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Dynamic Range Day - Loudness War Protest

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

by Ian Shepherd



[Update - I've posted a video demonstrating many of the techniques I talk about in this post - to check it out, click here.]

Today I’ll tell you how to make your music loud.

Yes, you read that right.

This post will tell you how to get your music really loud. Regardless of the fact that I’ve been interviewed on Radio 4 arguing passionately against the Loudness Wars, even though I’ve always said that the best way to get your song to stand out on the radio is to avoid pushing the level too hard, and despite having started Dynamic Range Day to raise awareness of the fact that listeners don’t care about loudness

Today I’ll tell you how to make your music loud.

Why ? As a response to this article on MusicRader.com

How to make your music loud

(Subtitled – “Win the loudness war with our step-by-step and audio guide”)

Now immediately I should say – I love MusicRadar. It’s a great site – I highly recommend it. Masses of news, posts, discussion and information for anyone interested in music and music technology. They were one of the first places to pick up and post about how bad Death Magnetic sounded, and link back to my blog. As a result, Wired magazine and the Guardian found the story and started writing about it, and the rest, as they say, is history. The bad press generated by Death Magnetic has done a fantastic job of raising awareness about this issue, and I for one am very happy about that.

So, MusicRadar rocks.

But that post is useless.

Sorry, but there it is. My reasons for saying so though, may not be what you’re expecting.

Here they are:

  • It doesn’t explain anything – All you get is a list of steps, with no reasons given, or discussion of what they are intended to achieve. Without the whys and wherefores, people will just cherry-pick suggestions and end up doing wrong or harmful things to music that didn’t need it
  • No concepts - I’m going to list some fundamental rules that will help you make any piece of music louder without killing the sound. None of them are mentioned in the MusicRadar post
  • Some horrible suggestions - The article refers to a “mild” 4:1 compression ratio – that’s the harshest setting I ever use !
  • The example song is almost useless for learning purposes. Anyone can crush and compress the life out of electronica – no-one has any idea what it’s “supposed” to sound like anyway. You can’t hear if you’re doing any damage to anything. How are you supposed to “win the loudness war” with a tutorial that deliberately tries to get “crunch from the upper mids and trash from the highest frequencies” ? Surely “winning” is getting a high level without making it sound terrible ?
  • It doesn’t even end up that loud - The dynamic range of the clip at the end of the tutorial is about 7 or 8 dBs. That’s loud – as loud as I ever happily make anything, but it’s hardly going to win any awards for loudness when Metallica and others crush their music down to only 2dB DR.
  • And sadly, it sounds bad, too. No impact in the kick or snare, distorted bass, two-dimensional sound and linear dynamics.

Now I’ll tell you what should have been in that post. It has some useful techniques hidden away in it, but how you’re supposed to figure out what they are, I have no idea…Here are some rules to help you make your music masters loud (if that’s what you want to do)

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


If you enjoyed this post and would like more information on mastering your own music, click this link:

How to master your own music

 

PS. My video demonstration of many of the techniques discussed in this post is here.

Original image by hey mr glen

 

facebook comments:

35 Responses

  1. “Sorry, but there it is.”

    Don’t apologise – be a man!

  2. Ian Shepherd says:

    I am a man, but I’m a polite man :-D

  3. Jack Beadle says:

    I agree with this, and will put your guide to the test on a track tonight.

    Thanks!

  4. Sigurdór says:

    He is British you know ;-)
    Good read and great points as usual. :)

  5. Joe Gilder says:

    Great, GREAT stuff, Ian. I know that I, for one, am guilty of over-compressing rather than automating the levels.

    It’s really just an issue of laziness for me. It’s easier to compress it a little more to “even out” the volume rather than spend some time automating things.

    Jolly good show. ;-)

  6. Per Lichtman says:

    As usual, your evenhanded, pragmatic and insightful comments should definitely help a lot of people and make for a great read.

    Kudos,
    Per

  7. enigmafon says:

    what is music radar anyway? “a music review, news and equipment”.. why on earth are they dishing out production advice?
    they should stick to what they do and leave the advice to professional sites like sound on sound.

    Here are some tools in the battle against loud..

    http://enigmafon.com/2009/11/28/mixing-mastering-audio-and-the-loudness-wars/

  8. Per Lichtman says:

    I think Ian would agree that this was asymptomatic for them: they typically provide great material.

    MusicRadar gets a lot of their content from Computer Music Magazine (with the remainder coming from other Future Music group publications and contributors).

    Computer Music Magazine frequently dispenses helpful production advice and their past “Producer Master Classes” have included heavyweights such as electronica producers Hybrid. They frequently get producers to contribute tips on producing specific types of sounds too.

    Anyway, keep in mind that they are targeting a broader audience than Ian’s blog (which is excellent reading for any professional or prosumer engineer) but that they do maintain a high level of quality.

    -Per

  9. Ian Shepherd says:

    Thanks for the comments, guys ! I agree with Per, as I say in the post I have a lot of respect for the guys at MusicRadar. That post is just a blip, I’m sure :-)

    @enihmafon – I’ve updated my post, the TT dynamic range meter is freely available again:

    http://www.brainworx-music.de/en/downloadrequest

  10. Brian Hazard says:

    Great article Ian! All of the advice is solid, but in my experience, “take it easy on the bass” is the most crucial.

    I specialize in mastering electronic music, and am routinely amazed by the amount of sub bass in the mixes I receive. Many synths, particularly the Virus series, have a third oscillator to dial in a sine wave an octave below the main oscillators. Since most monitors don’t extend that low, it’s easy to get carried away.

    For that reason I always recommend using a frequency analysis plug-in on the master bus, as I describe here:

    http://passivepromotion.com/tighten-the-low-end-of-your-mix-with-a-frequency-analyzer

    Brian Hazard
    Resonance Mastering
    http://www.resonancemastering.com

  11. Marko says:

    Hi Ian,

    “Louder is better, but too loud is worse.”

    Short and sweet.

    Also, thanks for spilling your compression settings.
    Coming more from the compositional side, I totally appreciate getting some guide lines for mixing and mastering from a working pro to help make my home-studio productions sound better.

  12. Ian,

    Excellent article! I think it’s time for me to stop squashing my mixes with compression and actually learn to use it in a proper way. :)

    thanks!

  13. illikon says:

    Man, it’s been years since audio school and I’d forgotten how useful the rock & roll methods are for electronic music! It’s all about the multiband compression, and to be honest I’d almost forgotten how important it is to mix your track dry before even thinking about compression.

    Thanks!

  14. Dustin says:

    Thanks! I think this will help me and my band quite a bit this weekend when we get some things recorded. I’ve been looking up a lot about mastering and mixing (because I just use a Tascam 8-track and have no experience whatsoever at mixing/mastering.) This article has explained quite a bit. I have one question though. When recording, we often use fuzz, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t get this to the quality I want it to be. I know it’s very high frequency, but it’s very necessary to some of our music! I think mic-ing our guitars would help a lot, since we just use the headphone jack on the amp, plugged into the 8-track, but how important ‘is’ mic-ing our instruments to the overall quality?

  15. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Dustin,

    I would always mic up a guitar amp if possible – the amp is a massive part of the sound, and even something like a pod struggles to match the real thing.

    It opens up a whole new can of worms, though ! When you say “Fuzz” do you mean that over-driven, distorted sound ? If so you might want to look at some of the amp-modelling plugins that are out there – but first I would definitely try micing up the amps and see how they sound.

    Ian

  16. Pavel says:

    Great stuff! Very helpful, just what I needed to read right now.
    -Pavel.

  17. Danrell says:

    Amazing guide man! Really useful tips! Thanks. :)

  18. David Shackleton says:

    Oh wow… I always felt somehow “guilty” that I’d never used ratios of 5 or above, I figured I must be missing something or too conservative? But it sounded “right” at lower values…
    I regularly find myself using around 2.0-2.5, and up to 4 is on very rare occassions indeed.

    Such a relief to hear you consider 4 as a high compression ratio! Thanks Ian, you’ve removed my compression “guilt”. Cheers!

  19. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi David,

    Glad to help – no-one should suffer from ‘compression guilt’ :-)

    It’s not black and White, though – I’ve mixed and mastered records with no compression at all, but I also use it pretty heavily at times. Bear in mind that a lower compression ratio means you need a lower threshold to hear the results, which could result in more compression overall. Whereas a higher ratio with a higher threshold means more aggressive control but less often.

    It’s a tricky business !

    Ian

  20. Can You explain compressing at the amp? Do you mean that I should compress while tracking?

  21. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi George,

    No, I mean if there is compression built into the cab of the guitar amp itself, or if you use a “stomp box” or similar to add compression. If you use a Pod, these effects will be built into the presets, or you may have chosen them yourself. Does that help ?

    Ian

  22. Oh OK! I was little confused there. Thank You Ian
    George

  23. I think the golden rule of mastering is use to use your ears and the meters together, until they both sound and look right.

  24. Ian Shepherd says:

    I agree about using both, although I think meters are more useful for “training” our ears. I always trust my ears over the meters, in the end.

  25. Quora says:

    Logic Express: how can I increase the volume of an audio export?…

    The quick and dirty way to make your track louder is to put a compressor on the main output and crank it way up. This will make your music loud, but ruin your dynamics and probably ruin your track. Increasing the volume of your track without destroying…

  26. daveeee says:

    Shouldn’t it read: “Never push a band beyond the point where the gain reduction DOESN’T return to zero several times per bar” ???

    Great article though :)

  27. daveeee says:

    oh i see… BEYOND the point !!

    sorry ignore that.

  28. [...] whatever lelijke woorden er nog voor zijn. hier is een meneer die dat nog helderder kan uitleggen: Master a song loud, without killing it stone dead en hier is een topic op gearslutz waarin Andy Wallace wordt vermeld, hij heeft dat principe [...]

  29. PleasantHouse says:

    This is wonderful! It’s really gud to hear from an experienced hand like u. Ur post is greatly helpful

  30. navar says:

    Thanks for this tutorial. Concerning modern house music, using Voxengo’s Elephant I’ve analyzed a number of “dance” tunes from smaller independent labels like Crosstown Rebels, Hot Creations, and Atjazz Recordings; I don’t know if these people have in-house engineers or outsource it. Their tunes tend to clock in at about -10dB RMS. I try to get to about -15 to -12 using no compression, just good buss compression and 50% wet parallel mix saturation pushed maybe 70-80% to soft clipping, then take it the extra few dB using a couple compressors and a limiter. I could easily take a mix to -7 or -6dB but I have yet to hear a quality house tune come in louder than -9 so I restrain myself.

    I’ve heard that people mastering dance tunes use one compressor with a short 1ms attack and long 150ms or so release to “glue” the mix, then follow it up with a compressor set to about 70ms attack and maybe 20ms release to add “punch,” especially to the bass elements. I’ve also seen this done with multiband to add a few dB of punch just to the bass so that it creates a tight subwoofer response. Does this make any sense? Thanks for an awesome article.

  31. Ian Shepherd says:

    Hi Navar,

    Yes, I often use longer attack times in mastering to avoid crushing the music too much. In the mix, compressors are used differently – in particular longer release times need to be “tuned” to the tempo of the song so they “bounce” with the track, as opposed to fighting it.

    Ian

  32. Ethan says:

    YO!!!!! I do a lot of hip hop and r&b, and I have never thought to google this stuff until today, and I gotta say that I feel like God and the universe really want me to be the best I can be with this music! I have had quality issues ever since I started. I could not figure it out. But for some reason, just reading these posts and visualizing what is explained, I think I fully understand how to do it! I am going to try it out right now and I am confident that whatever track I work on will be the best one ever. I am so grateful for this information.

  33. Brendan says:

    “Personally I love bass and prefer to sacrifice a little level for a nice big bottom end : )”

    Agreed! Fat bottom girls make the rockin world go round. ;)

  34. Jorge says:

    Great article Ian, very responsible and loudness war savy if I’m using the term correctly.

    Most of the thinks you said are little known “secrets” of the mastering process and I think is great you share them with the world.

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