As a music producer in the current day, it’s almost impossible to create a track end to end without having at least a consciousness of the pressure to produce ‘loud’ mixes. Working on music full-time during this year has given me time to learn techniques to create appropriately ‘loud’ mixes, and also to compare the loudness of current day tracks against stuff from when I first started writing electronic music in the mid 90s. When I started to make these kind of comparisons I was quite shocked at just how much louder music has become. Granted 2 things have changed in that time that have been a catalyst to the general increase in loudness…
- Music technology has improved a lot… not only have professional quality tools become accessible to producers at all levels, but there is now a whole market segment dedicated to tools specifically to deal with loudness (mastering plug-ins etc…)
- Electronic music has moved much more into the mainstream, and is being produced by artists with big labels, money, and access to first rate facilities and mastering engineers behind them (as such production quality generally has improved a lot in this time)
Still, it’s not unusual for me to find an average increase of 6-7dB in tracks I buy today compared to stuff from 15-20 years ago.
Generally speaking I’m a fan of having some dynamic in music. I’ll admit I’m shocked when I sometimes hear recent commercial releases with blatant, harsh clipping distortion in them… even coming from huge artists and labels. But at the same time I recognize the need (especially in electronic dance music) to have your track’s levels on par with other tracks of similar styles. As an amateur DJ, I know what a pain in the arse it can be trying to mix in a track which is 3-4dB lower than the one you’re currently playing, especially if you’re already close to the limit of the levels on your mixer. And as a producer, the last thing you want is for DJs to pass on your great track simply because it’s not loud enough.
With my own music currently I tend to err a bit on the cautious side with levels… I usually prefer to back off the bus limiter level by a dB or two, and keep a little of the dynamic. But at the same time I often question myself as to whether this decision means a prospective DJ or label might pass on my track, simply because it doesn’t stand out (in terms of level) as much as others.
Years ago I used to naively think that competitive levels could be achieved by simply slapping Waves L1 (or L3, or similar) onto the master bus, and that you’d automatically achieve a strong clean sound. During this year, I’ve realized it’s not nearly that simple (or maybe it is, but I’m just not using the right plug-in 🙂 ). One of the things I’ve come to understand the most is that getting competitive levels in electronic music requires a conscious attention to levels and compression throughout the whole compositional process. I think I saw this idea best summed up whilst recently reading an article by the Chicago Mastering Service… referring to a well-mastered commercial example, they said…
“a very loud but musical sounding master was achieved through a layered approach to compression that probably began during tracking, continued through the mixing, and was finished off in mastering”
There’s a reason why the channel strip of analogue mixing consoles usually included a compression section… if you want your mix to sound clear and competitively loud, and respond well to master bus compression and limiting, you often need to apply some amount of compression individually to the main elements in your track… and this needs to start right from the early stages of sequencing and mixing.
Again, this is one of the things that trial and error has taught me a lot about this year… this post is just an introduction to the topic, but I will follow up with some real-world examples of what I think are workable techniques for achieving competitive loudness.