Understanding Headroom to Get the Most Out of Your Mix
One of the most common misconceptions that I see new music producers make involves getting their tracks ready for mastering, specifically when it comes to how loud their mixes are and understanding the concept of headroom.
In digital audio the loudest a sound can be without distortion is 0dB. Anything over 0dB is considered “clipping” and therefore losing audio quality. Clipping is always bad, that is why most volume meters will go red when you exceed 0dB.
CLIPPING ANYWHERE IS BAD.
In a mix the peak level is the loudest volume that the signal reaches. I hear a lot of mixes that are very careful to avoid going over 0dB, but they sit with their peak level right underneath that 0dB marker. This tends to be the result of “louder is better” concept that I’ve noticed a lot in beginner producers. But ultimately this will hurt your mix when it comes time to get it mastered.
EVEN THOUGH THERE IS NOT CLIPPING, IF YOUR MASTER FADER LOOKS LIKE THIS, YOUR PEAK LEVEL IS TOO HIGH.
When you are preparing a song to be mastered you do not want it mixed to 0dB because the process of mastering involves a lot of changing the dynamics of a song. There needs to be some room between the peak level and 0db for the mastering engineer to work with. This space is called headroom.
Most mastering engineers will want around 6dB of headroom. So the absolute loudest your mix should get is -6dB. This will allow plenty of room for the mastering plug ins to do their job and get you a better sounding track in the long run.
THIS WOULD BE A MIX WITH PLENTY OF HEADROOM TO BE MASTERED.
Now if you have already mixed a song with no headroom, the common response is to turn down the master fader and be done with it. This is not a good approach as it will ruin the dynamic range of your track. Keep your master fader at 0dB and instead select all your tracks and turn them down together.
Keep in mind that when you mix to -6 rather than 0 it will sound much quieter. This is perfectly alright, simply turn up the volume on your monitors or headphones. Or a trick to keeping it loud while mixing is to turn your master fader up to +6db and mix as if 0dB was your peak level. When you are done mixing return it down to 0dB and your mix should be sitting right where you want it for mastering.