The name of the game with mixes these days is headroom. This is especially true with mixing in the box (i.e. your software). What is headroom and why is it important? The short answer is: the range between your song’s loudest peaks and 0dbfs (or clipping). The benefit of lots of headroom? Sonic clarity and musicality. Do you want your mix to sound squished and flat? I didn’t think so. So listen up.
Via Justin Davis
No Room To Mix
If you don’t leave enough headroom in your DAW then you really have to where to go with your mix. You will be hitting the proverbial (and literal) ceiling early and often. No es bueno. In the analog world we had some fudge room near the top of the meter, but the same does not hold true with digital. The solution? Free up as much headroom as possible and your mix will gain life and room to breathe. Here are the three easiest ways to get back some precious headroom in your mix.
Turn Your Tracks Down
This is the most obvious solution to the headroom quandary. Although few people seem to take my advice on this one. By simply turning down your tracks in your DAW you will be sending less signal to your mix buss and consequently will have instant headroom and clarity. You can do this in one of three ways: turn down your faders, use clip based gain to reduce track level, or insert trim plugins across your tracks with a generous level cut.
I guarantee you your mixes will come together faster and will sound better if you would simply pull all your tracks down before you begin to mix. At the modern 24 bit depth provided just about every audio interface these days, you have plenty of quiet gain and a low noise floor. No need to have really loud tracks running way up the meter. Pull them down and turn up your speakers and your tracks will sound better.
Use Your High Pass Filter Often
A long time ago I wrote about how using your high pass filter is the fastest way to clean up your mix. It’s so simple that it’s mind boggling. By rolling off the ultra low end (100hz and below) on just about every instrument other than kick drum and bass you free up a ton of headroom and volume for your mix buss to breath. On most tracks in the mix, you gain nothing sonically from the sub 100hz area so it’s a waste of volume anyway.
Some people complain that your tracks will sound too thin if you high pass them all, and I would agree…if you listen to them in solo. But as you should know by now, mixing in solo mode is a fools errand. In reality, your tracks will sound 100% the same in the mix. The only difference will be the extra headroom you’ve just freed up. Nice!
Cut The Ugly Low Mids
The third and final way to buy back that precious headroom in your mix is to cut any and all of the ugly low mid frequencies. Low mids are notorious for hogging up volume. In fact, they arguably can take up more headroom than all that stuff you’ve been high pass filtering. Sometimes we label these frequencies (anywhere between 200 and 500hz) as muddy and I think it’s an accurate description. They don’t have nice warm low end, just thick, sticky, headroom sucking mud.
Here’s my reader’s digest version of how I cut low mids. I grab an EQ on say a drum buss, do a huge boost in the 300 to 400hz area, and sweep around until I hear the ugliest frequency on the planet. Once identified, I turn that boost into a cut of at least 3db. Then I simply compare the carved out EQ curve to what the track sounded like before. 9 times out of 10 the track sounds the same only better. More clarity in the top end AND in the bottom end. And all the while it’s taking up less volume, and consequently eating up less overall headroom.
What’s Stealing Your Mix’s Headroom?
At the end of the day, you can’t get a great mix going if you have no where to go on your mix buss. If your headroom is taken up, you might as well concede. That’s why it’s critical to free your mix buss up from wasted headroom so you can get to work creating a musical, clear, and punchy mix. Which of the above three target issues is stealing your mix’s headroom? Experiment and find out. Your mixes will thank you for it!