Headroom is one of those things that many people struggle with when mixing. It’s tremendously important to preserve plenty of headroom while you mix in the box (digitally)… especially if you hope to have the track mastered.
What is headroom and why is it important?
headroom is the amount of space between the loudest points in your song (“transient peaks”) and 0dbFS (the point when your audio will start clipping.
A good rule of thumb to follow for headroom is: preserve roughly 6dBFs between zero and the highest point of your song.
Headroom is important because it’s literally the space you as a mixer (and especially your mastering engineer, whether it’s also you or somebody else) will have to work with. If you finish mixing a song and have no headroom… a mastering engineer can’t do anything with it. He or she can’t compress anything or bring up levels or really give it that professional finish because there’s no room to do so without clipping!
How to Create Headroom in Your Mix
So I’ve established what headroom is and why it’s so important, here are some tips to make sure you have plenty of headroom in your next mix.
- Decide what element of the mix is most important to highlight, and let that be your focus — When recording, there’s going to be a track that’s the star of the show. If you’re recording pop or hip-hop, for example, it will generally be your vocals. Focus on that element and letting it shine and don’t get distracted trying to bring up that killer drum fill or guitar riff. You can very easily get into a situation where you’re tweaking more and more track levels trying to make them all stand out… before you know it, you’ve eaten all of your headroom. Pick a track to highlight and don’t let others pass it.
- Turn things down — This may seem a little too obvious, but I know some people who just LOVE working with everything turned up. Of course, you need to avoid recording too hot to make up for this (especially if you’re newer to recording/mixing)… but the point is that if you need some headroom you can:
- Turn down your faders
- Use trim plugins (for ProTools) or Gain Plugins (Logic X), or whatever similar plugin your DAW has to manually reduce gain.
- In Pro Tools, you can use Clip Based Gain to smooth out levels. Many other DAWs have similar tools!
- Use channel faders, not the master fader — This is a companion to tip #1. It’s tempting to say “well I’ll just turn the whole thing down,” but you may have a bass track that is running way too hot and will still result in a distorted file in your DAW. Build from the bottom up when you’re trying to create (or preserve) headroom.
- Record in 24-bit — This is one of my pieces of advice on my home recording cheat sheet, and I’m putting it here. Most everyone should already be recording at 24-bit these days, but there’s a still a few people who roll with 16 due to limitations. If you have no other option, I guess you can do that… but if you want more headroom record at 24-bit, end of discussion!
- Mix the loudest section first — do you know where the climax of your song will be? Start with that and make sure all your levels are reasonable within it. If you do that “top down” approach, you should have fewer headroom issues because you already addressed them at the loudest point.
- Use that high-pass filter — I’ve talked about the merits of the high-pass filter before, and when it comes to headroom… it can be your best friend again. Try rolling off everything below 100Hz on all tracks except for your kick drum and bass. If you feel you absolutely NEED those frequencies on some other instruments, go ahead and keep them (trust your ear!)… but I don’t think you’ll miss them, and it will help you out big time with headroom.
- Remember, louder does NOT equal better — This is a general tip for all things audio, but it has great application when discussing headroom. I’m not trashing loud… loud can be great… but just remember, loud isn’t a solution for everything. In fact, I find that loud can sometimes give your mixes a false sense of energy, in addition to potentially giving you headroom issues down the road. Don’t do everything so hot, it’s okay to turn things down!
- Don’t automate so early! — Automation is a tremendously powerful tool for mixing, and it can be very exciting to jump in and start automating everything sooner rather than later. Don’t do this! I find that this can negatively impact your headroom. Focus on getting a rough mix together before you start adding all the bells and whistles automation can offer. Your mastering engineer will thank you.
- Use your eyes – Yes “use your ears” should be the number one rule of mixing… but when it comes to creating headroom, it’s okay to use your eyes and really watch those meters. If you see that master meter getting a little too close to zero, you know you have work to do.
- The Low Mids are your enemy – Low mid frequencies (200-500Hz) tend to eat up a lot of headroom, and also tend to be a bit muddy. These are two bad things! Open up your EQ and make use of a sweeping technique, to sort out any problematic frequencies then make some cuts. You’ll save on headroom, AND your track will sound better!