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Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

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Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

Postby Phil Perth » Sun May 17, 2015 8:51 am

I’m desperate for an answer to a problem I’m having monitoring my live electric guitar sound through earphones, and I’m hoping someone reading this has it.

I play in a band with mostly a silent stage. No monitor speakers, just stereo cable from the mixer’s headphone output to a couple of daisy-chained Behringer headphone amps, extension headphone cables to each member of the band, who then use standard earbuds. No personal monitor mixes, but everyone gets to hear the front-of-house mix at a comfortable volume. The music is acoustic-orientated with quite a lot of vocal harmonies (thank you TC Helicon) and the headphone-based monitoring works fantastically well. No-one wants to go back to using wedges.

As we expand the music we’re playing, I want to play more electric guitar, but without compromising the silent stage. I bought a Line 6 HD300, thinking that would give me good quality sounds and a decent amount of flexibility. I was disappointed to find that, despite some fairly educated tweaking, the sounds were quite feeble. I’ve been using it, but I can’t say there’s been one moment where I’ve felt the sound I was getting, clean or otherwise, was in any way satisfying. It occurred to me when writing this though that, because of the intended application, I’ve never listened to it through speakers. Only headphones or earbuds.

I started to get interested in the Yamaha THR10. Yamaha insists it’s a practice amp, not intended for gigs etc., but after watching Philip Sayce’s demo of it ( I became hopeful it could provide the answer. Sure enough, when I bought one I could hardly believe how amazing it sounded. And although it’s not foot-switchable, it responds well to overdrives and I reckoned that if I got a basic clean/crunch sound and then put a couple of choice pedals in front of it, I’d have the flexibility I needed.

Then I plugged a pair of headphones (reasonably decent closed ones) into the headphone socket of the amp. My tone diminished in almost every respect! It was as if I’d got hold of the cheapest, nastiest guitar, turned the guitar volume down to half-mast and then tried to play a blinding solo. Poor response, poor character, poor dynamics, no body, no fendery-shimmeriness, just artificial cheesiness. It sounded like the worst expectation you could have of a modelled sound. And the pedals just added more cheese, or to be specific, made the cheese sustain for longer. In fact, it sounded like the HD300. Great, Yamaha build a killer-sounding amp and then cheapskate on the headphone output. Or so I thought.

I carried on using the HD300 for gigs, although I kept the songs I played electric guitar on to a bare minimum because it was so soul-destroying to hear through my earbuds the pathetic sound I was making. All the while I plotted how I could mic the THR up without compromising the silent stage. Plans for a small iso-box started forming. Luckily, before I built one, I tried miking the amp up at home. I put the amp in another room with a couple of Audix i5s in front of it. I plugged in my guitar while in the same room as the amp to make sure I had a good tone going, and then retreated to another room with all intervening doors closed. Satisfied that I wasn’t hearing any significant amount of real sound bleeding across from the other room, I put my headphones on. Aaaagh, this cannot be happening! Who stole my tone?!?

Ok, so it was time for the obvious, which has probably occurred to most of the people who’ve managed to read this far, to finally dawn on me. I took a stereo cable from the headphone output of the THR and plugged it into the mixer in my home-studio set-up. The speakers aren’t anything flash (Roland DM-2100), but the THR sounded even better than through its own speakers, probably helped by the sub-woofer. To prove what I was experiencing, I plugged headphones into the mixer and turned the Roland speakers off. The horribleness returned. I haven’t tried hooking the HD300 up through my speakers, but I have a feeling that it will probably sound really good and I’ll have to take back all of the cruel thoughts I’ve had about Line 6 over the last few months.

So it looks like headphones/earbuds are the problem. They’re great while I’m playing acoustic/electric and singing, fantastic for hearing keyboards, but a total black hole to the tone of my electric guitar. How can that be? If it is because headphones have tiny little speakers, how can Philip Sayce’s demo of the THR sound amazing through headphones, and yet when I listen directly to the amp through headphones, having got a sound not a million miles from Philip Sayce’s through the speakers, it sounds so rubbish? What law of acoustics am I falling foul of here? If it’s to do with the sound needing to pass through some open air and bounce off a couple of walls before being consumed by my ears, I would have expected my miking experiment to have yielded better results. Surely not every guitarist who uses in-ears puts up with awful tone, knowing that at least the audience is hearing something decent.

In my frustration over this problem I could be exaggerating the awfulness of the tone through headphones a bit, but if you have access to a THR and love it, plug in a pair of headphones and tell me whether, if that were the only way you’d heard it, you’d still love it.
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Re: Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

Postby Wonks » Sun May 17, 2015 12:02 pm

My first response would be 'is the FOH sound from the HD300 good'? If so, then either you need to accept the earbud/headphone sound or find a way to improve the sound in them. What headphones and earbuds are you using?

If the FOH sound also isn't working, then you really need to work on the sounds until it is.

I'd guess that you really need to pass the POD sound through some EQ, compression and probably a bit more reverb for your in-ear feed. You are probably hearing it a lot quieter through that than through speakers, so it will sound a lot flatter and less interesting. The ear does perceive louder sounds as 'better', plus the ear's frequency response curve has less bass and treble at low volumes.

Or you could split the POD feed and at least pass it through another channel on the desk (which only goes to the IEM mix) with a compressor as an insert and then EQ the sound to your taste.

It's not 100% clear to me if you've already been using this live. If not, the sound may be better when mixed with the rest of the group, rather than in isolation.

Don't go by sounds from equipment on YouTube demos. The sounds will have been produced to provide the best presentation possible and they will have been EQd, compressed and extra reverb will have been added. The sound that the THR10 was actually making probably sounded quite different.
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Re: Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

Postby Kwackman » Sun May 17, 2015 12:20 pm

The line 6 device- if it's anything like the PODs there'll be a switch for speaker cabinet emulation. It might be a hardware switch, or a software switch, I can't remember. That might help?
If you already are aware of this, ignore this post!

Also, small point, but is the headphone feed stereo or mono?
Some sounds are great in stereo, but sound feeble in mono.
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Re: Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

Postby Ramirez » Sun May 17, 2015 12:21 pm

Could it be that it's the 'playing experience' ond earbuds that you don't like? This could easily affect your perception of the sound. You mentioned liking the demo video on headphones - i.e you enjoyed listening to someone else play on headphones. If you don't like the way it 'feels' to play on headphones, then you won't enjoy the sound - do you have the means to record yourself, and then listen back? If you find that you're happy with the sound when listening back, you need to find something to improve the playing experience itself.
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Re: Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

Postby Music Wolf » Sun May 17, 2015 6:54 pm

I use an HD500 straight into the PA and we are in the process of moving from wedges to IEMs. Even with custom moulds and separate monitor mix the sound is not as good through the IEMs.

The way that we have approached things is to first gain confidence in the FOH mix by recording it straight from the desk and replaying through the PA (we use backing tracks and no back line so what we record is what the audience hears). How you hear the mix whilst playing always feels different to when just listening IMO. Once we're confident with our FOH sound the whole business of the IEMs is a lot easier.

I frequently practice using headphones (open back Senheiser or closed back Beyerdynamic) or studio monitors. The same mix sounds very different on each system.
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Re: Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

Postby shufflebeat » Sun May 17, 2015 7:35 pm

Kwackman wrote:The line 6 device- if it's anything like the PODs there'll be a switch for speaker cabinet emulation. It might be a hardware switch, or a software switch, I can't remember. That might help?

I suspect your answer might be here. If this doesn't solve your problem consider investing (about £20) in one of the Joyo amp simulator pedals. They're pocketmoney-tastic.
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Re: Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

Postby CS70 » Sun May 17, 2015 9:37 pm

So, in short: playing acoustic thru headphones sounds good to you, but not electric, no matter which gear you are actually using. Everything else being absolutely equal: the only difference being the last bit of the chain - mixer to headphone amp rather than to PA. And the issue remains with different types of earphones/buds.

One thing is of course is - as other wrote - to make sure any cab simulation is on. But the Yamaha (if I recall well) doesn't have an option to turn it off, so it should not be an issue. In all, things seems to point to either the headphone amp, the cable from mixer to headphone amp, or the cable from headphone amp to headphones (less likely, as the last two are usually attached). You could try a short, different cable and a different headphone amp.

This said, the only way I tried the Yamaha was thru headphones, and didn't like it one bit. On the other side, I routinely record demos with Axe Fx and 11 rack and there's no problem with how they sound thru cans..
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Re: Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

Postby Sam Spoons » Mon May 18, 2015 10:37 pm

I tried the Yamaha through it's speakers and didn't like it that way either (actually I tried two or three of them searching for a small battery powered amp and none of them excited me).
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Re: Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

Postby Dave Rowles » Tue May 19, 2015 1:08 am

Listen to a few tracks you like on your earbuds and see if the sound is acceptable vs your home hi-fi, or even your car stereo. What you need to determine is if it's the earbuds for sure. If it's the earbuds, then replace them. You'll be better off in the long run.

From what you describe though it's more than likely the settings on your POD/THR or on the main mixer that's causing the tone sucking rather than anything else. Reading your post it's not clear if you've plugged the headphones directly into the POD or always through another mixer? If you haven't tried it already, plug straight into the POD with your headphones and tweak everything. Get the manual out if needed and make sure what's coming out of it is good before going any further. +1 for looking into speaker emulation. That will be a major tone suck if it's off!

It's not clear from the site, but it could be the THR doesn't provide speaker emulation on the phones/aux outputs. Also, just looking at it mic'ing it would be an interesting experience, and I'm not sure that trying to mic up the THR would produce the best results. If you want to go down the mic'ing up route, then you'll have to play with the mic positions to get the best out of it.

Once you know you're getting a good tone on your ears without a mixer in line, then focus on the mixer. If you're all monitoring off the FOH mix then that's not the best way by far. You need to have individual mixes, or at least share with people to need to hear the same thing you do. You'll never have a great experience unless you can control what you're hearing. But I'll echo what the others have said if there's no other way. Get listening to the FOH mix and get that sounding good.

Once you've done all that you should have it sorted.

A band I mix monitors for has a similar set-up. All IEMs, no speakers. The guitarist said he had to have a radically different set-up on his multi-pedal when it's going straight into the PA vs when he's going into an amp, so it's worth spending some time playing with the setup.

Hope that helps
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Re: Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

Postby ef37a » Fri May 29, 2015 8:45 am

Yes you definitely need speaker cab emulation when using headphones on electric guitar (or indeed feeding raw e guitsr through a wideband "hi fi" speaker)

Can I mention the Blackstar HT-5? Been around some 5 years now so second hand ones should be available. The headphone setup is pretty unique, it is taken just before the PI to the OP stage and emulated and gives two cab versions. The power amplifier valve stage is gated off when cans are inserted.

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Re: Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

Postby cajudosu » Thu Oct 10, 2019 4:12 pm

Hey Phil,

I am experiencing exactly the same issue. Did you find any solution to that?

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Re: Poor guitar tone when monitoring through earphones

Postby CS70 » Thu Oct 10, 2019 11:19 pm

I remember that post, as it was a curious thing.. also remember thinking afterwards about checking different impedance headphones (the OP's HD300 are 18 ohms), and had in mind to tell him.. but he never replied to anyone.

For what's worth: it may be you need headphones with higher impedance than the ones you have. Earbuds (at least Apple's) have a low-ish impedance as well (23 Ohms) so might be just as mismatched with the emulators headphone out.
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