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Looking for recommendations for a modest home music production set-up: Audio interface and maybe headphone amp

any name you wish

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For context, I'm not exactly new to the world of audio. I worked as a sound engineer for quite a while, but I worked almost exclusively live, and what little studio work I did was with other people's equipment. I've long since changed careers but are now at the stage where I'm interested in producing my own music and getting it up to a decent standard, rather than the "pottering around with stuff that nobody else is ever going to hear therefore it only matters if it sounds good in my personal headphones" that I've been doing. So I've been trying to see what gear I need that I won't have to save up for (because I'm already saving up for other stuff) and which will allow me to have enough fidelity to have enough of a stab at mixing that people listening to it will think that it sounds okay.

To that end, I've decided on some Beyerdynamic 900 Pro Xs as headphones, because pretty much every reviewer says that they're some of the best studio headphones you can buy with a flat enough response and enough frequency response and fidelity that you *can* mix on them (as long as you're aware of the pitfalls of mixing on headphones and put in the work to be able to compensate)., and they're only around £200. What I'm stuck on is what's going to drive them. I'm well aware that a mix can only be as good as the weakest link in the chain, so I want to be able to strike a balance between fidelity and flat response on one hand and cost on the other.

The Topping L30II has phenomenal reviews (including on this site), so I'm pretty sure that if I do end up getting a headphone amp that's the one that I'll get. But I also think that I'm probably going to have to upgrade by Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, which I think is gen 1. Audio interfaces are harder to get good-quality reviews for, and there's conflicting advice from different sources about whether or not you actually need a separate headphone amp if you've got a good audio interface. If, for example, I were to buy a Topping DX1, then it might be reasonable to assume that the output would be similar to the L30II. And the 900 Pro Xs only come in 48Ohm, so it's not like they're hard to drive and an amp would be more about having plenty of headroom. But what about something that's not marketed as a combined DAC and headphone amp, like the Audient iD4?

I'm not used to thinking about this, as in my professional work headphones have almost exclusively been about blocking out outside noise to isolate an individual instrument to find a problem, rather than doing critical listening - hence my main headphones being a pair of Beyerdynamic DT 100s. So I'm looking for advice. Do I need a separate headphone amp? Am I better getting an integrated DAC and headphone amp? What are the top recommendations for my use-case?

Just as additional info - although I'm making music, it's almost 100% exclusively created in the computer. Maybe one line input could be useful every now and then, but if so I can just bust out the Focusrite again. Quality of input doesn't really matter, because I can't imagine myself using much from an input clean. And what I do is mostly VST synths, and that includes the vocals. I've also already got an amp for my speakers. It's not great quality, but that's okay because the speakers are more for casual listening than anything else. My set-up is nowhere near good enough to try something like mixing on.

So inputs and speaker outs (although obviously RCA outs to the amp are good) aren't really important. The main thing I'm concerned with is getting the cleanest, flattest, most detailed signal from my desktop computer (via USB - or perhaps HDMI, I've not yet looked in to that) to my headphones while hopefully not spending much more than £300-400. Any advice gratefully received.
 

Dunring

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Ive has the Topping l30ii and like it so much there's another coming in soon to pair with an E50 DAC for a daily driver again. Noise floor is so quiet, 10ohm IEMs are amazing and it'll power heavy hitters too. Don't know much about interfaces, but you can't go wrong with that amplifier. The matching DAC is good, just happen to have a spare E50, so using that and my trusty Amazonbasics cables.
 
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It would make sense to have both from the same company. And that adds up to £300, and both have glowing reviews from here.

Thanks.
 

AnalogSteph

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Audio interfaces are harder to get good-quality reviews for,
So inputs and speaker outs (although obviously RCA outs to the amp are good) aren't really important. The main thing I'm concerned with is getting the cleanest, flattest, most detailed signal from my desktop computer (via USB - or perhaps HDMI, I've not yet looked in to that) to my headphones while hopefully not spending much more than £300-400.
That leaves quite a bit of choice, including a number of DAC/amps.
 

DVDdoug

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Most USB audio interfaces are "fine". IMO - Zero-latency direct-hardware monitoring is a nice feature because you don't have to worry about latency through the computer. Also, sometimes noise gets into USB powered interfaced from USB power so an interface with its own separate power supply can avoid that possibility. (But most entry-level interfaces are USB powered.)

The "weakest link" in a home studio is usually acoustic noise. The microphone and microphone placement also make a difference, and of course the instrument (or vocal) and the performance, etc.

But it sounds like you're not going to be recording with a microphone.

Line inputs usually no problem because the strong signal (compared to mic signals) give you a strong signal-to-noise ratio. (Guitars put-out a pretty-strong signal voltage but their high-impedance makes them sensitive to noise pick-up.)

But I also think that I'm probably going to have to upgrade by Focusrite Scarlett 2i2, which I think is gen 1.
Why? For the headphone amp?

If it goes loud enough with your headphones and you're not hearing background noise, you probably can't get any improvement.


To that end, I've decided on some Beyerdynamic 900 Pro Xs as headphones.
Those haven't been reviewed here, but the Beyerdynamic headphones that have ended-up "not recommended". :(

I believe the least expensive headphone recommended by Amir/ASR is the AKG K371 (about $150 USD). But the bass is slightly exaggerated so you might have to EQ that out so so you don't end-up with weak bass in your mixes.

As far as mixing/mastering with headphones, I have collected a couple of opposing excerpts from Recording Magazine -

This is from "Readers Tapes" where users send-in their recordings for evaluation:
As those of you who have followed this column for any length of time can attest, headphone mixing is one of the big no-no's around these parts. In our humble opinion, headphone mixes do not translate well in the real world, period, end of story. Other than checking for balance issues and the occasional hunting down of little details, they are tools best left for the tracking process.

And this is from a mixing engineer:
Can I mix on headphones?

No. But in all seriousness, headphones can be a secret weapon and it really doesn’t matter what they sound like…

Over time, after constantly listening back to my work from different studios on those headphones I really started to learn them. They became sort of a compass. Wherever I went… It became a pattern for me to reference these headphones to see if what I was hearing was “right”…

I learned them, I knew them, I trusted them. It didn’t matter whether or not I loved them…

So, can you mix on headphones? Probably. I just think you really need to put some time into learning them first…
 
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But the bass is slightly exaggerated so you might have to EQ that out so so you don't end-up with weak bass in your mixes.

That is exactly what I want to avoid. There are any number of reviews of the Pro X's, though, from music production journals through to professional engineers saying things like that it's finally a set of headphones that they feel they could do a mix on. The main thing is that they're about as flat as you can get in a pair of headphones, and that they have very good transient response.

As far as mixing/mastering with headphones, I have collected a couple of opposing excerpts from Recording Magazine -

This is from "Readers Tapes" where users send-in their recordings for evaluation:


And this is from a mixing engineer:
I know that there are plenty of producers who look down on it, but I think it's a little more complicated than some of them make it out to be, and they're also often being a little short-sighted.

To deal with the last point first, what professional producers of the kind who get interviewed in journals are often comparing mixing on headphones to is hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of equipment and room treatment in a custom-built space. I mean, if the people at Recording Magazine want to splash out on that for me, I'll be very happy. But the majority of us don't have access to that kind of equipment, and couldn't afford to rent a space like that for the time it'd take to mix and/or master something, if they'd even allow some no-name to rent the space for their own project rather than having someone sit-in. And, even in a treated room, you still need to take the time to learn that particular space. I definitely can't afford to hire out studio 3 at Abbey Road for a couple of months while I play reference tracks and learn how the room "should" sound.

So the question isn't "is mixing on headphones better than in a top-of-the-line recording studio for mixing Beyonce's latest album?" it's "is it better than the set-up you currently have available to you so that you can create something that translates well enough to other systems that you can let other people hear it without dying of embarrassment?" And even then, the needle with younger producers (and some older ones) does seem very gradually to be swinging towards "when I'm on the road and can't access my expensive studio then I can mix perfectly well on the headphones that I'm familiar with".

For the rest of it, the last quote is what I think is key - learning what you're doing. Since I'm used to mixing things through a PA in the middle of a field, whatever set-up I use is one that I'll have to spend the time learning. I'm not assuming that I'm going to be able to put a pair of headphones on and crack the top 10 the next day. There are *different* things you have to learn - stereo field and bass being the biggest difference between headphones and speakers - but you still have to become familiar with the sound of the equipment you're using before you can use it well. And, as far as bass goes, I haven't even got a sub. And I don't think my neighbours would be overly keen if I got one and then spent 6 hours on a Sunday playing the same 5 minutes of music over and over and over again. So whatever the shortcomings of headphones in that department, it's better than what I've got now, and it's better than the alternate solution - especially as my room isn't treated, I can't really afford to treat it, it's not configured in a way that lends itself to treatment, and my landlord wouldn't like it very much if I did treat it.

Now, there are solutions like plug-ins and standalone software which acoustically models various spaces, but I'm not 100% sure I trust it (although the reviews are stellar), and I'm not sure of the utility. Because, again, if I do use a plug-in which fools my ears into thinking that I'm in studio 3 in Abbey Road, then I've *still* got to take the time to learn that space. Why not just skip a step and learn the headphones?

I also think that, for an industry that's moved forwards by advances in technology, that the sound industry can be quite resistant to change. And I think that the insistence that mixing *has* to happen through speakers is in part because of the underlying assumption that people listen to music through speakers. But that's not really true any more. The vast majority of people who listen to music these days, do so on headphones or earbuds. So why is the assumption that it's "correct" to create a mix on speakers which can then translate to headphones, rather than that it's okay to create a mix on headphones which can then translate to speakers? As long as you *can* translate it to other ways of listening, then I don't see why it should be a problem. And the way to learn to create mixes which translate is time, practice, and referencing your work on other systems - which you should do anyway.
 
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