Sound Advice: Headphones for the Videographer

Headphones are like credit cards – you should never leave home without them. However, many shooters do just that and then suffer the (often devastating) consequences later in the edit suite. Learning to choose and use headphones for your video productions will improve your audio quality and consistency. This month, we’ll take a look at some headphone options and talk about how you can use them on your next project.

Speaking the Headphone Language

Just like buying a new camcorder, there are several terms and options to become familiarized with before you buy a pair of headphones. There are three basic styles: circum-aural (around the ear), supra-aural (on the ear) and in-the-ear types, often called ear buds.

In most recording applications, audio professionals prefer circum-aural headphones. They are usually large with thick, padded cushions that completely surround your ear. The cushions are made from vinyl or leather and help to isolate your ear from outside sounds and provide a comfortable fit. Most often, circum-aural headphones have a closed back to increase isolation and bass performance. Of course, there are drawbacks to circum-aural models. These phones are bulky and heavy, reducing comfort after long listening periods; plus, the cushions have a tendency to make your ears sweat.

Supra-aural headphones, typically lightweight models supplied with portable cassette, CD and MP3 players, rest on the outside of your ear. Their ear pads are made of replaceable cloth or foam that deteriorates over time. Many people prefer the sound of supra-aural headphones due to their open and transparent character. This sound quality comes with a price, though. Without a closed back, outside sounds easily blend with the sound you want to hear, making mix decisions difficult in high-noise environments. In addition, there is a tendency to turn the volume up to compensate for the added background noise. In extreme cases, this leads to temporary or even permanent hearing damage. The upside of supra-aural headphones is the wide variety of headband options. Ranging from standard, over the head to behind the head, and even without a headband, these phones are very comfortable to wear during a long shoot or edit session.

In-the-ear headphones, or ear buds, aren’t ideal for video production, but offer an inexpensive and compact option for audio monitoring and are infinitely better than not monitoring the audio at all. By actually placing the headphone element inside the outer ear, these phones often isolate more of the outside sound than supra-aural models. The tradeoff here is sound quality. With few exceptions, ear buds offer comparatively poor sound quality, lacking deep bass and clear high frequencies. The high-end of this category include the in-ear monitors worn by music performers. Of course, quality comes with a price – from several hundred to even thousands of dollars for a custom-fit system.

Wired for Sound

Headphone cables and connectors of are both important video production considerations. While the spiral-coiled headphone cable is virtually a thing of the past (thank goodness), manufacturers still offer two other cabling options. If this seems insignificant, consider how you will use your headphones. Phones with a single cable entering one cup are easy to remove in a hurry, with one hand if necessary. Those simultaneously serving as director, camera operator and audio technician will appreciate this benefit. The yoke style cable is lighter, but removing the headphones requires two hands, and the cable is easily tangled in hair, earrings and anything else that happens to be in the vicinity.

Virtually all consumer camcorders offer only a 1/8-inch jack to attach your headphones. In palm-sized camcorders, this makes sense, as there is a limited amount of space for buttons and connectors. Unfortunately, the 1/8-inch mini-plug is not a solid performer and has a reputation for dislodging at the wrong time. When shopping for headphones, make sure your selection includes the 1/8-inch mini-plug rather than its big brother, the 1/4-inch phone plug. While you can adapt the 1/4-inch plug to the smaller size, the extra adapter length will certainly cause problems with connection reliability and may even damage the jack in your camcorder. It is much easier (and more reliable) to adapt the smaller 1/8-inch plug to 1/4-inch if you need to use it with a mixer or other audio equipment.

Using Your Headphones

During the production of your next video, you’ll have several opportunities to use your new headphones. During the shoot, a good pair of phones will help you spot bad microphone connections, dead batteries and wireless mikes interference before you commit them to tape. Shotgun boom operators appreciate monitoring on headphones as it helps them position the microphone for optimum sound volume and quality. They also simplify the replication of sound from a previous setup – offering a way to review the prior footage, then compare it to the current situation.

If you record sound effects or Foley for your video productions, headphones are necessary for monitoring the sounds during tracking. With your headphones, you can audition different mike techniques, distances and pickup patterns in real time. This lends more realism to your effects and provides some quality control prior to editing.

When recording a voiceover, the narrator for your next video will surely welcome a good pair of headphones. This makes it easy for the talent to judge the proper distance from the microphone and hear breath pops (plosives) before recording them permanently. It also simplifies the re-recording or overdubbing process by allowing the talent to hear the previous take, then immediately record a similar sounding repair.

Even the editing process benefits from using headphones. We’ve all seen the commercial where a guy sets up his laptop computer and edits video on a plane. That’s a situation where monitoring over speakers is not only difficult, but also rather inappropriate. Headphones to the rescue.

Phones are also useful when editing video in a high-noise environment. I had opportunity to use my headphones recently while editing a project in an auditorium where the maintenance staff decided it was time to vacuum all 10,000 square feet of carpeting.

As a final option, use your headphones as a mix reference. In addition to your computer speakers and maybe a TV speaker, headphones offer another audio perspective that may point out a problem with your sound mix (see the "In the Mix" sidebar).

Keep in mind that headphone sound represents an exaggerated view of your audio world. By placing the sound-producing element right next to your ear, you will hear details that will go unnoticed on speakers – sort of like the zoom lens on your camera revealing information that cannot be seen from a distance. Use this enhanced detail to your advantage to repair stray noises and rough fades that you might otherwise miss. This extra attention to the quality of your video sound can take your productions to the next level. In the MixWhile you should always use headphones for monitoring audio at the acquisition phase, you should not use headphones in the edit bay for final mixing of the audio tracks for video. Instead, rely on speakers for your final mixes. Professional-grade studio monitors (speakers) are the best choice, but you should try to mix on whatever your typical viewer will be using, which, for video, might be a television.

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