The Secret To A Loud Mix

The secret to a louder song without losing dynamic range is... keeping things quieter. Huh?

 Before you sign off on me and mark me off as crazy...

Let's talk headroom! What is it? Why do you need it?


Simplified Explanation:

Basically headroom is a term that refers to the amount of volume you have on the fader of your track before it tops out. (aka clips)


Typical Scenario:

You want a master that can compete with the industry standard tracks, so you turn up your mix. However, now you're also turning up the noise that was hiding down in the "noise floor". So obviously you want to record louder so this doesn't happen to your songs, right?

Armed with this knowledge, you crank up the preamplifier and the gain and try again. This time you went too far though and hit the "ceiling" resulting in what is known as clipping. 

Now what?

Well here's the secret...

There is a sweet spot! This sweet spot is not only the secret to better audio and ultimately more headroom, but it also increases the dynamic range in your mix and/or master allowing you to get a louder end result without it sounding like garbage! Win/Win/Win

Now... here's where people get confused, and it gets even worse when you have to start converting between analog recording levels and that of digital. So, let me set the story straight for you.

The first thing people start doing to avoid the noise floor is to record as hot as possible, meaning they try to crank the input up to a volume that's as high as it can be without clipping. People do this to try to minimize any possible noise in the recordings. So they close mic and turn up the preamp's input volume. These are all mistakes because you're completely eating up your headroom.

The goal is to take advantage of that sweet spot! In order to keep this simple, we're not going to talk about decibel units. We'll just call it analog or digital. Let me just go ahead and state the sweet spots...

The full resolution sweet spots for recording are:

  • Analog: 0dB
  • Digital: -18dB

This is where gain staging comes in!

Gain staging simply means that you keep your volumes near the sweet spot in each step of the recording chain. That means for anything analog (microphone, preamp, analog-to-digital converters) you want to be hanging in right around 0dB. Conversely, the digital side of things needs to hover around -18dBFS. (DAW levels)

Just remember: 0dB analog = -18dB digital

So you're coming in at an average of 0dB analog and -18dB digital. Perfect. But you still have 18dB left on each fader... that is your headroom. Headroom is the space between the sweet spot and the ceiling before clipping is introduced. This quieter space is the secret to a louder end result!

You don't want to or need to fill up that space during the recording or mixing stages of the recording process. You want to save it for the mastering engineer.

Ready for one more secret about that sweet spot? Now here's where it gets even better...

Did you know, that sweet spot we keep talking about is... get this... the prime audio input level for your plugins as well?!

That's right, the plugin developers (well most of them) actually have this sweet spot baked into their design so that they will sound the best at -18dBFS!

Therefore, I think it's safe to say that this sweet spot is pretty sweet!

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