Welcome, today we’ll talk about audio headroom and how we can create more of it in our mixes. It’s really easy to do and it can be accomplished with stock plugins too, so there’s no need to use third party ones.
Before we dive in we must understand that headroom can be achieved during recording and mixing. The reason I say this, is because I see some people new to home recording reducing the volume of the master channel thinking that this creates headroom.
The reason my dear friends this is not right, is because if the signal got clipped somewhere along in the routing path, it will still be clipped because the master channel is the last signal receiver.
Just by turning it down does not mean it solves problems, cause the problem is not in the master channel itself, but in the earlier stages of your DAW, which are your mono tracks, groups and bus tracks.
Audio Headroom Techniques
Since we started talking about clipping first, then the first way of creating more headroom to your mix is to…
Reduce The Volume Of Your Tracks
In the digital world of home recording, when your signal touches 0db in the track it’s clipped.
Clipping means that there’s suddenly a huge amount of distortion to your audio. And no I am not talking about the musical and gentle distortion that adds harmonics and clarity.
On the other side, “analog clipping” is gentle and you can see lots of engineers to drive the signal hotter in their analog consoles, getting some nice saturation and adding upper harmonics to the sound, which also adds clarity.
This is not the right way to do that on our digital consoles though. We use analog console simulators instead. We can’t produce the analog console saturation effect just by bringing up our faders.
So please try to Shift & Click all your Mono and Stereo tracks and just lower them before you start sending them into groups and bus tracks. This will make sure that you’re dealing with headroom correctly right from the start.
Stop Recording Too Hot
To be 100% correct, in order to deal with headroom correctly right from the start, the solution is not only to lower our volumes of our solo tracks, but it’s also to record properly, because recording is the first and foremost step we should take properly.
I see people trying to record at around -3db with the peaks at 0db. Truth is that the peaks are over 0db, but our recording program cuts everything that is going above 0. There’s really no reason to be afraid of recording lower, since we’re not dealing with analog noise.
Our digital consoles have 0 noise, they’re not producing noise themselves, the only noise we may have is the noise generated by our external gear. So since this noise-to-clean-signal ratio is so low, don’t try to record near 0db all the time!
I usually record at -10 allowing the loudest peaks to hit at -3db. If I’m using compression while recording I record at around -7 and I still never let my peaks surpass -3. Then, I just turn my tracks down.
This way I’m sure I have enough headroom to play with and all my signals are healthy!
Please head over to the proper gain staging tutorial that shows you exactly how to record without causing artifacts.
Beware Of The Low End
The low end can be really sneaky and can creep up through our mix without even us realizing it.
There are various ways to deal with the low end in order to get some headroom and here are the 2 most common ones:
Use High Pass Filters
Using high pass filters everywhere except on your low end instuments, which are usually the bass guitar, the kick drum, an acoustic guitar or a synth with low notes, really helps.
Not only we’re gaining audio headroom this way but we’re also separating the audio frequencies for a cleaner mix.
Compress The Low End
Compressing only the low end of your tracks gives you a lot of headroom, makes your track sound better and reduces frequency overlapping.
In order to compress just the low end area you need a multiband compressor and target a specific frequency range, usually ranging from 0Hz up to 100Hz.
I show you how you can compress the low end properly, using only the stock plugins of your favorite recording software, in this video below.
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Low Mids Matter
The same tips apply for the low mids up to ~300hz.
Using multi-band compressors here too is a perfect way to gain headroom, make the low mids tighter, clean some mud and generally improve your sound as a whole.
This trick is used also by Andy Sneap one of the most well-known metal engineers and he’s using this tip to the electric guitars, by targeting the 100Hz to 300hz area and compressing it to taste.
Remove The Unnecessary Frequencies
Before reaching for the top end eq boost, ask yourself: Maybe the track sounds dull and muddy, because it wasn’t recorded so well?
There’s nothing wrong to boost to emphasize the frequencies the mix is asking for, but make sure you remove the ones that have got nothing to offer, but provide only muddiness and take up audio headroom.
You will also find out that by cutting the “bad” frequencies first, you won’t need to boost as you had first thought.
Let me explain with an example.
Let’s say that you have boosted at 6db with a high shelf at 5Khz to get some brightness. By removing the lower frequencies you’ll find out that the track got brighter without any boost.
This is because that when we’re cutting a frequency range, we’re emphasizing the others simultaneously and vice-versa.
So instead of this 6db boost, you might have ended up with a 3db cut and a 3db boost instead (numbers are random generated for this example). The track still has the same brightness and also sounds more natural this way.
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These are the most used techniques to gain audio headroom without sacrificing the audio quality. I hope this post has solved your questions about audio headroom and how to get it.
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