Mastering the Language (of music mastering terms)

Nit-picky mastering semantics

This article on music mastering terms first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk! PS: you may find affiliate links in this post and I may get a commission if you buy something. 🙂

Mastering has always been a dark art to some, and nowadays that’s made worse by rapid changes in both technology and business. Not so long ago, mastering was the purview of mastering engineers (ME’s) in dedicated mastering rooms (it still is, at least when there’s a budget).

But at an indie level, the line has blurred, partly because affording a true ME for every project isn’t always realistic, and partly because technology has shifted how the process goes – or at least how it could go. In other words, there are more, cheaper ways to skin that cat.

All this has led to confusion about mastering, and we’ve identified some key terms that have gotten mangled. Clearing up these terms may help untangle mastering itself, so be warned: what follows is nit-picky semantics. But it matters.

Translation vs. Compatibility

When defining mastering, people often call it the stage when tracks are made to translate across different listening environments. False. Mixing is the stage where a song is balanced, treated, and manipulated to sound good whether it’s listened to on monitors, car radios, or cheap earbuds.

The problem is the words translate and compatible. Often, when we talk about mixing, we refer to making mixes “compatible” across many systems. The better word for this is “translatable”. Mixing makes songs translate well across listening environments.

Mastering is making audio files compatible in various situations. For example, an ME might make a CD quality WAV file for use in a CD pressing or a 48 kHz WAV file with loudness levels designed for streaming services. Or they may prepare audio for cutting to vinyl. This is distinct from making a mix translatable.

Why It’s Important

One reason it matters is so recordists understand what an ME can be expected to do, and what should be handled in the mix.

Let’s say a mix is a muddy – the bass is too loud and the vocals too quiet. There’s plenty an ME can do to correct this, and they may have to – say if the multi-tracks are long gone. But this is much easier to accomplish in the mix, shaving off some low end from the bass and bumping up the vocal. You get the picture.

This also helps with a fundamental mastering question…

How Close Should My Song Be Before I Send It to Mastering?

Answer: As close to perfect as possible. Even though ME’s have become magicians who can enhance and even fix mixes, that’s not their traditional role. It’s the mixer’s job to make a mix sound like a record. It’s the mastering engineer’s job to get it ready for use.


These days, half the job in mastering is to increase perceived loudness. So, you may have heard that an ME needs enough “headroom” on a mix so they can do their job. The intent here is right, the term is wrong.

The actual definition of headroom is “the amount by which the signal-handling capabilities of an audio system can exceed a designated nominal level”. If that sounds like Greek, no worries. It means much room you have to turn the volume up.

That means if the loudest peak of a mix is 0 dB, you can’t turn up the volume. If the peak is -4 dB, you can turn up the volume 4 dB. That’s headroom.

And that doesn’t matter at all to an ME.

Especially in the digital realm, an ME can turn volume up and down to their heart’s content with no ill effect. If the highest peak is 0 dB, they can turn it down by 3 dB to get 3 dB of “headroom”.

ME’s need dynamic range, not headroom. If the dynamic range is small, not much can be done to increase perceived loudness, so mixers are encouraged to deliver mixes that aren’t overly compressed.

This is mistakenly referred to as “leaving headroom”. Often, those who don’t understand this squash mixes and turn the volume down to give the ME “headroom”. Ironically, they’ve done exactly what was asked for – but not what was needed.

Now That’s Cleared Up

This has been by no means an exhaustive look at mastering – just a short look at a few terms that turn out to matter quite a lot. Hopefully, clearing that up proves helpful. See you in the studio!

I don’t need much headroom in the studio because the ceilings are 8 feet high. I do like dynamic range, though. Discuss @RecordingLikeMacGyver

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