Headroom in your music is very important if you’re planning on mastering your songs.
It’s also very important if you’re going to send your mixes to a mastering engineer.
The chain of command goes: Recording, Mixing and Mastering.
So when you are mixing, you need to give the mastering engineer some room to work with. If you mix all your tracks at a really high individual level, you won’t give the mastering process any headroom to work with.
So instead of cranking up the levels of each fader, crank up the volume of your interface instead.
Setting up a Mix
Proper gain staging is pretty important when starting your mix. Although you don’t need to worry too much about overloading each individual channel, especially in floating systems, you still need to worry about clipping the master fader.
The best way to start the mix is to lower all the individual tracks so that the master fader has plenty of room. Since you will inevitably be pushing up some faders, adding some compression to your drums and adding effects returns, your mix will get louder as you continue working.
By starting it off at a low enough level you give yourself enough of a head start. Make a routine out of checking the volume of the master fader every once in a while, especially if you’ve done some powerful changes like multiband compression, saturation or cranked up the gain of a compressor.
Don’t Increase the Volume
If you can’t hear the bass guitar that’s buried in the mix, don’t push up the bass guitar, lower something else instead.
It’s easy to get caught up in pushing each instrument up one after the other. When the kick drum is up, the bass guitar needs to go up too. When the bass guitar is up, the rhythm guitar needs extra volume.
Do you see how this becomes a vicious cycle?
Some instruments can mask others, so instead of always pushing up the levels more and more, how about backing off some instruments? Sometimes you need to think of how everything relates to each other.
The Importance of Metering
Make a habit of using a good metering plug-in.Those aren’t just for mastering engineer.
They are great for monitoring the Peak and RMS levels of your signal, estimating dynamic range and viewing the frequency response of your mix. By having it on your master bus it allows you to have a simple overview of your mix, something that can come in handy for spotting frequency build-up and a lack of dynamic range.
All these aforementioned things tie into a good final mix that you can hand off to a mastering engineer.
When a mastering engineer gets a mix that already has a maxed out stereo bus he’ll need to decrease the gain of the song in order to give himself enough headroom to work. With digital audio this is a nice possibility to have, but I recommend that you don’t have your master fader blowing steaming red all the time.
Leave enough headroom so that the mastering engineer doesn’t have to do redundant work like decreasing the gain. Let him do what you hired him for.
The amount of headroom a mastering engineer wants can vary so check with your guy on how he wants it delivered.
By having enough headroom on the master track you give plenty of room for the mastering engineer to work with, and he can compress and equalize and boost your mix to a mastered perfection without worrying about digital clipping.
Tying this back into what I mentioned before: By having a manageable level on each fader you leave the master fader with enough headroom so that the mastering engineer can do his tricks.
And finally, if everything doesn’t seem loud enough, maybe you just need to turn up the volume of your speakers!
Next week we’ll talk about some of the mistakes that happen with compression and how you can avoid them.
- Why the threshold is the most important thing about your compressor.
- How to use the attack to dull instruments
- How to avoid that annoying pumping sound.
- And more…
A Note About Mastering:
Mastering is a scary subject. It’s almost taboo to talk about in a home studio context.
Mastering in a home studio, “you must be mad,” they say.
Don’t listen to them. You can do it yourself.
It just takes a little effort and setup.
If you’re into mastering, check out Ian Shepherd’s (free) video on mastering a song loud,
He’s my go-to guy for everything about mastering, and he has a really great series on how to master with multiband compression:
(That’s my affiliate link btw. I’ve watched that video and it changed the way I use multiband compression so I happy to put my name to it.
If you don’t know who Ian Shepherd is, I interviewed him a while back about home mastering. It’s really a wealth of great information.