It is sometimes the case that there’s another phase to the method of having your songs concluded and that the final stages of song creation aren’t totally thought about when mixing. With that in mind I thought I’d do a quick post on headroom and why it’s important.
What is headroom?
Headroom is basically the difference between the peak of the absolute maximum as well as the signal the audio system can manage. In the electronic world the maximum any station can take is 0dBFS. Anything above this can lead to digital clipping (not great).
Usually when headroom is talked about the reference is with relation to the master bus – although you still demand headroom in individual tracks! Otherwise you had still get problems with clipping/distortion.
Why it’s important?
If you’re thinking of getting your songs mastered then you must consider leaving headroom for the mastering engineer there is not a lot that can be done to finalize the track. It makes mastering the tracks that much harder and once you’ve eaten that headroom up – there is no way to recover it without going back to the mix. So give it some consideration the next instance you are mixing and think about the following stage on from your combination procedure.
Three Killer Ways To Get More Headroom In Your Mix
It is important at all times to have a lot of headroom while blending. Cutting occurs, which can be basically distortion, when a digital signal within your DAW goes above 0 dB. Unlike some gear that is analog, this digital distortion does not seem pleasing at all or in just about any way musical. So here I shall show you 3 very fundamental, but great strategies to avoid this clipping.
1. High Pass + Low Pass Filters.
High pass filters are often used in mixing as an EQ setting. They remove the unwanted lows of an instrument and let the highs pass. Hence the name. The low end of the frequency spectrum takes up a lot of headroom so it is important that it is controlled. Simply going to all your instruments that don’t need that bassiness and removing it with your EQ can phenomenally clean up your mix and free up tonnes of headroom. For example, if you have a guitar track that musically lives around the 600 Hz – 1500 Hz area, hey why not cut away that low end below 400hz that’s basically unneeded? It’ll make no difference to the musicality or emotional impact of the guitar depending on how much you cut and will free up headroom and clean up the mix. It’s a win-win situation! It is also important not to cut away too many lows.
Sometimes cutting away a lot of lows on a guitar may make it sound cleaner at first but it can suck the life out of your guitar. Sometimes it’s that bit of low end that glues your whole mix together and creates that warmth and emotional impact you want. So experiment with a high pass EQ filter and see what works best in your mix.
Not as much attention goes towards removing the unneeded highs of some instruments. It’s actually quite surprising to hear how much headroom and space is created when you remove the unneeded highs from your mix. Sometimes adding a massive boost to the high end of a guitar can at first give you this illusion of presence and brightness and goodness, but it isn’t actually noticed in the final mix with all the other stuff going on. So with my same guitar I would usually use a low pass filter to remove those highs I don’t need, letting those cymbals ring out better and allowing the high breathy sound of my vocalist shine through with all the emotion it was recorded and sang with. Once again, removing too many highs can ruin a signal so experiment with a low pass filter in your mix and see what works best.
2. Cleaning Up The Infamous Low Mids.
Around 200hz to 500hz is the infamous low mid region of the frequency spectrum. Words like ‘mud’ and ‘ugly’ are associated with this area. These frequencies are commonly the source of muddiness and eat away a lot of headroom in your mix and also can suck the life and emotion out of a song. In most of my mixes, I approach this frequency range ready to cut it away with an EQ. I start with say, that same guitar again. I then make a large boost around the low mid muddiness area. I also make the Q or bandwidth of the boost very thin. I then sweep around the muddiness area with my boost and find the place where that ugly and muddy sound that has been bugging me is intensified. I then turn that boost into a cut of about 6dB – 8dB. Magic! That low mid ugliness and mud has gone, and so much more headroom is available!
Now always remember that this low mid area could sound amazing on certain instruments, so as always, experiment in you DAW and see what works best in your mix.
3. Turning down your faders.
This last way is so simple but yet so overlooked by so many mixers. If your master fader is clipping, simple turn down all you faders! It’s extremely simple! It is the number one most effective way to free up headroom. If you feel like your mix is too quiet, just turn up your speakers. It’s so incredibly simple so try it today.
In some DAWs you can select all your faders and turn them all down simultaneously. If your tracks are all routed to buses, buy some time and just turn them down instead of turning down each individual track one after another.
After you started to apply several of these techniques you’ll hear a notable difference in your mixes. As long as all your tracks are recorded properly you’ll have no problem to bring back the loudness in your mix when it’s mixed properly. Happy mixing.