Making a louder mix is a hot topic. I am aware that some music producers still want their music masters to be loud. This is still a reasonable request especially in the harder dance music genres. Such as D&B, Psy breaks, Dubstep, EDM, Dubstep derivatives, Trap and Psy trance. House, techno, trance, ambient, electronic synth music, synthwave do not typically adhere to the super loud aesthetic. Possibly with the exception of some hard techno.
I am not generally a proponent of very loud mastering (but of course can provide that skill as it is necessary for some clients). I am also aware of that feeling of dissatisfaction a producer may have relating to their mix not quite meeting any given genre’s perceived volume norms.
As I am just starting with drums and bass on a new track this morning. (which I like to make in my spare time) I had a good idea to help people out. I personally get a core groove going with the basics, kick bass, snare op. cl. hats – as I suspect many producers do.
I put a reference track (usually a loud one for my production genre at least) on a spare track in my DAW in the same key/genre as the track I am producing. The reference track was in F. There is an RME Digicheck image below. At this stage I am not making direct audio comparisions between the 2. (See my using a reference track when mixing article for that approach)
It is loud at -4.0 RMS – Right click the image and select “View image” for a more detailed look.
Spectral analysis – making a louder mix
Above is a spectrum plot of the loudest (and still very clean and open) track I know in this specific dance music genre. (The RME output meters clip as it is a 320kbps MP3 converted into a wav on import so you have the codec filtering peaking it up above 0dBFS) It also happens to have a very fat low end, and hits -4RMS (RME’s way of measuring). I like to study the bands in RME digicheck. In order to see how much energy is in each band in the low end. This relative energy per band is telling to a degree. (only to a degree for comparitive purposes as FFT is not very accurate but RME is quite good for making some broad comparisons between 2 tracks.)
This is going to vary a fair bit genre to genre and of course key and bass line complexity. RME DIGICHECK is reasonable in this regards. As a constant wiggly line can be less easy to interpret. I make some written notes such as those that follow. (they are not exactly the same as screenshot capture “peak held” slightly differently than in reality.):
25 Hz -24dB
40 Hz -8dB peaks a bit
50 Hz -4dB
63 Hz -6dB peaks to -5dB occasional
80 Hz -7dB peaks to -6dB occasional
100 Hz -8dB
125 Hz -8dB slightly less than 100Hz
160 Hz -9dB
200 Hz -10dB
315Hz -13dB (occasional to -12dB)
It is worth noting that looking at spectral analysis metering is not to be solely relied upon. It is only useful as a very broad, generalized comparative tool. With that said we can make some considerations.
A key issue
Of special note is a 20 dB difference between 25Hz and 50Hz in the reference track. (The key is in F so fundamental (F1) is 43.65Hz and as FFT is not that accurate due to measurement bins being too low resolution at audio sample rates. Digicheck appears to show this energy rounded up to the 50Hz band. (Or it is where the kick decays to frequency wise.) and this screen capture just so happens to have “peak” held. However, they are generally moving dynamically when music is playing.
I made up a fairly quick Voxengo SPAN preset that approximates the RME DIGICHECK settings/response as far as this was possible to the eye. For those who do not have a RME sound card though the focus is on the low end of the spectrum.
Voxengo SPAN download:
(RME’s Digicheck RMS level detection is represented closest with the dBFS+3 setting in SPAN) and scaled for viewing the lows. It allows some sensible readings on the dB vs frequency scale in the low end using the crosshair. (for relative dB vs freq checks). I made the attached Voxengo SPAN this morning. It is not a perfect emulation of course but fairly close. And most of all useful to see relative energy vs freq with the crosshair, you can make written notes.
Find a good reference track for your music genre
To help making a louder mic locate a loud dance music reference track that you love the sound of. The loudest, cleanest and fattest low end track mix you have heard in your genre and study that bottom end. (and everything else of course but the focus here is to start with the bottom end first.) Ideally the track will be in the same key as the one you are producing. This is so there are more similarities in low end content from the outset than differences.
The idea is to try and sculpt your low end so it approximates the low end content of the reference track. Uusing narrow parametric EQ cuts and boosts (Q = 6.0 suggested). Or of course MIDI velocity, low shelf cuts and high pass filters. (test various turnover freqeuencies and dB/Oct slopes) It will never be identical and that is obviously not the goal. However it will help your low end have a good ball park energy vs frequency content. As some of the loudest reference tracks you have chosen, in your genre.
This will of course vary from genre to genre and there are no absolutes. This is some analysis guidelines to a mix of art, science and listening. In addition the fundamental quality of the kick drum and bass style/choice will also be an important factor. With modern electronic and technically complex dance music sometimes it can be helpful to use more than ears.
Ears are never replaced but some sonic information is just not easy to discern when a very technical goal is sought after. (even with superb monitoring). A visual aid can be helpful when trying to understand how very well sculpted a track’s low end needs to be. This can allow high perceived volume professional mastering that hits genre norms.
As a rough guide. If your track has a high loudness potential the mix should be able to achieve -10.0 RMS/- 8.0 RMS approximately with just 1 limiter doing 1-2dB of gain reduction.
Some tips to get mixes with greater loudness potential.
If you have stumbled on this article this next section will be a “gold find”. As it is quite common issue that mixes lack the “silky highs” sound many producers are looking to achieve. Please bear in mind your source material is important. And whilst EQ can be very helpful do not discount swapping a hat/snare or other sound source if it is not shaping up well. Some hats and snares are just too big a battle to soften and yet remain sufficiently present and bright.
Also note the following takes practice. You get better and better at it the more you do it, so do not be disheartened too quickly if it is difficult. Most things ultimately worth learning are initially difficult. It can be a sonically unpleasant experience to locate the harsh frequencies in hats etc. Do not listen too loud or for too long… if you get a bit lost leave it a day and come back when your ears are rested and fresh.
How to create a smooth top end for your music
It can be a good plan to avoid excessive high frequencies above 16kHz and eq out harsh or nasal sounding resonances from hi hats and cymbals. These often exist, but not exclusively the 4kHz – 13kHz areas (also some modern snare samples). Some metallic hits/hats and snares need special attention. As they tend to “spike up” with sharp resonances on a spectral analyser (and have a piercing effect on the ears).
Sweep through your hats/cymbals/perc rhythm loops/metallic hits/etc (loop them in your DAW) with a boost of 6dB-8dB and Q of around 10.0 – 13.0 very tight Q (Q depends on the specific EQ a little). And listen carefully for especially grating / whistle-y and harsh spots in the hats (or sound’s) spectrum, then cut usually around 2-3dB on each resonance you dislike. You can use the keyboard modifier key to increase the precision and slow the speed of your sweep allowing greater fine sweep control.
Most electronic (and actual) hats and cymbals have 2 to 4 harsh and or whistle-y frequencies in them and once reduced sound much smoother to the ear. Whilst retaining brightness. You will know when you hit a harsh resonance as your ears will object as it will sound unpleasant. This will provoke a repulsive physiological response in your ears. (like they want to close up)
Not just for hi hats
This technique can also be applied to sweeps and risers. (even leads) To remove harsh frequencies and ensure they do not “stick out” of your mix as they dynamically sweep through frequencies. Locate any harsh frequencies by ear and soften them using EQ cuts. They will sound smoother, less harsh and not jump out in the ranges where ears are typically most sensitive 3kHz-9kHz.
Get your kick and bass working well and tailoring the bottom end of the mix
Try to tailor your bass (including your kick drum and bass line) so there is good energy in the 50Hz-120Hz area. (And 40Hz but err on the side of caution. It depends mix to mix and the kick drum used of course). As a very, very rough guide try low shelf cuts or high pass filtering the low end. In order to remove any excess energy below 30Hz. This could be potentially anywhere from 22Hz to 35Hz. This you will need to discern along with the dB/Oct slope you choose.
You will likely have to compensate for loss of perceived fatness and bass weight from the low shelf cut/HPF by adding some parametric boosts in the 45Hz-160Hz areas. Try parametric eq with various Q’s some broad and some narrow to shape the bass precisely. Test what works and sounds good, it is telling, and usually positive if the low end still sounds quite rounded on a very small playback system (something with 3 -4 inch drivers and no attempted form of small sub woofer component).
Soften extreme highs in your leads
Make a lead synth/source group with the extreme top end attenuated. Something like a low pass filter at 15-16kHz (or a high shelf cut), keep it gentle with 6dB or 12dB/Octave slope to start with. Then try diffferent dB Octave slopes towards the end of the mix and sense what works best for the lead synths in your track. This can make your hats appear a little brighter in the mix. And warm the synths as a by product. It cuts back on the very “zingy” energy that can start to contribute to a brash/hasrh irritating sound when loudness processing is applied.
Do not over use saturation plug ins. (it is a form of distortion) As a saturated mix may cause the onset of more audible distortion slightly earlier when sent to professional mastering.
Ensure any peaky sources such as (drum hits, fx samples, percussion and spiky dynamic synths) above the average volume (viewed as obvious peaks in waveforms) are controlled. Try compression to reduce their peakiness and increase their overall energy levels.
It is also very important to ensure any given sound sources do not reproduce too high above the average levels of the mix. Any long sustained notes or resonances within sounds must be kept in check. You always find that one specific sound becomes the Achilles heel for the onset of distortion. And once you correct that sound there will be the next Achilles heel that is discovered that distorts before all others. These need to be kept in check in the mix with a compromise approach. If loudness really is your sole aim then some compromise and control of these sounds will be necessary.. mix them lower, use dynamic eq or dynamic control to reign in distortion on such sounds. The mix must truly be “perfect” with no stone unturned. At least with relation to loudness potential. It is important to understand this is not learnt and understood over night. Many mix downs with a focus to improvements specific to loudness making must be made before the skill is developed.
All areas of the spectrum need precise tonal scupting to realize the loudest perceived mix volume. This is in addition to the right balance of instrumentation in the mix. It takes practice and time to get right and has to be tailored to each new piece of music individually. It can take many years of mixing music of the same genre to produce mixes that go as loud as a top level artist mixes can. It involves detailed sculpting of every sound in the mix and remove the weakest link that will distort early.
And if your music does still not quite go as loud as the top artists in your genre. Remember the most important thing is that you enjoyed making the track and end up a with a great track that represents your style as an artist or producer. You can build your “louder mix” knowledge with each track you make.
DIY is not mastering, it is just self finalizing. Without expert driven objectivity using monitoring and room combination that is flat to 25Hz mastering is always incomplete.
Mastering yourself is actually just self finalizing. You will have no objectivity by the end of the exhausting mix process. You will not have benefitted from specialist expertise (23 years), in a close to perfect sonic environment using mastering grade monitoring speakers. (No one using 3 way high end monitoring like the PMC IB1S looks back at nearfields ever again. Not to mention the audiophile Crane Song DAC in use here.) Dedicated professional mastering will still take your track to its maximum loudness and sonic potential. And will ensure it is as clean, well translating and as loud as it can be. And when a label takes interest in your track in the future you can revisit that mix with newly learned knowledge, so save and back up your DAW mix sessions for future retrieval.
By Barry Gardner, mastering engineer : safeandsound123 at googlemail.com or 0044 (0) 7810 271371