To fight or not to fight? That’s the question when it comes to the popular “Loudness Wars” that all music producers are familiar with. If you have no clue what I’m referring to, it’s the constant dilemma during mixing as whether to push your song’s loudness so high that it losses some of its quality or do you keep it quiet but maintain the track’s distinctive quality?
Now, whatever horse you’re betting on in this race, you have to agree that some level of loudness is required if your song is ever going to be heard on radio or in the club, especially for contemporary genres such as rock, pop and house.
If you’re a mastering engineer, perhaps you wouldn’t want to mix loud but the client expects it. So how do you achieve those high levels without compromising your great project? Ride along!
How Loud Should Music Be in the Final Mix?
First of all, why is it even important to make your song loud? For starters, while most music players automatically balance the loudness level of all tracks, some don’t. So if your song is played on such a player, it will seem quieter relative to other commercial tracks.
Secondly, your song may become less popular as most DJs won’t play it in clubs and festivals, owing to its quiet nature. No one wants to play a record that lacks ‘dance-floor energy’.
Mixing a Song Properly
In pursuit of a loud but great-sounding mix, this goal must be achieved at the mixing stage during production. Trying to get the mix louder at the mastering stage often leads to distortion and clipping. Speaking from personal experience, here are some things to pay attention to during the mixing stage of a song:
- Leave some headroom during mixing – From what I’ve observed, mixing at high loudness levels usually leads to a mix that has very little room for improvement. I would recommend somewhere in the neighborhood of -4db. Increasing the loudness will then be easier.
- Compression – I know this sounds cliché but bear with me for a moment. Generally when you leave a track with a lot of huge transients, (and the main body of the track is quieter), turning up the volume will almost certainly lead to clipping. This is especially true for kicks. If you compress the kick first, then turn up the loudness, you lose some punch but your kick sounds louder without clipping.
- Pay attention to your loudest instrument – Depending on the genre of your song, some instruments will be louder than others. In drum and bass for example, the drums take priority. The temptation, especially for new producers, is usually to turn this ‘preferred instrument’s’ loudness up. Don’t! What you need to do is reduce the loudness of the other instruments, thereby making room for the important stuff. Every time you push up the loudness of one track, you lose some headroom that you will need later. Do remember that for an instrument to stand out, everything else has to make room, i.e. be quieter.
- EQ is your best friend – Most people think that equalization is only use to clean up tracks and stir things up a little. Most people are wrong! The low end of a mix can rob your track of valuable headroom. This works indirectly. Most instruments contain low frequencies that aren’t necessary but play a huge part in reducing the loudness. But it’s not as simple as cutting off all the low frequencies. Every sound is different and you need to pay very close attention to see what frequency range is the real culprit. In my experience, 9 out of 10 times the low-mids are usually to blame for lost headroom. I’ll give you an example: You could have a vocal that is most audible at 3 kHz but your lead piano is also getting in the way at this frequency. EQ-ing the piano by slightly reducing the frequencies at this area will make your vocals sound clearer and louder. While you have not touched the vocal, this psychoacoustics trick deceives your ears into thinking that your vocal track is now louder.
Achieving the Final Mix
Okay, now you’ve created a sweet mix that sounds clean and has quite enough headroom. What next? It becomes a matter of preference. You slowly increase the loudness using compression and then limiting. (NOTE: Always make sure the limiter comes after the compressor in the master chain, for obvious reasons).
For those who don’t know what a compressor does, it simply reduces the loudness of some instruments, while enhancing that of the quieter ones. The end result is a mix with a smaller dynamic range. Again, compression is a matter of taste. You, as the producer know how you want your song to sound in the end so play with the compressor until you’re happy with what you hear.
Next comes the limiting. The limiter will then get your mix to the loudness you desire by allowing the peaks you want to cut through (based on your settings) and then cutting off everything else.
The ideas we just discussed are not set in stone. Every mix is different as is every producer. My goal is just to give you some ideas and hacks that might come in handy when you hit the studio next. The loudness war doesn’t seem to be coming to an end soon and I hope you find these tips helpful on your next project.
Also, I’m not really a fan of fancy plug-ins so feel free to explore that if that’s your cup of tea, in your pursuit of a quality yet loud mix. I’m a minimalist by nature so I don’t believe you need Ozone in your DAW, to create a great track. Nevertheless, apply those tips and see what you can do. Happy producing ☺