Loudness, by definition, is a subjective perception of volume. Since the 1980s, the concept of “Loudness Wars” has been raging. Record labels have pressured engineers to make louder and louder masters. On the other hand, because of a number of factors, the experience of loudness varies from person to person. Therefore, creating a loud sounding mix is not just about volume or mastering plugins.
As some of you probably know, for digital recordings, there’s a volume limit at 0 dBFS. Levels above this result in mostly unpleasant and undesirable digital distortion. It’s quite different from analog distortion, which can actually sound pleasant to the human ear. Therefore, in the digital world, it’s all about how we use tools to maximize loudness while staying within the range below 0 dbFS. In the next tutorial, we will go over five key things you should pay attention to when finalizing your mix, to achieve ideal loudness.
EQ for loudness
Here, it’s about cutting rather than boosting. The perfect example of this would be the low frequencies of your mix. We all enjoy fat low-end. However, this is the place where elements like the kick drum and bassline produce the most problems, and become an obstacle in achieving louder mixes.
Sometimes, content from these instruments is so low on the frequency spectrum it becomes inaudible, but still eats lots of headroom. This doesn’t allow other elements of the mix to cut through. One of the easiest solutions for this is to apply a low-cut filter, and cut everything below 40 Hz or so. You can do this on individual tracks that can do without the low end, as well, such as hi-hats.
Panning is largely overlooked when it comes to loudness, but it’s essential. Low-end elements such as kick drums, basslines, and low percussion sounds should be placed in the center, to maximize impact and loudness. Other elements like hi-hats, synth sequences, SFX, etc. could be panned in order to create space. Holding an equivalent number of similar elements on both sides is a good rule of thumb. Try to see the mix in pairs and match elements to one another. This also contributes to loudness perception.
Another way you can enhance a whole mix, or instruments within it, and therefore increase perceived loudness is saturation. This process adds distortion, which translates into additional harmonic content. It works a bit like compression and has the ability to decrease the signal’s dynamic range and boost its average level. You can use harmonic distortion to enrich frequencies of the overall mix pleasantly. It also works like a charm on almost any sound.
Compression for loudness
As mentioned above, by lowering the overall dynamic range, compressors can make the quiet parts of a mix or waveform louder and the louder parts quieter. Applying make-up gain to get the average level as high as it was before compressing, will result in increasing the perceived loudness.
Compression is very versatile and different settings can give wildly different results, so something to be conscious about is how you’d like to use compression on a particular case. In general, when we try to preserve loudness and impact, a good approach is to use multiple compressors with two to three dB gain reduction, instead of getting ten dB reduction from just one. By doing this you avoid squashing the transients of an instrument or mix. The impact would still be there with the added benefit of average level control.
Deliberate clipping may often add to the loudness by both raising the overall signal frequency and introducing distortion and harmonics. It needs to be used with caution, since it may quickly wreck an otherwise great recording. You could use clipping for sounds like cymbals, handclaps, snare drums, etc. since they are quite noisy-like. On the other hand, pianos, guitars, and vocals are instruments that have strong and specific harmonic character. Uisng digital clipping can quickly result in an artificial and unpleasant sound. The same thing goes for a full mix.