All About Headroom and Distortion

When you are starting out in the video software business, then you may hear the terms headroom and distortion. These terms are often used to refer to the quality of sound on a video or movie clip, and they are generally seen as very negative. Headroom and distortion were originally used to describe the audio quality of home sound systems. In order to understand what these terms mean when you are using them for video sourcing, you should understand how they were used to refer to particular elements of the sound quality.


The principle of headroom in audio and visual technology is the same as in the headroom used to describe ceiling height. The amount of headroom that you have with an audio clip is the space that you have to increase sound before it becomes distorted. This is also true of the visual technology, although here it stands more for the amount of pressure that you can put upon your visual clips before they become distorted.

Headroom is affected by things such as the amount of special effects you use on a clip, and the types of compression that it experiences. Differently compressed videos and audio files have different quantities of headroom, depending upon how much you can play with the clip before your special effects start to have an impact upon the compression of the bytes. The less headroom you have to play with, the more likely you are to find that your pieces will be damaged.


When you run out of headroom, you get distortion. As with audio made on home sound systems, distortion affects the quality of your audio and visual files. Distortion does not have to be very extreme to have a big impact on the way in which your file appears on the screen. In addition, distortion may not begin with a large quantity, but instead will start with a small area, with the distortion gradually spreading to other areas as the film goes on. This kind of distortion can often have a serious impact on how the film is viewed when you are showing it.

Avoiding Distortion

The best way to avoid distortion is to work out how much headroom you have on a particular file, and take precautions not to exceed that amount when you are working on it. You should also try and limit the amount of special effects that you put upon one clip, so that it is less likely to be affected by distortion as it goes through time. If you are looking for another way to get around the effects of distortion, you could try bringing the particular clip back to the editing software, and amending it using the tools. Final Cut Pro for example will allow you to alter the distortion so that it has less impact upon the final film. It is generally better to avoid distortion rather than trying to fix it once it occurs.

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