How to make your music loud, without killing it stone dead

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Make the mix loud All too often loudness is treated as a mastering issue, but steps 1-10 of the MusicRadar post are actually about mixing – and that’s exactly the right way to do it, they just don’t spell it out clearly enough. There’s no point in recording everything as dynamically as possible, and then deciding to squash it to hell at the last minute.

Compress guitars, bass and vocals in the mix – guitars and bass at the amp itself, ideally. I don’t advise compressing to tape, though – with 24-bit audio it’s not necessary, and it’s too easy to overdo it.

Balance EQ

An unbalanced sound will never feel loud. This has happened to me on several occasions – I’m looking at the meters pegging, and listening and thinking “but it doesn’t sound loud”. Then I take a step back and realise there’s no bottom end in the mix. Whack in a low shelf EQ or broad parametric, and suddenly the room is heaving.

Coming at it from another angle, you can use our ears’ sensitivity in the 2kHz region to make guitars and drums sound aggressive and loud, without pushing up the average level too much. Don’t overdo it though, or it will sound harsh and thin. Whatever strategy you decide on, don’t overdo it. Balance is everything. (Here’s a post with more tips on using EQ.)

Take it easy with bass

Having made sure you have a balanced mix, be restrained with the bass. Bass is one of the first things to distort as the levels go up, which is why if you listen to most “ultra-loud” CDs you’ll find they either have distorted bass, or are actually fairly bass-light. Again this is a technique the MusicRadar article uses, but doesn’t spell out.

Using a low-cut filter to stop very low frequencies getting out of control is a good tip, too – but again, use with caution. Personally I love bass and prefer to sacrifice a little level for a nice big bottom end : )

Work to retain dynamics – by hand

This may seem paradoxical, but it’s absolutely key. As I’ve said before, without quiet, there can be no loud. Often when mixing, you work hard to get the balance between sections of songs to work dynamically – so the chorus kicks in when you want it to, for example. At the mastering stage though, this can be too much.

If you lift up the intro to a healthy level, by the time you get to the end all the processing will be flat out. If you get the end right, the intro may still be too quiet.So, either automate the compression to adjust to each section of the song, or do what I do and adjust the overall level of each section of the track going into the compression. If the chorus is compressing too much, reduce it’s level a little.

You’ll find there’s a balance point where it sounds just as loud, but the compressors aren’t flat out. Give the mix room to breathe, even if it sounds punishing most of the time – every time you ease back on the accelerator a little, the more scope you have to floor it 8 bars later.

Use multi-band compression

Once again, MusicRadar suggest this, but don’t explain why – and, I have issues with the settings they’re using. Multi-band compression is a great way to boost the average level of a mix, without introducing pumping (for example in the high frequencies when a kick drum is triggering gain reduction). It’s also a great way to completely mash a mix. Here are some multiband rules of thumb to avoid this:

Use the same ratio in all bands – different ratios can sound unnatural Use similar amounts of gain reduction in all bands – this avoids changing the sound of the mix too much Never push a band beyond the point where the gain reduction returns to zero several times per bar – it doesn’t achieve anything except unnatural, squashed sound, and the compression doesn’t work efficiently Multiband compression is a complicated subject, and I get so many questions about it that I’ve released an eBook and video about using it in mastering. To watch a free 50-minute webinar about multiband compression, click here.

(By the way, if you’re new to compression in general or would just like a refresher, this article may help you out: Using compression to add punch, warmth and power to your mix )

Use low ratios and avoid short attack times

This is a general rule for any kind of compression. Almost all of the time I use ratios between 1.5:1 and 4:1. Once the ratio gets much above 4:1, you are almost limiting anyway. Remember, the higher the ratio, the higher the threshold should be, to avoid over-compressing your mix.

Short attack times kill audio – I seldom use an attack time shorter than 20ms, except where I have a particularly “spiky” sound to deal with. (A very clicky bass drum, say) In mastering I often use attack times of 70ms or longer. We have limiters for controlling peaks and transients, why try to use a compressor to do this ? Check out the screenshot in the MusicRadar article – they have attack times of 2ms in every band ! No wonder the result sounds dull and lifeless.

(Note – All multiband compression is not created equal. I’m lucky enough to be able to use TC Electronics’ compression in their System 6000 processor. I can’t promise you’ll be able to get such good results with other multibands. If you’re interested though, I’ve written about the best multi-band compressor plugin I’ve found so far.)

Use multiple stages of compression, with low gain reductions Once again, the MusicRadar post does this, but doesn’t tell you, or say why. Heavy compression is always audible. Use compression gently at different stages throughout the recording and mixing process – some on the instrument when playing, some in the mix, maybe some on the mix buss for some styles of music, then some gentle multi-band, and finally some mild limiting. These gradual increases will allow you to get higher average levels without killing the music.

Don’t overdo the limiting

Limiting is an important part of the “loudness chain” – as I’ve said, it allows you to use longer attack times on compressors and not worry about any peaks that might get through. Limiters are brutal, though, and more than 2 or 3dB gain reduction almost always has a detrimental effect on the audio. Don’t over-compress your mix.

I’ve covered this before, in my post How to avoid over-compressing your mix. How can I say it again, in a post titled “How to make your music loud” ? Because it’s crucial. As I said above:Without quiet, there can be no loud

That doesn’t stop you having a loud mix and master, but the truth is, there is no point in consistently going lower than DR8. (Don’t know what “DR8″ means ? Read the last link : ). Beyond that level of compression, you simply suck impact and loudness out of your track. It makes your track sound quieter (because people, or broadcast limiting, or playback normalisation, turn it down anyway) and it will be crushed, distorted and fatiguing as a result. So, there you go. Hopefully that gives you some extra understanding of what the MusicRadar post and example are doing, and where they’ve gone wrong. Listen to how much cleaner the version at Stage 12 sounds, for example.

I regularly use these techniques to master songs that are actually louder than the example I’ve been criticising, but sound better – hopefully you will be able to, too, if loudness is your goal. Just remember my catch-phrase:

Louder is better, but too loud is worse

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