Headroom is like air—your mix needs it to be able to breathe.
The most common problem we see at LANDR is a lack of headroom.
Ask any mastering engineer and they’ll say the same thing: if a track comes in too hot, there’s no room left to master.
There’s even an acronym for it: GIGO. That stands for ‘Garbage In, Garbage Out.’ In other words, for your final mix to be good, you have to start with good habits for mixing music from the get-go.
The two crucial qualities of a great mix are dynamics and headroom. A dynamic track has lots of variation between loud and quiet parts. The intensity changes and it keeps the track interesting.
Now let’s dive into headroom. Regardless of your gear and your studio setup, making sure there’s adequate headroom is the best thing you can do for your mixes. Here’s how to do it right.
What Is Headroom?
Headroom is the available space in decibels (dB) between your loudest peak level (your transients) and 0 dB. Ideally it’s a buffer that you leave unused. Think of headroom as your ‘safety zone’.
Leaving headroom is crucial because it helps you:
- Prevent your track from clipping and distorting.
- Leave mastering the space to work its magic.
It’s also the best way to avoid getting this message in LANDR:
Here’s an example of a track without headroom. The transient peaks are clipping!
Repeat After Me:
Headroom is the space between your highest peaks (transients) and 0 dB, and NOT between the average level (RMS) of your track and 0 dB (that will still clip). Many people get this confused!
What Went Wrong?
Usually, when you don’t leave enough headroom, it’s because:
- It was mixed too hot (you’re cranking the level too close to 0 dB on your meter)
- The track either had a limiter or compressor on the master bus
These kinds of levels leave no room for mastering. The output of a track at this volume will cause clipping and distortion.
“Yeah, but it sounds good!”
It might sound good to you now, but this doesn’t mean it will sound good everywhere. Would it sound good on a super detailed hi-fi system? If there’s no headroom, it won’t.
This is why it’s crucial to leave it to an unbiased third party to take care of the final steps (including adding loudness) for your track to sound A+ anywhere you play it.
7 Tips to Help You Achieve Headroom in Your Mix:
1. Use Your Eyes AND Ears
Keep an eye on your master fader. The clipping point in a DAW is 0 (zero) dB. The transients (the tip of your loudest peaks) on your master fader should never go much higher than -6 dBFS throughout playback. Read the last sentence again, it’s crucial.
To achieve good headroom, watch for two things:
- The average level (RMS) on your master meter should look like the one above.
- Throughout your track, nothing (including transients) should go past -6 dBFS
Above is a healthy, good looking wave shape: We call this the ‘fishbone’—the opposite of the ‘sausage’ (a straight block). The transients and dynamics are preserved.
NOT SO FAST: Some of you cheat your way to a -6 dBFS, and that’s bad. If your soundwave looks like a sausage, NEVER bring it down using a limiter or by normalizing. You might think you created headroom because your peak level is at -6dBFS, but it’s compressed. That’s cheating and it won’t sound good. Remember: GIGO!
2. Work With Your Channel Faders, Not Your Master Fader
Use your channel faders to avoid hitting zero in your master channel. When you exclusively lower the master fader, it may create some headroom but it’s likely that your DAW will still bounce a distorted file. This is a very common problem.
The solution? Don’t touch your master fader. Go back into your mix and lower your individual channels until they add up to a nice level (-6 dBFS) on your master fader.
3. Louder Doesn’t Always Equal Better
Everyone does it: we get excited because loud sounds good, so we crank up faders unnecessarily.
If you are like me and need volume for vibe when you’re mixing, simply turn up the volume of your monitors until it feels right. You can also work with compression on the master and disable it before bouncing and uploading to LANDR mastering.
4. Work in 24 Bit
Many engineers are using 24 bit as a their default these days. It’s not necessarily because it sounds better. Rather, it gives more space to work within (hello headroom!).
If you want to read more about bit depth, check out this article.
5. Don’t Jump Into Automation Too Early
Automating volume and effects variations can seem really enticing, probably because it is a very visual process. But it’s also a common amateur mistake.
Automating too early in the mix process will eat up headroom. Start off by making a rough mix with no automation. Flesh out your track as much as possible. And then use automation as a tool to make a more dynamic mix in the end stages.
6. Work Backwards From the Loudest Sections
Most DAWs run linearly from left to right. Chances are that you are starting from the beginning of a track, right?
Try looping the loudest section and mix it first. Then move to the medium intensity sections and finally the lowest.
Try referencing classical or jazz tracks and pay particular attention to the volume swells. Replicate these changes in your own mixes.
7. Pick an Element in Your Mix and Highlight It
Maybe you want the vocal and synth to drive the song? Decide ahead of time which parts of your arrangement will be front and center in terms of loudness. Then integrate the other tracks underneath.
Sound is physics, there is only so much space in a mix to work with. Equalization (EQ) will also help you place elements in your mix.
Aim for a Fishbone, Not a Sausage
The key to a great mix is to start with a dynamic production—one that has variations in energy throughout the track. That will ensure that your wave looks like a fishbone, not a sausage. Then, resist the envy to destroy headroom by cranking up the faders—or worse, slapping a compressor or limiter on the master bus.
It may take a few tries to make headroom a part of your workflow. But I guarantee your mixes will have a far better feel. Sending a track with good headroom to mastering guarantees a master that sounds full without distorting.
So stay cool, keep your levels from going hot, and let that mix breathe.
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