This article will discuss how loud your headphones and monitors be while mixing or producing music.
Loudness is an individual’s subjective perception of sound intensity and is influenced by sound pressure level (SPL) and frequency content. Sound pressure level (SPL) is a physical measure of the intensity of sound waves and is commonly expressed in decibels (dB).
It quantifies the amplitude or strength of the sound wave and is directly related to the loudness perceived by individuals. Different frequencies can have varying impacts on the perceived loudness, with some frequencies being more prominent or noticeable to the human ear than others. You can study that in the Fletcher-Menson curve.
Next, monitoring involves systematically observing and measuring sound levels to ensure accurate and consistent audio reproduction. It is especially important in broadcasting and audio production contexts, where loudness normalization and adherence to specific standards are essential. SPL ratings quantify the intensity of sound waves and are commonly expressed in decibels (dB) to provide a standardized measure of loudness.
These ratings help evaluate loudspeaker performance and provide insights into the perceived volume produced at different power levels. With that information in mind, now let’s get to the main topic of discussion.
How Loud Should Monitors & Headphones Be When Mixing Music?
When mixing music, the recommended loudness level for monitors typically falls within the 75 dB to 85 dB SPL range. For headphones, on the other hand, mixing at around 65% to 80% of the maximum volume or approximately 80 to 90 dB SPL (C-weighted) is generally recommended.
This range for monitors may vary slightly depending on the size of the room in which you are working; larger rooms may require slightly louder monitoring within the recommended range. Consider the following monitoring recommendations based on the Fletcher Menson Curve.
Recommended Loudness for Monitors
< 42 m³
74 dB SPL
42 – 142 m³
76 dB SPL
143 – 283 m³
78 dB SPL
284 – 566 m³
80 dB SPL
567 – 850 m³
81 dB SPL
In simple words, if you have a small room (< 283 m³) in a small studio or room, calibrating monitors at around 78 dB SPL is often recommended. A recommended decibel level of approximately 85 dB SPL is often suggested for larger studios or rooms (> 566 m³). This higher level is intended to ensure adequate monitoring and representation of the audio in a larger room.
Mixing at high volumes should be avoided to protect your hearing and ensure accurate judgment of mixed audio. To give you a context, usually, 20-30 dB SPL is the loudness of a whisper, 60-70 dB SPL is conversational loudness, 50-70 dB SPL is classroom chatter level loudness, and around 120 dB SPL or higher can be perceived as painful or uncomfortable for most individuals. Here’s how you can calibrate your studio monitors to a level of your choice.
Now, coming to headphones, we discussed the approximately 80 to 90 dB SPL (C-weighted) loudness recommendations. When we say “C-weighted,” we mean the volume levels are measured using a specific weighting curve to approximate the human ear’s sensitivity to loudness in a music production context.
The C-weighting curve applied to headphone measurements considers the headphones’ frequency response characteristics and adjusts the volume measurements accordingly. It emphasizes the midrange frequencies while de-emphasizing the low and high frequencies, aligning with how our ears perceive loudness during music listening and production.
When following guidelines such as mixing at around 65% to 80% of the maximum volume or approximately 80 to 90 dB SPL (C weighted) on headphones, it means you should aim to set the headphone volume at a level that corresponds to the perceived loudness specified by the C-weighting curve.
Next, the World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes the importance of safe listening practices. They recommend keeping headphone volume at 50 to 60 percent of the maximum volume level to protect your hearing.
Mixing at high volumes should be avoided to protect your hearing and ensure accurate judgment of mixed audio. Using headphones for mixing has advantages, such as hearing fine details and working in non-treated spaces or during late-night sessions.
However, it’s important to be aware of the limitations of headphones, such as their unnaturally wide stereo image and the built-in EQ curve that can affect the perceived frequency response. Therefore, it is crucial to cross-reference your mixes with other headphones or speakers to ensure their translation across different playback systems.
How Loud Should I Monitor My Music? (explained in context to DAWs)
A common reference point for monitoring in a DAW is to aim for an average sound level of around -20 to -15 dB (or -16 to -14 LUFS), peaking at -1 dB TP on the meters of your DAW’s master output. That allows you to have headroom for additional processing and later mastering stages.
Here, you can read about loudness ratings like RMS, LUFS, True Peak, etc. Maintaining an average level of -20 to -15 dB and a peak level below -1 dB TP (True Peak) allows room for additional processing during mixing and mastering.
Having ample headroom also benefits the mastering process. When you send your mix to a mastering engineer or perform mastering yourself, having a mix with enough headroom allows for better control and manipulation of the overall sound. The mastering engineer can apply additional processing, such as mastering EQ, compression, or limiting, without encountering undesirable artifacts or distortion.
It’s important to note that this level is not an absolute rule but a guideline to help you work effectively. The key is to avoid monitoring excessively high volumes for prolonged periods, as this can lead to ear fatigue and impair your judgment of the mix. It’s best to find a comfortable listening level that lets you hear all the details and dynamics of your music without straining your ears.
Additionally, it can be beneficial to periodically check your mix at different volume levels to ensure it translates well across various playback systems. Lower volume levels can help you evaluate the balance of different instruments and ensure that important elements aren’t drowned out. In contrast, higher volumes can reveal any potential issues with distortion or clipping.
For example, lower-level monitoring is often done to check if vocals are cutting through the mix at all levels. Remember, the goal is to achieve a balanced and well-mixed track, and monitoring at a moderate volume in your DAW can contribute to that objective by allowing you to make more accurate judgments about your mix.
Should I mix music with headphones or monitors?
Combining headphones and monitors ensures optimized results and compatibility across playback systems, as headphones offer detail and isolation but may lack stereo imaging and low-end accuracy. Monitors, in comparison, provide a natural sound but are influenced by room acoustics.
Headphones provide a focused and intimate listening experience. They can reveal details and nuances, making them useful for critical editing and precise panning decisions. They also offer isolation from room acoustics, making them a reliable choice in untreated or less-than-ideal acoustic environments. However, headphones can introduce challenges in accurately perceiving stereo width, depth, and low-end frequencies.
They may not accurately represent how the mix will translate to different playback systems or environments. Monitors, on the other hand, offer a more realistic and spatial representation of the audio. They provide a broader soundstage, allowing for better stereo imaging and depth perception. Monitors excel in capturing the overall balance and tonal characteristics of the mix.
However, they are influenced by room acoustics and require a well-treated room or studio for accurate monitoring. Additionally, monitors can be more forgiving regarding low-end frequencies, providing a physical presence and air movement that headphones cannot replicate.
The choice between headphones and monitors also depends on the specific context. Mixing with headphones can be advantageous when working in a mobile or shared environment where using monitors may not be practical. It can also be beneficial for focusing on fine details or late-night mixing sessions when noise concerns them. Now, consider the following cases:
- Bedroom Producers/Less Ideal Rooms
Since bedroom setups often lack proper acoustic treatment, headphones can provide a more consistent and controlled listening environment. Look for closed-back headphones that provide isolation from external sounds.
Next, consider investing in small near-field monitors (<= 6 inches woofer size) and basic room treatment if space and budget permit. Place them on desktop stands or isolation pads to minimize reflections from the desk. Overall, headphones can be a reliable alternative to monitors as they provide isolation from room reflections and ambient noise. They are also useful for identifying details like distortion and clipping.
For headphones, some highly recommended options for bedroom producers and less ideal rooms include Sennheiser HD 660 S, Focal Clear Professional, Sony MDR-7506, and Audio-Technica ATH-M40/50x. These models offer accurate sound reproduction and are widely used in music production and recording.
Regarding studio monitors, the KRK Rokit G4 (5 inches) series is a popular choice, known for its onboard graphic EQ and suitability for small studio spaces. Other recommended models include Genelec 8030C, Neumann KH 120 A, Mackie CR5, and Yamaha HS5. These monitors provide accurate sound representation and are suitable for compact rooms or home studios.
- Properly Treated Studios
Even in well-treated studios, headphones remain useful for detailed editing, checking stereo imaging, and examining individual elements. Choose open-back headphones for a more spacious and natural sound.
Next, in the context of monitors, opt for high-quality near-field monitors that suit the size of your studio. Ensure proper speaker placement and acoustic treatment (bass traps, diffusers, absorbers), and monitor positioning at the correct listening distance and angle.
The Audio-Technica ATH-M40/50x and Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro headphones are an excellent choice in well-treated small rooms. They are known for their accurate sound reproduction and closed-back design that helps minimize external noise. For studio monitors in small rooms, the Yamaha HS5 is highly regarded for its balanced sound and compact size, making it suitable for near-field monitoring.
Next, the Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro headphones in medium-sized rooms offer a detailed and neutral sound signature, making them ideal for critical listening and mixing. Regarding studio monitors, the Adam Audio A7X and KRK Rokit RP7 G4 provide a transparent and precise sound reproduction, making them a popular choice for medium-sized control rooms and studios.
Lastly, for well-treated and large rooms, the Audeze LCD-X headphones are known for their exceptional clarity and extended frequency response, making them a great option for detailed monitoring and mastering. Regarding studio monitors, the Dynaudio LYD 48 features advanced DSP technology and powerful drivers, delivering accurate sound representation and high SPL capabilities for larger control rooms. You can also consider the Presonus Eris E8XT.
- Mixing/Mastering Engineers
Professionals often use high-end reference headphones for critical listening and fine adjustments. They provide an alternative perspective and help identify issues that may be missed on monitors.
Acoustically treated rooms with accurate full-range monitors are crucial for engineers. Invest in high-quality, calibrated monitors that offer a flat frequency response, ensuring precise monitoring and accurate translation.
To ensure compatibility across various playback devices, it’s advisable to periodically reference your mixes on different systems, such as car speakers, earbuds, or consumer-grade headphones. Remember that the most important aspect is familiarity with your chosen listening tools and developing a trained ear to interpret and adjust your mixes accordingly.
For mixing and mastering engineers, recommended headphones include the Sennheiser HD 800 S with a wide soundstage, the Audeze LCD-4, which offers remarkable resolution, and the Beyerdynamic DT 1990 Pro, which provides precise imaging.
As for studio monitors, the Genelec 8351B offers accurate sound reproduction, the Neumann KH 310 excels in transient response, and the Focal Trio11 Be provides precise monitoring and extended low-end response with its Beryllium tweeter and dual woofers. These options ensure engineers can achieve detailed, balanced, and professional-quality results in their work.
Lastly, you can consider simulation plugins that simulate different listening environments in your headphones. For example, plugins like Slate’s headphone correction combo and Waves Nx offer immersive simulations of different environments. These plugins help bridge the gap between headphone and speaker monitoring, enhancing the accuracy and quality of the headphone listening experience.
In conclusion, the loudness of headphones and monitors is crucial for achieving accurate and balanced music mixing and production results. Sound pressure level (SPL) measures sound intensity, and the Fletcher-Munson curve shows how different frequencies impact perceived loudness.
The recommended loudness range for monitors is 75 dB to 85 dB SPL, with variations based on room size. Smaller rooms require slightly lower monitoring levels, while larger studios benefit from slightly higher levels within the range.
When using headphones, mixing at around 65% to 80% of the maximum volume or approximately 80 to 90 dB SPL (C-weighted) is generally advised. C-weighting accounts for the human ear’s loudness sensitivity in music production.
To protect hearing and ensure accurate judgment, avoiding mixing at excessively high volumes is important. The World Health Organization recommends headphone volume at 50 to 60 percent of the maximum level.
Further, combining headphones and monitors optimizes results and compatibility across playback systems. Headphones reveal details and work well in non-treated spaces, while monitors provide a natural sound but require acoustic treatment. Next, in a DAW, aim for an average sound level of -20 to -15 dB and peak levels below -1 dB TP on the master output meters for headroom during mixing and mastering.
Choosing between headphones and monitors depends on context and preferences. Finding a comfortable listening level allows for detail without straining the ears. Regularly checking mixes at different volumes and referencing on various systems ensures translation and balance. Lastly, developing a trained ear and familiarity with listening tools contribute to high-quality results in mixing and mastering.
I hope the article helps. Thank you for reading.
Shaurya Bhatia, is an Indian Music Producer, Composer, Rapper & Performer, who goes by the stage name MC SNUB, and is also 1/2 of the Indian pop music duo, called “babyface”. A certified Audio Engineer & Music Producer, and a practicing musician & rapper for more than 6 years, Shaurya has worked on projects of various genres and has also been a teaching faculty at Spin Gurus DJ Academy.