headroom

This is something I used to believe. I had simply never given it much thought. Maybe you’re in the same boat?

I made the mistake of confusing headroom with dynamic range.

Put simply, when I looked at the master fader, if there was a lot of room between the loudest peak of my mix and 0 dBFS (clipping, the part where the red light comes on), then I assumed my mix had plenty of dynamic range. I imagined my mastering engineer opening up the mix, smiling to himself and saying, “Man, that Joe has done it again. Look at all this dynamic range!” Wrong.

It turns out I simply had a fundamental misunderstanding of dynamic range. I would hear engineers lament the fact that people were over-compressing their mixes, the so-called “loudness wars.” Everyone was in a craze of adding a big, fat limiter to their mixes to make them super-loud.

The problem is that volume and dynamic range are two very different things. Volume is how loud something is. You could measure the average volume of a song, for example. Dynamic range measures the difference between the loudest and softest sections of a song.

Let’s say you’re working on a song that has a very soft section with just a vocal and a quiet guitar, then a huge full-band section right afterward. Is the quiet section JUST as loud as the full-band section? If so, you’re probably over-compressing something. The quieter part NEEDS to be quieter, or it just sounds unnatural…and un-musical.

As we know, compression reduces dynamic range. So, being able to measure dynamic range allows us to see if we’re over-compressing our mix. Of course, you can use your ears, but sometimes our ears can be deceiving.

I personally use the TT Dynamic Range Meter to check my mixes. To find out more about it, read How to Avoid Over-Compressing Your Mix by my buddy Ian Shepherd.

The Take-Away Point

Perhaps you don’t want to bother with a dynamic range meter. That’s fine. Here’s the point I’m trying to make.

Just because your mix is quiet DOESN’T MEAN it isn’t over-compressed.

You could have a mix that peaks at -10 dB on the master fader. Does that mean you have a dynamic range of 10 dB? Nope. That just means you have 10 dB of headroom.

Does that mean you’ve left your mastering engineer plenty of room to work? NO!

Let’s say that mix peaks at -10 dB, but you’re using a bus compressor to completely SQUASH the mix. Your mix could have NO dynamic range. Just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean it’s dynamic.

The moral of the story? Don’t over-compress. If you think you’re over-doing it, you probably are. Take a step back. Be conservative. You’re mixes will thank you.

[Photo Credit]

  • Pingback: Why is Everybody Yelling in Here?!? The Loudness Wars and Dynamic Range Day 2012 | Audio Issues()

  • Awesome article, i need this reminded from time to time, i’ll sticky it in my wall 🙂
    thanks a lot for this article too!

  • Nigel Thompson

    Hey Joe

    What a clear and focussed post.
    Thanks for the Balanced/ unbalanced email.
    Short Concise….. and I get it now.

    With regard to Loudness wars and the DR meter I checked out a few of my favorite tracks to see where they were on the scale admitidly using only mid to high res MP3 files but was staggered at the difference. I got the point when I could pull up a track I thought to be over commpressed/limited and being right and indeed visa versa.
    Ian Shepherd on this side of the pond seems to try and work between 8-12 Db/Drange and low and behold the music and recordings I really rate whether New Metal or Ambient prog, sit nicely in and around this range. 
     

  • Great points, Terry! “goodness, I saw that meter move!” <–hilarious

  • I don’t know. You’ll have to go check it out and see.

  • To make things entirely clear: The DRMeter measures the RMS Values over 3 second intervals (using only the loudest 20% of about 10K single loudness measurements). Then tries to find the loudest peak on the track and substracts it from the median of the 20 loudest RMS measurements. The result will be the dynamic range of the track.

    • Whoa. That’s way more information than my brain can handle. 🙂

  • dierock enroll

    guilty as charged! i was mastering some mixes on my own, and i found some noise in the final bounce. the drums sounded —you guessed it— over compressed, despite the fact my TT DR meter was pretty much on the green. i went through the mix and removed some compression from the drums bus. i guess there’s some things you just have to learn to do, no matter how well someone explains it to you. thanks for this post, joe!

  • I have always know this fact since you taught me about dynamic range, but I see how it can be confusing for some… especially with the badly self-titled “loudness war”.

  • I have always know this fact since you taught me about dynamic range, but I see how it can be confusing for some… especially with the badly self-titled “loudness war”.