How much headroom before mastering should you leave in your mix? Here's the correct amount of headroom you should leave, using detailed graphic examples.
Note - It doesn't matter what DAW software you use FL Studio, Pro Tools, Logic, Reason, Cubase, Sonar or Ableton, the headroom examples and instructions apply to all of them.
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. This is the ideal amount of headroom for mastering that you want to leave.
How To Create Headroom Before Mastering In Your Mixes
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. These are your ideal mastering levels in dbs.
This .wav file peaks at -6db. This .wav has too much headroom before mastering.
But, I can still work with this by just gaining it +3-4dbs.
This .wav file peaks at -3db. This is the ideal amount of headroom before mastering.
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.
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.
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!!
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.
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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!"
- John Rogers