Expert Witness: Ronan Chris Murphy

Former King Crimson engineer and founder of Recording Boot Camp Ronan Chris Murphy on why choosing the right pair of headphones is now “more important than ever”. 

Traditionally, producers and engineers have done the majority of their professional listening on speakers, but the times are changing. Home recording, and even professional work, has been transformed by the digital revolution to allow creators to work in places where listening on good speakers is often not an option. I am currently in the middle of a production where much of the work has been done in a church in Mexico, the streets of Istanbul and by the canals of Venice, and all of that work has been done on headphones. Headphones, as an important part of monitoring, have gone from rare to mainstream, and the importance of finding the right set of headphones is now more important than ever.

One of the great bottlenecks in the recording process has always been monitoring, or how we listen to the music we are working on. The problem is that every way we can listen to our productions is flawed. Whether we are listening on a £100,000 hi-fi system or a mastering room with 2m-tall speakers, what we are hearing is a skewed version of what we are playing. The challenges are even greater as we try to get a full-range listening experience from headphones with drivers that are smaller than the average tweeter.

The good news is that every single one of your favourite recordings was recorded, mixed and mastered in a situation where the monitoring was messed up! So when we are working in our commercial recording studio, spare bedroom or on the subway with headphones, we cannot let these problems stop us from making great recordings. We just need to find the best option possible. Unfortunately, the answer to the question ‘What is the best pair of speakers or headphones?’ is as clear-cut as asking who the best singer is. The range of answers will be mind-boggling. Just as there are famous singers many hate, there are many headphones and speakers that are loved by some while hated by others. You need only look at how many people “hate” Yamaha NS10 speakers, the most popular mixing monitors of all time.

The best way to find the right headphones is to listen to as many pairs as possible, but you need to go into it with a plan. When I am considering a set of headphones for critical production work, my main thought is ‘do these make sense?’ I want listening in the headphones to represent what I am used to hearing in other environments; I want my favourite records to sound like my favourite records. I am focused on accurate translation more than fun listening.

Before auditioning headphones, spend a lot of time listening to tracks that you know well and have heard in the various environments where you work on music. Make yourself familiar with the details of the tracks – is the bass boomy or tight? Is the vocal bright and forward or mellow and buried? Is the stereo image wide or narrow? 

I use the first few tracks from the album Trouble at the Henhouse by the Canadian band The Tragically Hip. I know every detail of those mixes and where all the elements sit. So if I am checking out a new pair of headphones or speakers, I listen to those tracks. If things sound different to what I ‘know’ those songs to sound like, I can understand how the headphones are altering what I am hearing.

Additional considerations when picking out the right headphones are long-term comfort and isolation. There are situations where good isolation may be critical, such as tracking with other musicians, working in noisy environments, or needing to keep what you’re listening to from disturbing others. These situations can often rule out many of the great open-backed designs.

In my personal collection, there are three sets that I consider the most critical for my professional work.

Shure SRH840

While mostly known for microphones, Shure has been knocking it out of the park with headphone design lately. The manufacturer’s SRH840 is my favourite all-round pair of headphones for one simple reason – recordings I know and love make sense to me when I listen to them. Shure makes fancier and more expensive headphones that are great, but the 840s just work for me. I trust that what I hear on them will translate to other systems. When I am travelling around the world for work, these are the headphones that go with me. In addition to great sound, they are also comfortable and provide decent isolation, so they are good for tracking and critical listening.

Vic Firth SIH1

Yes, headphones from a drum stick company. They provide extremely good isolation, sound ‘not too bad’ and are rather inexpensive. We use these for drummers and other musicians when recording in the same room as really loud instruments or amps. The important thing about great isolation is that it allows musicians to reduce ambient volume, so they can listen with lower levels. Not only is loud listening in headphones awful for ear health, it is also fatiguing and can tire out musicians faster, making sessions less productive.

Sony MDR7506

I never use these for critical listening – in fact they almost never go on my head – but clients, especially singers, really enjoy them. They are hyped and shiny and bring out extra sheen and detail for the singers when recording vocals. They sound ‘glamorous’ and often inspire the singer; and an inspired singer will deliver better performances. Many of the new celebrity-branded headphones on the market can fall into this category as well. Not even remotely flat or accurate, and I would not use them for critical listening, but they can make the listening experience ‘exciting’ and that can help performers get great performances.

In the end the best pair of headphones is the pair that is comfortable and ‘makes sense’ to you.

Former King Crimson engineer and renowned producer Ronan Chris Murphy is the founder of Recording Boot Camp, a series of LA-based courses designed to teach real world skills and help participants make better recordings in any situation.