There is a myth that in order to stand out on the radio, your song needs to be louder than anyone else’s.
Maybe this was true during the first Loudness Wars, back when every Motown release was louder than the previous one, but not any more – not for a long time.
Radio stations use very aggressive multi-band compression to control the level of everything they broadcast, for two reasons:
- To ensure decent reception in low-signal areas and
- To even out any differences in playback volume without the DJ having to adjust everything “on-the-fly”
What this means is that really high-level CDs won’t sound any better on the radio, just more squashed and distorted.
Don’t believe me ? Read this:
It really leapt out at me recently when I heard Paul Simon’s “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” back to back with Lily Allen’s “22” while I was driving home from work.
There was no obvious difference in volume, despite the fact that one is a pristine 70’s classic, whereas the other is a tragic current Loudness War casualty.
There was one other, very obvious sonic difference, though.
“Fifty Ways” sounded fantastic, and Lily sounded dreadful. Even more dreadful than it does on CD, because the song was already so loud that the broadcast compression was mauling it to death.
And Radio 2’s broadcast compression is mild, in comparison to most commercial UK stations, let alone in the US. An in fact, Lily’s album isn’t even that loud, by recent standards…
For more proof, check out my interview with the BBC about Metallica’s infamous “Death Magnetic”, in the side-bar over there on the right. The show includes two clips from the album, one of which had 14dB more dynamic range (!) than the other, before they were broadcast. Or, check out this blog post along similar lines.
So, how do you stand out on the radio these days ?
Hit the “sweet spot” where your track is loud and punchy but still dynamic, and sits just underneath the broadcast compression thresholds. It will sound exactly the way you want, without any extra processing – and as a result a great deal more ear-catching than most modern releases, which will be fighting the limiter all the way to the scrapheap.
“But how loud is that ?!” I hear you cry. Well, sadly I can’t give you an exact answer to that – different radio stations use different amounts of compression and processing, so this is tough to call.
(I said it was simple, not easy !)
But if we take Lily and Paul as examples – our old friend the TT Dynamic Range Meter tells us that “50 Ways” has a dynamic range of 12dB or more for most of the song, as opposed to Lily who averages only 8dB in the choruses, down to 6dB for the really loud bits.
So my advice is, predictably enough – keep it dynamic.
A dynamic range of DR8 is the most compressed anything ever needs to be – and, I’m talking heavy rock there, not catchy pop like Lily. Stay in the DR14-DR10 range except for the very loudest bits and you’ll be doing just fine.
Of course, the very best (and easiest !) way to achieve this is to get your music professionally mastered by an engineer who knows what he’s up to.
Oh – you will also need great songs, catchy hooks, superb recordings and fantastic performances, but you knew all that already, right ?!
(Image by Ian Hayhurst)