything? We as Mix Engineers like to mix music that will sound good on multiple sources such as car stereos and home stereos. My point is that one of the biggest and most popular listening sources out there is the Earbud. The Earbud has to be in the mix for what we are trying to accomplish. Now, I have at SoundBurst Studios a really great set of Sennheiser headphones that is calibrated with software from Sonarworks. I use these a lot to get the mix close along with a great pair of Dynaudio studio monitors in a room that is treated for acoustic problems. You would think that this is all we need to get the job done. But I am raising the question of one last hurdle to clear and that is a real important one. The hurdle is the Earbud, If we can make it sound great on the Earbud will it sound great on everything else much like the Yamaha NS 10M studio monitors purpose in the mixing world? Time will tell, I am not advocating dramatically ripping apart your mix just to please the Earbud crowd. But I am saying that the Earbud is a popular listening source and we should take it into consideration. Perhaps in theory if they sound great on Earbuds they will sound great on anything rule just might apply. It is interesting that us Engineers will spend thousands of dollars on a single microphone, plug the microphone into a pre amp that cost thousands of dollars, then use amazing digital to analog converters to monitor the mix with, and in the end it is the Earbud a $15.00 headphone that is a popular listening source that we need to be aware of and take into consideration. It is an interesting world that we live in.
Drew Puzia is a multi-award winning Mix Engineer at SoundBurst Studios in Las Vegas. Drew is certified in Audio Engineering from the world renowned Berklee College of Music. His experience spans over three decades in the music industry and he has recorded and mixed countless musicians in many genres of music.