ELI5: Why do musicians recording their voice wear headphones? What is the purpose?

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The instrumental they’re singing to is playing through the headphones. It can’t play through speakers because the recording will pick up the instrumental along with the vocals. Instrumentals and vocals need to be recorded separate so they can be mixed through different channels.


Not a vocalist but when I record drums I have the track playing in the headphones with a metronome as well. I assume vocalists have the same thing playing in theirs.


It is also to hear the click track, if it is that kind of session. Orchestral musician here who does sessions occasionally. A click track is a loud, clear click on each beat. This gives the kind of precision needed to punch in and out, to replace measures of music where a mistake has been made. The software will be able to replace exactly what is needed. Some musicians prefer to have the headphones over both ears, others like to leave one ear off so they can hear the click track but have a more familiar and natural sound in the other ear.


When you sing (or speak) you hear yourself through your head, your voice is traveling in your head passing throught bones, tissues and water, and so is distorted. The others hear your voice that had traveled trough air, and so is not distorted (that is also why your recorded voice sounds different to you). Singers wear headphones because they hear themselves through the mic giving them an optimal knowledge of how they voice sounds, and so they can correct and perfect their sound. They do that in live performances as well, they have a special hearplug that transmits the sound that the public is hearing, it also helps tuning down the volume not to hurts themselfs (this only in live performances)


Two reasons: You need to hear the song you are singing to. Vocals are recorded usually last so they need to hear the other instruments. We can’t use speakers as then the sound from the speakers would be recorded to the vocal track, defeating the whole idea of isolating each instrument or sound source to their own tracks. This makes mixing much easier, you can change levels of single instruments. Sound leaking to other channels is a problem but it can also be a method, studio live is one such where leaking is often considered very important. Second reason is monitoring. Have you tried singing with headphones on? It sound muffled and even when speaking it is hard to know how loud you are. So we need to route your own voice back to you. The balance between the backing track and monitoring is adjusted for every singer separately and changes a lot. Some like to keep headphones only in one ear, some like to have effects such as delay and reverb, or pan the backing track more to one ear and less on the other.. and also they may require a different mix of the band instrument, they may drop bass completely, decrease some of the drums, remove keyboards and raise guitars, what ever is the instrument most important to them is raised up. Reverb is one “secret” weapon for many, without it your sound dies off instantly whereas in a regular room your voice will reverberate around and come back to you. It can also help one to keep a constant pitch as changes will be immediately heard from the reverb. Specially at the beginning this can be a problem as it can actually be hard to keep pitch in a room with no echo at all. But we can’t use a room with strong echo as that would then be imprinted to the vocal track: the mic captures all sounds in that room, it is often specifically made to do that. So the compromise is to artificially create some virtual space that aids performance. Also: if it sounds cool, you also sing better and with more confidence… Good recording engineers are willing to go to great lengths to get a good performance from an artist, that performance is then captured as well as possible. The former trumps the latter, the performance is more important than minor technical details, which is not always understood by said recording engineer.. If they had their way, you could be hanged by your ankles 20ft in the air in a freezing hangar to get natural reverb without early reflections from ground messing it all up. It is better to just use headphones instead. Some have said about latency and that is important factor these days. This means you may not be able to use virtual plugins but have to invest into hardware just to get that one channel, vocal monitoring, its own signal chain and tap a split into that to get your recorded signal.. Lag or delay in the signal can be very destructive as that messes up with timing and also makes your brain feel funny: you can literally think your head is 10ft in diameter since the sound arrives so late. We know VERY well how and when our own voice should sound.