“I’m Not Hearing What You’re Hearing”: The Conflict and Connection of Headphone Mixes and Multiple Audioscapes


R. Murray Schafer proposed the term “soundscape” to encompass and account for the complete aural experience within an environment. In analyzing the presence of various sounds and sound sources, he made a distinction between sounds emanating from a “natural source,” and those that were reproduced apart from their original source, as is the case with sound recordings. Schafer labels this sonic experience as “schizophonia,” the separation of sound from sound source, realized in different points in time (Shafer, 1997). Recording practice extends the concept of schizophonia into the experience of the mediated present. In order to make this distinction more clear, I wish to modify Shaffer’s term to reflect the mediation inherent in the recording process. I posit the term “audioscape” to address the phenomenon of simultaneous multiple aural experiences that result from the use of microphones, loudspeakers, and their cousin, headphones.

This paper is part of a larger ethnographic study of recording studio practice. Much of my argument is based upon several years of fieldwork, documenting observations and participating in recording sessions in a number of roles – musician, engineer, producer. In many instances, I sat in on sessions as an observer, making rough diagrams of the studio layout, transcribing moments of conversational exchange, following the various methodologies employed during a session, and noting incidents of conflict. Sometimes tensions were expressed directly as verbal argument, though more often disagreements were communicated indirectly through body language, sub-par musical performance, or the refusal to communicate verbally.

In other situations, I adopted the role of musician, engineer or producer. During these sessions, taking field notes was impossible. Instead, I kept “headnotes” that I wrote in a journal after coming home from the session. Dialog presented in full quotation marks (“) is taken directly from fieldnotes written during the session in progress. Dialog presented in single quotation marks (‘) is a paraphrase or re-creation of conversation recalled after the session.   Additionally, I have supplemented this research with interviews, some of which I quote in the body of the paper, using pseudonyms in attribution these in order to protect their professional careers.


Traditional recording studio environments initiate and exacerbate the audioscape schizophonia. The architecture of the studio is divided into the control room where technicians reside and in which exists one audioscape through the loudspeakers, and the performance space inhabited by the musicians where a separate soundscape is formed. As musicians are separated by baffles and isolation booths, a singular soundscape of the performance space no longer exists, replaced instead by multiple isolated soundscapes. When a musician dons a pair of headphones, the soundscape of the performance space is substituted for an audioscape more akin to that of the control room. Headphones allow musicians to bridge these physical divisions, but in the case of multiple headphone mixes, each isolated audioscape appears autonomous to the musician who inhabits it.

Headphones often become the locus of a musician’s discomfort in the studio, and the first instance of dissatisfaction concerns the sound of their instrument as mediated by technology and technician, compared to the sound of their instrument in the room, a tale of two audioscapes. Vocalists appear to suffer the most from this dislocation. The electronic mediation of both microphone and headphone is responsible for the disbelief with which the recording novice vocalist responds to the sound of the recorded voice – ‘That’s not how my voice sounds.’ While this reaction is partially symptomatic of Schafer’s “schizophonia,” the disembodied voice of the recording, it is also a response related to the isolation of one component of the vocalist’s sound from another. A vocalist’s conception of her sound, her vocal self, is a product of bone conduction coupled with room resonance; a singer’s audioscape is both heard and felt. Because a microphone does not capture the internal vibrations caused by the act of singing, it only replicates part of the equation. Therefore, to the ears of the vocalist, recorded playback produces the sound of someone else – ‘That’s not my voice.’ But the singer’s colleagues in the studio have no trouble identifying the source of the recorded voice because, like a microphone, they have not experienced the bone conduction of the voice – ‘What do you mean? It sounds just like you.’ Headphones complicate matters because they substitute the sound of the singer’s own voice as interpreted by the microphone for the familiar sound of their voice resonating in the room, upsetting the balance between direct conduction and reflected sonic energy. Rather than a case of exchanging one audioscape for another, headphones present vocalists with the simultaneous experience of the divided self.

The inability of a singer to reconcile the disparity between the mediated and unmediated audioscape can lead to performance problems. Observations in the studio show that it is not unusual for singers to sing slightly below pitch when using headphones. A commonly employed solution involves removing one headphone speaker from the ear, so that the vocalist can shape their sound based on the familiar interaction with voice and room reflected sound, while simultaneously monitoring the mediated audioscape (and thus all other sound as well) through the headphone speaker still in place on the opposite ear. Musicians who work this way with headphones exert a degree of agency, rejecting an either/or choice by creating a third audioscape that is a combination of the unmediated and mediated.

Other instrumentalists experience similar dislocation, though perhaps to a lesser degree. A distinction can be observed between those instruments whose sound is produced acoustically and those whose sound is mediated by electronic amplification. In the latter instance, the musician’s experience of their sound is always dislocated, and it is these musicians who are most at ease wearing headphones. The degree of dislocation present in the normal use of an amplified instrument is simply extended by headphone use.

This is not to say that these musicians are not subject to a measure of discomfort at this extended dislocation. Many electric guitarists are frustrated with the lack of amplitude their instrument is afforded relative to the other instruments in their headphone mix, or with the level of overall volume the headphones can generate before distortion. Electric bassists often find that the headphones themselves are incapable of reproducing the lower frequency spectrum that their instruments produce. In such situations, these instrumentalists are more than willing to accept a further physical dislocation from their amplified sound in exchange for their presence in the control room during recording, where the studio monitors can more capably replicate the full frequency spectrum and volume that they are accustomed to in live performance.

Barrier as Bridge: Headphone Connection

Headphones dissociate musicians from their physical environment. While many musicians find this disconnect problematic, others find that such dissociation can have a positive effect. A few musicians I spoke with indicated that headphones provide a hyper-realism that actually brings them closer to their instrument. When close proximity microphones register a level of detail often unnoticed by the performing musician, these musicians respond by further refining their articulations. Other musicians respond to the heightened perception supplied by electronic mediation, to the point that they prefer the sound of their instrument as mediated by microphone and headphone. To quote one musician I interviewed,

I feel like I’m a better musician when I’m wearing headphones. I’m able to hear detail in a way that I miss without them… I think headphones keep me focused, more at the top of my game because if I’m off, the sound is immediately in my head. It’s a really positive pressure. (Jackie, conversation with author, 2002)

When the microphone and headphone revealed previously hidden flaws, this musician grew to appreciate the degree that such hyper-focused monitoring enabled her to correct these issues – making her “a better musician.” Headphones do not simply provide a connection between musicians and their instruments, they link each musician to the other. In a manner similar to the hyper-realism that connects musician to instrument, so too can headphones bring musicians closer together than unmediated verbal communication and visual cues allow. Quoting one musician,

You’re sort of mentally in another dimension through headphones… You’re throwing your ideas out and everyone is responding just in that moment… It’s just like the best thing in the world. It’s just an amazing place to be… Something can change in a split second. You’re processing someone else’s ideas… You’re almost inside this other person’s brain in a way. (Tony, author interview 2000)

Far from an alienated distancing, for this musician, headphone use erodes the singular identifiers of self, melding individual consciousness into a collective one – “inside the other person’s brain.” This pinnacle of musical experience – “the best thing in the world” – is what draws this musician, a freelance session player, back to the studio time after time. Though he has often made his living as a touring performer, recording sessions have the most potential for a kind of intimate collaboration that can result in a near-ecstatic freedom from self.

These examples indicate that for musicians willing to accept headphones as more than just a “necessary evil,” recording practices that at first appear to inhibit performance, may instead provide, perhaps even prescribe, entirely new avenues for the exploration of musical growth and creativity.

Controlling Practice

The necessity of headphone use in the studio  places demands upon all the participants of a recording project, and is responsible for shaping the various practices employed in capturing a recorded performance. For musicians, headphones demand the surrender of control over their audioscape. For them, a good headphone mix can facilitate a good experience and inspire a good performance. However, for technicians, a good headphone mix does nothing to change the sound produced in front of the microphone; headphones are a distraction, they take away time and focus and yield no apparent value in the sounds they are attempting to record. And yet, it is the technician’s drive to control every sonic component of an ensemble performance that erected the barriers that headphones must now bridge.

The amount of time spent addressing headphone mixes varies greatly from project to project, and from engineer to engineer. Nashville producer Billy Sherrill complained that headphones interrupted the recording process, in his view wasting time by catering to individual needs that don’t “matter.”

In the 60s, earphones suddenly came in like the plague – the first 30 minutes of a session were now taken up by guys asking the engineer to turn them up and turn the drums down. One day, I just blew up and told everyone to take the damned ‘phones off. I said, “Trust me, if it sounds good to me, that’s all that matters. (Daley, 2002:68)

None of the producers I spoke with in the course of my research were as blunt as Mr. Sherrill. However, in several sessions I observed engineers and producers express mild irritation at the constant request for adjustments to headphone mixes. In many instances, the requests were met with a gently-voiced ‘Sure, how’s that?’ over the talkback mic, followed by a less congenial comment once the talkback mic was turned off. Such disingenuous behavior reflects the degree to which headphone mixes present the potential for volatile eruptions on the part of over-taxed engineers or isolated and manipulated musicians. Engineers who adopt a subservient posture while attending to a musician’s headphone needs appear to value the musicians, recognizing the difficult conditions that musicians are working in. Simply voicing concern can sometimes placate the musician because the engineer presents herself as an ally, even if the engineer does little to actually meet the musician’s needs.

“Is It In My Head?”: Perception in Doubt

Headphone mix dialectics involve a process of reinforcing or de-stabilizing the musician’s perception of their headphone-supplied audioscape, the validity of which is always in question. For many musicians new to the studio, the exchange of the unmediated audioscape for the mediated audioscape leaves them permanently disoriented. It is not uncommon to hear a musician request that their instrument be turned up in their mix, only to request the opposite change a minute later – ‘I don’t know, maybe it was fine before.’

These doubts are not always unfounded. On some occasions I witnessed an engineer move his hands to a send control, but not actually make any change. This gesture, only partially observable from the control room, was an outright act of deception. The engineer would then ask, ‘How’s that?’ The now hopelessly confused musician would most often reply, ‘Yes, that’s better,’ further reinforcing the idea in the engineer’s mind that the musician had no idea what they wanted, each request essentially an attempt to control the technician by demanding irrational adjustments. The musician, already disoriented, must now not only consider the question, ‘What am I hearing?’ but also, ‘Am I hearing what I’m being told that I’m hearing?’ It is no wonder that many musicians become increasingly paranoid and uncomfortable each time they place the headphones over their ears.

Personal headphone monitoring systems potentially alleviate a great deal of tension on both sides of the technician/musician divide. From the engineering side of the glass, initial set up time is minimized – all incoming signals are bussed to eight or sixteen different channels; it is up to the musician to combine and balance these signals at their discretion. Once engineers have completed this routing matrix, they need not worry about headphones again.

Musicians in this scenario exert a newfound agency over their headphone audioscape. The disorientation borne of mediated audioscapes is still present, but is considerably minimized as musicians quietly test their perceptions without disrupting the proceedings. A direct correlation exists between turning a knob or moving a fader and the resulting change in the sonic landscape. In time, musicians begin to trust their own ears. By removing the cause of much tension between musician and engineer, personal headphone monitoring systems enable musicians to trust the engineer. Personal systems also negate the source of conflict between musicians previously forced to share a common, and compromised, audioscape. All are happier in their own little worlds.

It can be argued however, that removing a primary cause of dialog, even if such exchanges are problematic, leads to further isolation between all the participants. The reduction of communication across the performance space/control room physical divide further reinforces the technician/musician social divide. Perhaps less obviously, the ability to control the appearance of other musicians in each personal audioscape minimizes the need to address each musician individually. Rather than negotiate a collective approach to performance, each musician can individually shape and control the overall picture. Instead of asking the guitar player not to hit the downbeat on the verse with so much force, other musicians can simply take the guitar player down, or out, of their mix, in effect removing the presence of the offending player.

Other problems may arise as musicians exercise their headphone monitor-enabled technical control over their own domain. The ability to interact with mixing technology can distract musicians from their primary function of delivering performance. Given the opportunity to mold their headphone audioscapes, many musicians embark on a quest to actualize their idealized audioscape, an endeavor which not only takes away time and focus from their performance duties, but may introduce additional levels of discomfort and frustration as they attempt to reconcile the difference between their idealized audioscape and the one they are able to construct with the personal monitoring system. And just as with the shared headphone mix, potential problems exist from under-mixing important, though unrecognized as such, musical elements. If someone creates a drum-light audioscape, that musician may deliver a performance that is rhythmically out of sync with the rest of the ensemble; if the bass is too quiet, a vocalist having lost a pitch reference may have intonation issues.

Confronting Illusion

Though headphones bridge the divide created by physical isolation, they also introduce a new set of divided experiences. Headphone audioscapes that have been tailored to the musician’s specification create illusions that are quickly shattered as the ‘real’ audioscape is auditioned in the control room. A customized audioscape created to better enable the individual’s performance can result in a myopic perception of the value of the individual’s contributions relative to the whole. What sounded prominent, clear, important in the headphones may now be buried, murky, irrelevant, through the control room speakers.

This sense of insignificance can permeate every minute of a musician’s studio experience. Personal headphone systems create an illusory experience of music making, one that exists only ‘in the head’ of the musician. Once convinced of the illusion of their perceptions, these musicians are always standing on shaky ground, every idea second-guessed, every judgment in doubt. The number of discrete audioscapes present during initial recording postpones the conflicts that arise when faced with the problem of accepting a single, meta-audioscape during the mixing stage. The preserved or operative audioscape still lies in the hands, ears, and minds of the control room technicians. Those musicians who become accustomed to competing audioscapes arrive at détente only by accepting the subordinate position of their own audioscapes to the only audioscape that counts, the producer’s. This acceptance gives approval to the studio hierarchy that governs every effort during the recording process.


Recording studio participants exercise a great measure of agency in shaping and controlling their auditory experience. From my initial research, it would appear that technologically imposed division inherently sets up oppositional binaries between recording studio participants. The engineer’s ability to construct the monitoring signal that is sent to musicians in the performance space via headphones reinforces a hierarchy that places musicians in a subservient position to those who inhabit the control room. Musicians are only allowed to hear what the technicians let them hear. Compounding the problem, isolation places musicians in conflict with one another, whether physically imposed by baffles and booths, or psychologically imposed in the form of multiple headphone mix audioscapes.

Personal headphone mixes not only reclaim a musician’s agency over the technician, but also over their fellow musicians. No longer must everyone in the recording room agree upon a shared audioscape. Instead, personal headphone systems enable the triumph of the individual over the collective whole. The fact that this technological change greatly improves the musician’s experience of the recording process is inarguable; whether these mediated/isolated performances lead to a better result is far more questionable.

The division of space and the mediation of performed sound introduce conflict into the recording process. Even elements that go unnoticed, or appear benign in the early stages of the process may develop into more overt conflict as recording progresses. But most recording participants exert considerable energy towards overcoming or correcting these impediments. My observations indicate that most musicians and technicians operate under the principle of generosity and mutually shared values and goals. Far from a fascistic exercise of power, most technicians make serious efforts to understand the musicians’ dilemma, and to accommodate them wherever possible, and musicians demonstrate considerable patience and flexibility as technicians attempt to reconcile the technological demands of the recording process with the delicate atmosphere that surrounds the creative act. The desire for mutual satisfaction is strong, but it is the often unrecognized sources of studio irritation that make the recording process so difficult and unfulfilling for so many participants. For every instance of a collectively experienced and heightened performance that can only be made possible by technology, there are other examples of clashing ideals caused by multiple mediated perceptions. Even when technological practices are employed in the service of the individual, they represent a collective attempt to create and capture a shared idealized performance. Headphones introduce both the potential for expanding tension and conflict, and the possibility of extended intimacy, and are often the locus for the experience of dissatisfaction or the ecstatic collaboration that can result during the recording process.


Daley, Dan. 2002. “Producer Billy Sherrill: Brilliant Career of a Nashville Legend.” Mix. Vol. 26, no 8.

Schafer, R. Murray. 1977. Soundscape: Our Environment and The Tuning of the World. New York. Alfred A. Knopf.


“Jackie,” interview with author conducted 2002.

“Tony,” interview with author conducted 2000.