Q. What exactly is ‘headroom’ and why is it important?

Published in SOS February 2010
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I'm a synth guy getting more and more into recording and mixing my own tunes. One thing that stumps me is the issue of 'headroom': for example, in the case of my Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 I/O, the manual says that using the PSU rather than Firewire bus power yields 6dB of additional headroom in the preamps. I assume that this is a good thing, but how so? What is headroom and why do I want more of it? How do I know it's there (or not there), and how can I take advantage of it?

Via SOS web site

SOS Technical Editor Hugh Robjohns replies: These are all good questions. Every audio‑passing system (analogue or digital) has two limits: at the quiet end there is the noise floor, normally a constant background hiss into which signals can be faded until they become inaudible; and at the loud end there is clipping, the point where the system can no longer accommodate an increase in signal level and gross distortion results. The latter is generally due to the signal level approaching the power supply voltage levels in analogue systems, or the coding format running out of numbers to count more quantising levels in digital systems.

Obviously, we need to keep the signal level somewhere between these two extremes to maximise quality: somewhere well above the noise floor but comfortably below the clipping point. In analogue systems, this is made practical and simple by defining a nominal working level and encouraging people to stick to that by scaling the meters in a suitable way. For example, VU meters are scaled so that 0VU usually equates to +4dBu. The clipping point in professional analogue gear is typically around +24dBu, so around 20dB higher than the nominal level indicated on the VU meter.

That 20dB of available (but ideally unused) dynamic‑range space is called the headroom, or is referred to as the headroom margin. It provides a buffer zone to accommodate unexpected transients or loud sounds without risking clipping. It's worth noting that no analogue metering system displays much of the headroom margin. Rather, it's an 'unseen' safety region that is easy to overlook and take for granted. In most digital systems, the metering tends to show the entire headroom margin, because the meter is scaled downards from the clipping point at 0dBFS. The top 20dB or so of a digital scale is showing the headroom margin that is typically invisible on the meters of analogue systems. As a result, many people feel they are 'under‑recording' on digital systems if they don't peak their signals well up the scale, when in fact they are actually over‑recording and at far greater risk of transient distortion.

The reason why your interface offers greater headroom when operating from its external power supply is because the PSU provides a higher‑voltage power rail than is possible when the unit is running from the USB power supply. A higher supply voltage means that a large signal voltage can be accommodated; in this case, twice as large, hence the 6dB greater headroom margin. More headroom means you have to worry less about transient peaks causing clipping distortion, and generally translates to a more open and natural sound, so it's a good thing.  

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