How Much Headroom Before Mastering Should I Leave?

mastering headroom


How much headroom before mastering should you leave in your mix?  Here's the correct amount you need, using detailed graphic examples.


There are two factors to consider when exporting your final mix for mastering:


A. Peak level - The absolute highest level the output signal reaches.

B. Dynamic range - The range between the highest level and the lowest level of the output signal.



The loudest part of your song (peak level) should be around -3db to -5db (below 0 level).  This is considered +3db to +5db of headroom. 

In your mix, never let your levels go over 0db on the stereo out (main out) meter, OR on ANY of your individual instrument or vocal tracks. 

Note - For the record, at times you can peak at 0 level or slightly over if its quick hits like a drum, hi-hat, etc. and they don't distort.  But again, there's no reason to go over-level. 

Remember, loudness maximization is done in mastering NOT mixing.  DO NOT keep raising the fader on the stereo out (main out) way over zero level, totally distorting the song, to match the volume level of your favorite song.  Yes, you matched the volume level, but now you have a scratchy distorted mess!  

If your mixes are going to be mastered by someone else, the mastering engineer prefers a lower level, more dull sounding mix that he or she can bring up to where it should be.  NOT an over-level scratchy distorted super bright mix.  NO ONE can do anything with this!  It's a trainwreck!  If you listen to the before samples on my website, you can hear what a song is supposed to sound like BEFORE mastering.  What a raw mix is supposed to sound like.  Did you notice they're not real loud, or distorted, or super bright or bassy?  This allows me to bring them up to where they should be in the after samples.      

Sometimes I receive songs that correctly have +3db of headroom, but the vocals or certain instruments are still distorted.  This is because the "individual tracks" were mixed over-level.  Nothing should ever go over 0db on any channel of your entire mix!!


I get so many over-level submissions, I've decided to show graphics of how your .wav or.aiff files should look.

audio .wav example 1

This .wav file peaks at -6db. A little low but just fine. I can work with this.


audio .wav example 2

 This .wav file peaks at -3db. This is great.


audio .wav example 3

This .wav file peaks at 0db but is fine because there are no distorted flat
spots in the wave. The high hats are hitting at 0db and everything else
drops down, leaving good dynamic range. I can work with this.


audio .wav example 4

This .wav is +3db over level. All the flat spots you see are distortion. You can't
just jack up your levels past 0 and distort everything to make your song louder.
Loudness is increased in mastering.  Do not submit a file that looks like this.


audio .wav example 5

Once a week, we get at least one file that looks like this! Let's call this the
"trainwreck file." +6db over-level and totally distorted from beginning to end.

I can't do anything with this. No one can!!


audio .wav example 6

This is an interesting file. We get this quite often too. It's the "train-wreck file"
we mentioned above, gained down -9db. It's completely distorted, but its -3db under 0 level.

A file where the mixer channels are over 0 level, but the main stereo out
is -6db would look exactly the same.

I can't use this either. Once your song is distorted and over level, you
can't just gain it down. All you're doing is making a distorted file quieter.

You have to be under 0 level on the stereo out, and on all the mixer board
channels when exporting the original .wav file.

Unfortunately, many times the recording studio gives you the "train-wreck" file
and you're stuck with it.  Gaining it down yourself does nothing.



As a song plays, the output meter constantly goes up and down. Dynamic range is the area between the peak level (when the meter is up) and the low level (when the meter is down). Roughly, 3db to 5db of movement between the high and low meter level is average, but this does depend on the genre of music. 

With a heavily compressed/limited or over-level mix, the meter will not go up and down more than 1db, if any.  Not good. 

The reason I need dynamic range and headroom in mixes is because compressed/limited or over-level mixes already have music content removed from them, which greatly limits what I can do in mastering.

"Leaving no dynamic range is comparable to a woman who goes to a hair stylist with only 3 inches of hair. The stylist would be “very” limited with what she could do!  10 inches and the sky's the limit!"


I offer professional mixing and mastering here at my Online Mastering And Music Mixing Studio.  High quality work at an affordable price!  You can also receive a FREE Mastering Demo, with no obligation.
Please Like Us on Facebook or SHARE this article with a friend if you enjoyed it!  Thanks for your support!


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How Is Tinnitus Caused?

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What Did Tinnitus Sound Like To Me?

I got tinnitus in 1999, working on one of my very first mastering projects the day I opened my Big Label Sound.  At that time I needed to listen to the songs I was mastering much longer than I do now because of my lack of experience.  I was doing my final masters at a high level (105-110 dbs) for about 30 minutes non-stop.  When I was done I didn't really notice anything until night time when I was hearing a high-pitched tone.  It sounded like a 40db test tone at 5k.  I could hear the tone in both ears, but my right ear was twice as bad as my left.

The first few days it was hard for me to sleep because I kept thinking about this sound.  Sitting outside in the quiet also made this tone pretty obvious and annoying.

Is There A Cure For Tinnitus?

No.  There are many pills and snake oil products online, but I have never heard of a valid cure.  But, experts say it gets better over time as long as you don't make it worse.

The first two weeks I suffered from tinnitus, I would say it was very annoying at night but not too bad during the day.  It did not effect my sound engineering.  I had no problem mixing or mastering songs.  After a month it improved about 25%.  After a year 50%.  Now, many years later, I would say I only have maybe 20% of the original tinnitus I had in 1999.  I would almost say it's gone.

Can You Mix And Master Music With Tinnitus?

Mine was not severe, so it did not hinder me at all.  The noise I heard was a 40db loud test tone at 5k (at a narrow range).  I do my initial mixing and mastering at around 90dbs, so the tone is pretty much drowned out.  It's kind of like when someone records mic hiss.  You can hear it when the music stops, but when the guitars are playing you don't notice it. 

If your tinnitus is very severe, I'm sure your sound engineering skills would be greatly affected.  Singer Phil Collins retired because of his tinnitus.  Bono has very severe tinnitus that greatly affects his everyday life.

How To Prevent Tinnitus In Everyday Life

Always use hearing protection (earplugs) when at a concert or a club playing loud music, when cutting grass, when using a blower or electric power tools, and for sure when shooting a gun.

How Loud Is Too Loud When Mixing And Mastering Songs?

Well, 105-110dbs for 30 minutes straight was too loud for me.  I had tinnitus at the end of the 30-minute session.  Everyone is different, so I don't want to give you specific sound ranges and upper limits.  All I can tell you what worked for me and improved my tinnitus 90% since 1999.

How To Protect Your Hearing And Prevent Tinnitus As A Sound Engineer

The Guinea Pig Experiment

I read a study online where a scientist exposed guinea pigs to extremely loud music.  The basic result of the study was that the guinea pigs who listened to the music continuously, say 30 minutes, the structural damage to the internal ear was severe.  The guinea pigs who listened to the same 30 minutes of music, BUT it was not continuous (2 minutes of music and then roughly a 2-minute break, their damage was FAR less severe than the first group.  Now remember, both groups listened to music at the exact same volume for the same amount of time, 30 minutes.  Continuous vs intermittent listening made a HUGE difference.

The Rules I Follow During Music Mixing And Mastering Sessions That Prevent Tinnitus

My initial low sound level mixing and mastering, I keep levels around 85-90dbs.  I listen 10-15 minutes at these levels, then take a 5-minute break.  I will do this for about 2-4 hours, then I take a full two-hour break.

When it comes time for the finalization loud listening (105-110dbs) mixing or mastering I NEVER go more than 3-4 minutes continuous and I pretty much split time.  If I listen loud for 3 minutes, I take a 3-minute break before starting up again.

Above is what I've doing and what works for me since 1999.  Maybe you can go 100dbs for 8 hours a day and have never had a problem.  As for myself, 110dbs for 30 minutes ruined my ears pretty good and I was going to make sure they didn't get any worse.  Tinnitus isn't fun.  I might even be going overboard a bit with my rests, but it's working for me.  Better safe than sorry with tinnitus.

I offer professional mixing and mastering here at my Online Mastering And Music Mixing Studio.  High quality work at an affordable price!  You can also receive a FREE Mastering Demo, with no obligation.
Please Like Us on Facebook or SHARE this article with a friend if you enjoyed it!  Thanks for your support!