We at Beatrising have noticed that a lack of headroom in mastering is what most projects have in common.
Dynamics and headroom are the two single most important qualities that make up a fantastic mix. Variation between the loud and quiet parts is key to attaining a dynamic mix. Keeping in mind the importance of making the most of your headroom during all steps of mixing will allow the significant dynamics to stay in the game and never be compromised.
What didn’t work?
Reasons why mixes usually lack headroom:
• A hot mix (the level was blasted too close to 0 dB on your meter).
• The use of plug-ins on the master bus to create loudness alone (a limiter and/or compressor in most cases).
• It was mixed hot (you’re cranking the level too close to 0 dB on your meter).
• Plug-ins were used on the master bus for the sake of loudness (usually a limiter and/or compressor).
How can Headroom be described?
Peak Headroom – in the world of digital audio – is the space available in the dB (decibels) found between your loudest peak level (imagine transients) and 0 dBFS (decibels full scale). It’s a buffer you don’t use.
1. First identify the dominant feature of your mix and focus on it
In terms of presence, figure out from the get go which elements of your mix will be front and center. Go ahead then with integrating the other tracks below them.
Bringing it down with a limiter or by normalizing is strictly a ‘NO NO’. It may seem like you created headroom with the peak level at -6dBFS, but it’s compressed. That’s not playing fair, and in the end it’s the sound that will suffer.
2. Don’t jump to automating, think first
Even though automating volume and effects is a flexible and powerful tool, it is fundamental to not turn to it too early in the mix process so as to avoid getting into trouble right away (i.e. all your headroom could get used up earlier than you think).
3. Who says louder means better?
We are all easy to prey to it: loud sounds awesome and it gets us worked up, so we fondle the faders and turn them up full throttle, even when we shouldn’t. Loudness in itself, though, should not be your main focus in mixing.
4. Work in 24 Bit
You can give yourself a lot of room (15-20 dB) between your peaks and 0 dBFS without concern for noise or loss of resolution because the noise floor is so low in 24-bit.
5. Control your dynamics
Managing the transient-heavy elements in your mix is always important. We all like dynamics, this is true, but allowing for some gentle, effective compression to keep them under control will benefit the mix. When mastering at HIGH intensity this will prove handy in avoiding hard limiting effects of the mastering process.
Variations in energy throughout a mix is what sets one a part, so start with a dynamic production for a sure all, fantastic mix.
Cranking up the faders will only destroy Headroom, so simply don’t do it—the same goes for an even worse move, which is slapping a compressor or limiter on the master bus just to get that loudness effect.