Tips for Mixing Toward Loudness

Some people want their music really loud, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If loudness is part of their aesthetic and the audience likes it, then I say let’s go for it. In order to deliver the most musically effective loudness, that goal must have been addressed in the mixing process, but not as directly as you might think.

It’s important to remember that there are mix masters, and then there are replication or download masters. Your project isn’t finished until it has been mastered, so the relative loudness of a mix does not represent the final level of the project. Comparing the loudness of a mix master with a finished commercial CD is not particularly useful.

However, there are a lot of aspects of mixes that directly contribute to the eventual loudness of a finished master. So what should you be listening for while you’re mixing? Here’s an example scenario:

My client has brought me a set of 5 multi-track recordings to mix. The client is very concerned that her project should fit in with the latest release from Artist X as much as possible, including being equally loud.

Here are some things I would be sure to pay attention to while mixing her project:

1. The Loudest Instrument

What is the loudest instrument in Artist X’s mixes? 

The answer is probably pretty consistent across the whole CD; and I’ll be sure to use a similar approach with my client’s project.

This may not seem like a pivotal factor, but the relative loudness relationships within a mix establish a lot about the eventual absolute volume of the mix (and the project). If one hip hop mix has a lot more vocal content than another, the relative loudness of the two mixes will be confused.

If I’m mixing in a drum-heavy genre, I’ll be careful to reference that primary balance benchmark. If my next project is a vocal-driven style, I’ll simply re-establish my benchmark. In either case, I’ve setup the balance relationships within my mixes so that they can directly compare with other albums in the presumed audience playlist.

2. Relative Loudness Relationships

What are the relative loudness relationships between kick, snare, bass, and lead vocal? 

Before you start cranking around on piles of processing, set up these simple balance relationships. They go a long way toward establishing the fundamental structure of mixes in many musical genres.

Try starting by mimicking the balance between the lead vocal and the snare drum from your reference. Once that makes sense, add the kick at a level that is referenced from the snare drum. Finally, rough in the bass level relative to the kick drum.

Beyond just setting up the framework for balance within your mix, these balances establish a lot about how you will work with these instruments tonally. A loud vocal, for example, may get a totally different EQ treatment than one that is buried (however appropriately) in a sea of guitars.

Do some reference listening; you might be surprised.

3. Tonal Contrast

What is the brightest instrument in Artist X’s mixes? 

Articulation is a big component of apparent loudness. Pay particular attention to tonal contrast between instruments to get the most impact out of any particular tone choice.

To put it simply, it doesn’t matter how bright the drums are; it matters how articulate they are compared with other instruments. A mix with built-in tonal contrasts can be more effectively managed in the mastering process.

4. Panning and Depth

Apparent dynamic range can have a lot to do with panning and depth.

Do Artist X’s mixes have a lot of subtle panning, or are they essentially 3-channel stereo? What is the contrast between the instruments that seem nearest to the listener and furthest away?

If your goal is blaring, ‘too loud,’ loudness, it’s important to note that these spatial contrasts survive aggressive mastering much better than subtle differences in level or tone do. It is not uncommon for even the most critical listeners to initially mistake spatial contrast for audio dynamics.

Mastering

These types of musically relevant aspects of mix structure will help you create consistent, engaging mixes that fit into a genre in a lot of fundamental ways. The mastering process can then more effectively finish preparing those mixes for their commercial audience, including addressing their market loudness.

For more information, download Kim Lajoie’s eBook: How to Make Your Music Louder

Rob Schlette

Rob Schlette

Rob Schlette is chief mastering engineer and owner of Anthem Mastering, in St. Louis, MO. Anthem Mastering provides trusted specialized mastering services to music clients all over the world.
  • Joe Olsen

    I grew up in the digital age of audio production and have seen first hand how easy it is to over use the tools we have available to us. I think that there are a couple factors add to the creation of over-processed music. In the days of the VU meter they didn’t really have this problem because people were mixing using RMS meters. Now that everyone has peak meters, we see the loudness go up but dynamics disappear (my high school band teacher would be incensed).

    One thing that really helped me was the idea of monitor calibration. Having a known reference point to set my monitor control position to, forced me to mix with my faders. It sounds funny but I used to be hopping all over the place with my monitor control position and wouldn’t be paying attention to the relative loudness of the song, which caused me to over-process.

    I also think that as audio professionals we need to lead the way in how to listen to music. Sure most people prefer to listen through ear buds or a cell phone speaker and they only maybe have time for a song. But I would prefer to listen to a great record by great musicians, through a great set of speakers, in a perfect listening environment, where all I do is listen to the entire album. In fact I don’t even like to listen if I know I’ll be distracted, like if I’m at work or at the gym. I want to be engaged by music and draw in, I don’t want to use it as background noise or some sort of distraction. I think if more people sat and listened to music in this way, we would systematically get rid of over-processed music. In reality, I know ear buds and phone speakers are here to stay but I think that we should have some concern with how our clients are listening to music and try to be a good influence.

    • http://www.anthemmastering.com Rob

      Hi Joe. You’re so right about the importance of monitor calibration. Turning up the control room volume until the uncontrolled low frequency build up in your room doesn’t bother you is not monitor calibration.

      For those who are interested, here’s a classic introduction to the basic principles and problems of monitor cal:
      http://www.digido.com/level-practices-part-2-includes-the-k-system.html

    • http://okkana.com Adamg

      Thanks for the comments here guys and for the link, Rob. Pushed me to finally sort this out with an SPL meter. Happy days!

  • http://www.audioecstasyproductions.com Brandon

    The loudness thing is really band with my normal clients, which are the average “wanna sound like the radio” band. Often times, their perception of mixes sent for review is based purely on the volume…. just turn it up!

    It’s a balance of art and psychology.

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  • http://www.optimizestudios.com Alex Bondi

    I tend to use linear phase eq’s for very subtle and surgical types of applications. Other then that I really love how my massive passive sounds

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  • http://www.mixing-mastering-online.com Online Mixing

    I totally agree, I feel i’ts a responsibility of ours to impart taste and knowledge and hopefully let music win in the end!

  • http://www.ansgarscheffold.com Ansgar Scheffold

    @alex bondi which one do you use? i really appreciate the sound of the Algorithmix Red but cannot use more than 2 instances on my daw.

  • Chris Graham

    Great stuff Rob! You’re a great writer! I’ll be sure to keep up with your posts.

    • http://www.anthemmastering.com/ Rob Schlette

      Thanks for reading, Chris.

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