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Perceived volume, creativity and new challenges for music producers

Superb tools are only as good as the engineer experience, room acoustics and monitoring. PMC IB1S 3 way monitors I hear all details of your music. Solely mastering music for 13 years and I am here to apply that to your music.

 

In 2024 volume normalization is the norm for Spotify, iTunes and YouTube (when “Sound Check” or equivalents are on) so one could be forgiven for imagining that mastering perceived volume is no longer a consideration. This article is a collection of technical, creative and future projections.

Volume normalization algorhythms are not perfect, there are still some differences between the volume of music to our ears. Often related to the mid range presence which can easily be overdone and sound harsh. The consequence of which is people want to turn your music down not up.

For some dance music styles, notably D&B and Psy Trance it still seems to be something many producers aspire to, along with making good tracks in the first place. Volume is of course a consideration for all music as different genres have different needs. It varies greatly, not only between genres but track to track and why experienced pro mastering is very important for those who care about the presentation of their musical productions.

 

There is only a perceived merit from your track not being significantly quieter when played out without any DJ mixer gain trims being adjusted. (which a good DJ should be doing for their crowd.) Otherwise volume normalized streaming services will be turning your extremely loud masters down.

There is an elephant in the room. The lurking dissatisfaction that sits in the back of your mind is there as there are tracks that buck the trend of being extremely loud and still retain a good bottom end weight, clarity and punch.

 

A range of high quality analogue and digital tools. All ready for the right choices to be made for your music, to take it to its maximum potential.

 

Lots of questions and confusion

I was recently reading a forum thread about loudness, it was telling how the thread progresses from “Lower volume is better, test your mix to shape your ideal tonality.” jumping to literally what tracks are the loudest on streaming platforms.

I am most impressed by this in genres other than D&B as often the the bottom end is quite distorted or even hugely distorted intentionally anyway. Of course there is very clean D&B as well just to show understanding of the sub genres. So it is in fact much easier in D&B as you often already have significant distortion so what you do loudness wise lends itself to the sonic aesthetic.

 

The importance of comparing like for like – references

It is very important when considering perceived volumes to ensure you have some absolutes when making comparisons. It is obvious that louder masters from wav files are being turned down once they are released on Spotify, iTunes and Youtube.

You too can work out loud mixes that go loud in mastering, you just need to tailor every sound in your mix for maximum loudness without obvious distortion. Only issue is you need to do this with every sound and every new track you make from scratch, so it is not a small undertaking. The good news is you become more efficient at this as you make subsequent tracks. Of course mastering techniques, tools choices, monitoring, engineering ability also have a big impact on the end results.

When you hear something super loud and still clean it does leave producers scratching their heads a bit. The sensation is simple, another artist’s track is louder, and the bottom end is more full, there is less stifling of the mix and less distortion. The mix engineering reasons are anything but simple, for most.

Many have all been there with their own music. I have done this with my own material (that needs the low end integrity kept 100pct i.e. a mass of distortion is not in any way acceptable) and I made a few tracks as loud as the loudest in the genre. This trend progresses though and some artists make their tracks even louder than the last benchmark that was set by artist X. (as purchased .wav files or MP3’s)

How is it done in broad terms ?

If you spend about the same amount of time mixing the tracks as you did making it (with a will to learn, be uncomfortable, and progress track by track progressively) you will get there. It is not a particularly pleasant thing to do, boring for some, time consuming and stressful in equal amounts and neither does it make your music better. (tonally, dynamically restricted, maybe even musically less interesting, arrangement/ layer wise) beyond a certain quite well defined point.

I have done this a few times with my own music to understand what is happening and you end up with an “always on” forced in the ear result. Impressive in isolation, possibly. There are not so many mastering engineers making their own music in 2024 and still solely being mastering engineers not offering mixing. I looked into this as an engineering challenge in part as I had an ideal opportunity which feeds into my mastering ability.

A good mix may not necessarily go loud but it can still be a good sounding mix with desireable sonic characters that is very enjoyable to lidten to. A poor mix is very unlikely to go loud and will remain a poor mix without any loudness processing.

 

Just a few tools,  the key is what to use and where, what to do and not do. The best tools are ready for your music. (Though I would unlikely use an 1176 model in mastering, I need tools to cover every possible job requirement.) In addition, I use analogue equipment.

 

Loud end results are not the only way, you can adapt your focus.

Do not forget that even if your track is not as loud as the latest artist X release.. many other artists in the genres of question have released tracks 2dB lower (or a few LUFS lower) and the tracks /artists are still hugely respected. This tells me that music itself, scene involvement, contacts, promo, labels is much more important than volume. Loudness is not success. So whilst impressive on 1 sole level ask how important is it really in the overall picture of things… compared with sounding nicely loud and having a good track that people actually like to hear and that invokes feeling or provokes emotions. Whether that gains you respect from either your followers or a festival tent / basement club night.

The problem you have as a listener is you are hearing someone elses track in a specific way, you have projected greatness (which is no bad thing when something resonates and makes you feel good.) .. i.e. the super hyped up “always on” and forced into every bit of spectrum way with no knowledge of the entire production process, or how good that track can sound with a few dB RMS/LUFS less.

Headphones and FFT (spectral analysis) are not where mastering is at, no one listens with their eyes and FFT is very difficult to interpret. (too fast or innacurate bins = misleading) Assistance tools and DIY ‘Ay aye’ are an incredibly poor substitute for actual professional mastering. Find out what you are missing.

 

You can adapt and make better music rather than focus on loudness making.

1) You are not taking in consideration that the super loud yet still reasonably clean track can actually sound a lot better than it does at a lower level. Consider how 3dB more dynamics would be compared with no dynamics, that will be a lot more punchy. It is easy to be bamboozled by loudness alone. Even if it sounds pretty good super loud it will almost certainly sound better 3dB (RMS/LUFS) or so lower.

2) You are comparing it to your own track/s that falls apart at 2-3LUFS lower. So this leaves a sense of dissatifaction and an incomplete feeling. It is slightly demoralizing and that does litle to help inspiration which is a sensitive thing as we all know. Remember this skill base of mixing for loudness is very skilled, quite slow to learn and progressive, built, track by completed track.

3) If loudness is influencing art itself, as in what music you want to make or can make that is quite a sad state of affairs. Loudness limiting artistic expression ? Where may that lead ? It leads to potentially boring music that has little going on (less is often more when considering loudness alone in isolation). Secondly, it may ultimately reduce some important differences in sonic variation/differences between artists. So people start sounding the same as each other whether they want to or not.

4) A super loud track can at first sound great. But then listen on the wrong/right system and ugliness can appear, was it worth it ? Listen close to the drops.. clean still ? Listen out for the achilles heal sounds (that distort earliest) Is it worth stamping that into sonic history ? Was the clipping worth it ? Was removing a musical layer worth it ? Some sections of a track suffer more than others, vocals are very often telling as are more densely arranged sections.

I am sure you can recall the artist X sound and artist Y sound in your favourite genre. That differenciates and makes the sonics interesting, giving character, sonic differences, a different feel and atmosphere/mood/vibe/feeling. All that ‘difference potential’ gets lost if you produce, arrange and mix for the sole purpose of loudness. In the end it is a individual choice to make. Accept and conform to the compromises or explore freedom of expression to make your music as interesting as you can and want it to be.

Making music can be for pure enjoyment and presenting that to your listeners can be enough in its own standing, it can be very personally rewarding. If you are planning on being more involved in your scene I think it is a good time for producers to up their production and music writing game in order to stand out. It takes significant effort, effort that ‘ay eye’ assistance is going to imply you do not need to put in. (It’ll do it for you, right?)

Making music is an incredibly rewarding creative pursuit and that can never be taken away from humans. It is a need for many, whether it is picking up a guitar, pen and paper and writing a song, many sessions producing an electronic track, or getting down the rehearsal studio with your band members. It has such a life enhancing value and that can never be taken away. It is not without challenges though, these need to be accepted and worked through, taking the time it needs whether you are making music on your own or with a group. Differing challenges appear through time and sometimes need a little stepping back, for perspective, for at least a few days to assess and reflect.

Making music means different things for different people and in general it is all good for the soul.

I suggest not losing out on the valuable depth of slow, progressive learning for a quick fix. Which incidentally you will be paying for, it is not as if this new ‘ay aye’ tech is part of some altruistic movement. It’s business. You will expected to part with some money whilst potentially shooting yourself in the foot.

I know myself that some of my previously fave artists had their tracks mixed by genre “go to’s” at the detriment of sonic interest. Some artists who were saturated became cleaner etc. I certainly know a couple of “big” artists favour a little brighter more energetic sound in the highs, some have clearly less in the highs, some like things much more saturated and thick, yet sounding awesome. And some rather more thick sounding in the sub bass end. There is some good that comes with tasteful character.

These differences are significantly lost when 1 person mixes a genre’s tracks for the sole purposes of loudness. Everything must comply and be shoe horned with the sole goal of loudness. Throwing artistic sonic variation on the bonfire.

I enjoy using the new Sontec 432D9D EQ as just 1 of my many high quality mastering EQ’s

https://www.makebelievestudio.com/sontec-mes-432d9d

 

Every possible tool tested, by far, not all my tools are shown and not all shown are used. It is not all $29 plug ins. Every possible tool is available, high end gear, 23 years total experience and superb acoustics. The real deal mastering.

Ultimately super loud masters potentially restrict creativity

Once music has to be re-engineered, instrumentation removed or substituted, chords, sound choices, melody, sound design choices, arrangements and tonality changed just for loudness it means art and sonic presentation becomes restricted. That means everything starts to sound similar and that means genres potentially become stale, lose listeners, provoke wandering to listen to something else and worst case scenario, a genre or scene fizzles out. If we take it to its extreme we end up with the lowest common denominator of kick drums, snare, bass and 1 synth sound in between them. Generecism has a lot of potential down sides.

That is not good for a genre, musical progress or artistic expression. People have a hard enough time making anything different than copying big artists of a genre. Reference tracks should not become blueprints.

Making good tracks and focusing on them 1 at a time is surely the only way to move forwards and let loudness be what it can be, let a track have the focus and energy of intention it needs to be the best version of that track you can produce. Respecting the artistic vision first.

I am not saying ignore loudness totally and make quiet tracks, or make quiet tracks if you want, that is fine also…. like everything there is a middle path which most people want to subscribe to but the middle path can still have variation.

The main reason why this co-existence of different sounds and volumes cannot seem to work is because we immediately sense louder is better, to state the obvious. This is rather unfortunate as the ear is hypersensitive to pitch (out of tune elements) and volume.

 

In conclusion

As a mastering engineer I work with the issues surrounding dynamics, perceived volumes and streaming platforms, volume normalization and streaming codecs. I work for each client in an individual and specialized, track by track approach. There is a lot to consider and as I specalize in mastering have a very good handle on these issues.

Once there is a job proceeding if you are concerned about the above article contents let me know and we can discuss the best way forwards for your music, personally. Sure, I can make very loud masters if required, as loud as any other mastering engineer. The important questions are what is the best route forwards for your music. Genre dependent and can be discussed.

Mastering with myself is a bespoke personal, professional service, a working relationship to make the very best of your music. And important element of the service I provide that many people can benefit from.

Example rates :

1T £30 | 4T EP £112  | Album £230

https://www.masteringmastering.co.uk/cheapmastering.html

Email : Barry at safeandsound123 at googlemail.com (at being @ with no gaps)