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Tips for Mixing Toward Loudness

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Tips for Mixing Toward Loudness
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Hey folks, Matthew Weiss here — weiss-sound.com, theproaudiofiles.com. In this little video, I’m going to be talking about loudness.

Now, I think we’ve all had the experience of making a mix of a record and trying to create a final master, and then playing it next to a commercial release, and we just go, “Gosh, this is so frustrating, the playback on the commercial release is so much louder than our record,” and we get very dismayed and disappointed.

Well, this video is going to cover a number of aspects about that sentiment, from the philosophical to the technical, and I’m going to start with the philosophical, and just begin with the idea that loudness is actually not the most important thing in the world. Is it important to be able to get a record loud or to have the skill set to incorporate loudness into a record? Yes, I think it’s important to do that, but is loudness going to be the be all, end all in terms of the success of a record?

Absolutely not. A good record will do well, a loud record may or may not do well, but that said, sometimes, the expectation is for a loud playback, and we want to do that.

Okay, now, let’s take a look at this record. This is really very unmixed, I have some sends setup, but I mean, there’s no processing on anything here. This is just the faders up with a couple little level tweaks. I’m going to give you playback here.

[mix]

Now, the playback is not currently all that loud. So what we’re going to do is take a few steps to get it to be much louder. I’m going to turn on my processing here. Mind you, we’re about to hear a little bit of a volume jump, so brace yourself for that.

[mix, processed louder]

And so clearly, we can hear that. That’s much louder than what I originally played.

So what is loudness? Well, loudness is how we perceive amplitude, and the easiest way to get something louder is simply to turn it up. But eventually, we are going to hit a ceiling, and we are not going to be able to push any more physical peak amplitude into our record. So from there, the only way to get something louder is to increase the perceived loudness — the impression of loudness, and we do that through two main devices, and really, a third, and those are going to be dynamic range, our frequency curve, and harmonic content.

So we’re going to start with the dynamic range, because that’s going to be the number one influence on how loud our record is, and we’re going to start with our big loudness tool, which is going to be a limiter. A limiter is a hard stop compressor that just grabs peaks very quickly, and then lets go really quickly without creating distortion in the process, or much noticeable distortion in the process.

So if I turn this on…

[music]

You see that I’m doing anywhere from about maybe 3 to 6dB of dynamic range compression. I’ve basically sort of split the difference here, I called it four and so my makeup gain is four decibels. So what we’re getting is a peak loudness that’s been limited. It’s no longer — it’s not going any louder in terms of peaks, but the makeup gain is giving us more of the stuff that isn’t the peaks, and so effectively, I’m turning the record up by four dB without really turning it up by four dB.

[song]

So that’s our main tool. Now, a common mistake that people make is that they just push the volume fader into the ceiling, and into the red, and technically, that is a form of limiting, but it’s so hard limiting that it actually creates modular distortion, and doesn’t sound very good. A better way of getting the record loud is to push into a limiter, and that’s going to incur a lot less distortion along the way.

Now we can only push into the limiter so much. If I continue turning this up…

[mix, pushing limiter]

It starts to sound pretty funky. The record starts to sound really choked, it starts to sound kind of uninspiring, you can’t dance to it, because there’s no hit from the drums at all anymore, and it’s really just not a good look overall, so the question is, how can we get our record to be louder with minimal negative side effects? And that’s where we start looking to some of the subtler aspects of getting our overall loudness up.

So one of the things that we need to talk about is how we perceive level, because we don’t perceive level evenly. If you caught my episode of Pensado’s Place, Dave mentioned something called the Fletcher Munson curve when we’re talking about loudness.

What that’s referring to is a series of studies done to create the general arc in which we hear different frequencies. In other words, when a bass tone is played at a given amplitude, and a high mid tone is played at the same amplitude, we hear the high mid tone as being louder, and so using this principle, we can construct an EQ curve that emphasizes the upper mid frequencies, and that’s going to create a higher perceived loudness.

[mix, adjusting EQ]

So this is about a 1dB bump right here across the upper mid band. Technically, we’re pulling up maybe a little bit of transient spike from the snare, but the majority of our energy is living in the kick range, and so we’re not really increasing the overall level much, we’re really just focusing on a piece of the pie, and that piece of the pie holds more weight. It’s sort of like the electoral college of frequency distribution. I should probably edit that out, but I’m not going to.

[music]

What’s nice about this curve is it’s also fitting the overall sound of the record. Right now, if I were to take this off, the vocal sounds a little dull, the snare sounds a little dull, everything is just sitting a little bit dull.

[mix, no EQ]

As soon as I turn it on, the record just wakes up, it feels like it comes to life, and so there are added benefits to this aside from just the simple loudness of it, and that’s really important. Whenever we’re doing any kind of EQ on the master buss, or EQ in general, it should be serving the sound itself, and so we have to be careful. If there was already a lot of upper mids present in the record, then the vocals are going to start to sound telephonic, or the snare’s going to start to sound really biting and harsh, or just something in there is going to start to sound a little too grating, and that’s going to really interfere with the enjoyment of the record.

So while it’s tempting to just sort of chuck upper mid-range into stuff…

[mix, adjusting EQ]

There’s a certain satisfaction we get at first, because we’re hearing things a lot more present and a lot clearer, but if we start to just allow it to marinate for a second, we hear that things start to become really strident, and start to sound kind of like they’re coming out of a laptop speaker a little bit.

[music]

Alright, that sounds better.

Alright, another form of dynamic range restriction is compression. Now, limiting is a type of compression, but it’s a very specific type of compression that’s meant to act over peaks. General compression is a lot slower, but can still be used to bring up the overall level of something, and so in this example, I’m using a medium attack, about 30 milliseconds, enough to round out transients, but not enough to kill them off. I’m using a pretty fast release, 60 milliseconds, and I’m using a feed forward compressor, which is a little bit faster to act than a feedback compressor. What I’m doing is I’m just running off maybe about 3dB of gain, something like that, and using some makeup gain to compensate.

[song]

So I like the Auto Fast setting. I feel like it handles the transients a little bit better in this exact case, but basically when we’re doing this kind of compression, we want to listen for a few things. We want to listen to make sure that there isn’t much audible pumping, which is going to be a natural artifact of doing this, so we don’t want to get the sea sickness effect where if we start really digging in, suddenly, the levels are totally going wonky. Here, I’ll give you an example of that.

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[mix, over compressed]

You can hear that certain words and phrases are really jumping out in a pretty unflattering way. That’s a little bit too dramatic, and so it’s not really worth messing up the record that much in the name of loudness. So I’m going to set this back to where I had it.

[song]

And here, even though we’re doing a pretty fair amount of gain reduction. We’re not really hearing a ton of that sea sickness effect. The other thing that we want to make sure is that we’re not rebalancing the record too much. If I take this compression off…

[mix, no buss compression]

We hear a little bit more transient definition, and we hear a lot more kick drum. Once I push this back on…

[mix, with compression]

The kick kind of stays in the same place, and everything else sort of ends up moving forward in the mix, and so we’re kind of rebalancing the record a little bit, and I’m not sure that I’m totally in love with that, I feel like I’m losing a little too much of the kick drum.

So what I’m going to do is I’m going to back off the threshold ever so slightly so we’re grabbing less of the signal, I’m going to lighten the ratio ever so slightly, and then I’m going to use this mix knob, and I’m going to blend in a little bit more of the direct signal, the uncompressed signal, and then we’re going to — ultimately, this is going to make the record do less compression, so I’m going to back off the makeup gain a little bit as well.

[mix]

And now, we don’t really have too much of a rebalancing of the record, it feels a little bit smoother, we get a little bit more of that transient definition, and so we’re really gaining more than we’re losing, and one of the things that’s nice about compression is if you don’t overdo it, you can bring out a sense of spatiality to the record by bringing up all of your lower things, and it ultimately increases the front-to-back aspect. It also can put a nice little color over the record, and you can time it even so that you’re getting good groove and connection between the beat as the compressor is releasing. You know, you start to hear those little ghost notes a little bit more, the hi-hat starts to come out a little bit more, and so we can also increase the overall feel of the groove.

And so we can again, not just get some loudness, but also do things that improve the overall experience of the record, which is actually much more important.

Now lastly, we have one more thing in our arsenal that’s worth discussing. This is something that you have to be really, really careful with, because it’s really easy to mess up a record doing this, but if we really, really need to get loud, sometimes distortion or harmonic content is a good way of doing it. Usually, this is called soft clipping, and I’m going to use Decapitator to illustrate it.

Basically, what I’m doing is I’m putting in a little bit of distortion, and distortion kind of acts like the way color saturation works in a photo. It allows things to become a little bit more vivid by exciting the harmonic content of things, which allows us to perceive it a little bit more easily, and we get a little bit of extra clarity and loudness from that.

It also kind of acts like a compressor. It’s more like a limiter really than anything else, and so it also does a little bit of dynamic range reduction, which again, can be used to push the overall perceived level forward.

So here’s without…

[mix, without soft clipping]

So you can hear that the snare starts to flatten a little bit, and the spike of the kick starts to flatten a little bit when I do this.

[music]

We also get a little bit of color over the overall record, and it’s a nice color actually, so that doesn’t really bother me. I’m into it, but there’s a few things that are important to point out. One is that this drive knob is not really turned up too much. I’m not pushing that much into the record. The other thing is that this mix knob is really favoring the dry side, and so the distorted signal is really not in the mix too much. If I were to turn this all the way up…

[mix, full wet Decapitator]

You can hear a little bit of breakup on the snare and the kick, and it’s not very pleasing. It’s not unpleasing, it’s not terrible. If I were to turn up the drive knob…

[mix, driving Decapitator]

And there we hear some pretty distinct clipping. It’s not that bad, but I mean, it’s still not that pleasant, and so I do prefer to have this kind of set over here where we really don’t hear the breakup. It’s pretty masked.

[song]

And again, this is sort of our last effort in terms of really getting a record loud, because for whatever reason, we decided we need to get the record so loud. I would much prefer to be doing this as a creative decision, not because somebody was pressuring me to create the loudest record imaginable, but if I were facing that situation, this is part of the toolkit.

Now, back to that Fletcher Munson curve, if we use different harmonic leanings, we can also get different perceived loudness, and so this A setting on Decapitator I find to be one of the more balanced ones. It favors the low mids a little bit more maybe than say, the very top end, but it feels more neutral in general.

This E setting is pretty much the opposite of that. It really favors the upper mids and the high tones, and when I switch between the two, we’re going to get a lot more perceived loudness off of the E setting.

[music, switching Decapitator settings]

And it’s not bad actually, it definitely comes out as louder, it definitely comes out as brighter. Unfortunately, again, it has that effect where when we first hear it in the first immediate second, it pops, and so we go, “Ooh, that’s exciting,” but after we listen a little while, we also realize it’s a little bit harsh. So I wouldn’t want to use this setting as distinctly as I would use, say, the A setting.

But that takes us to one step further which is that I’m doing all of this on the master channel. That’s probably the easiest place to demonstrate concepts in loudness, but I can use these techniques throughout the entire mix, and I can do it in a way where I can make things appear louder in a more deliberate way, and come out with a result where we get the smoothness and the dimension and everything of something that doesn’t have the negative artifacts of say, this kind of distortion, but it’s also very loud.

So a good example of that would be let’s say instead of doing this distortion to everything, I just did the distortion to say, the kick and the snare. Well, I could use that to make the snare appear to be louder by sort of running the peak down a little bit and presenting it as being more harmonically full, but I wouldn’t distort the vocals in the process of doing that, or I wouldn’t distort the sub bass in the process of doing that, and so by being deliberate about things, we can actually be artistically creative in a way that serves the song, and as a by product, get a louder playback in the process.

Alright guys, so that was a little lesson on loudness. I have a tutorial out, it’s called “Mixing Home Recordings.” You can find it at mixinghomerecordings.com. It goes over various different types of scenarios with various different types of genres that we get when we’re recording at home and how to deal with home recordings, what to listen for, and ultimately, how to create a better listening experience when we know how to approach these various things that happen.

Otherwise, please hit that like button and hit the subscribe button, and I’ll catch you guys next time.

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Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss

Matthew Weiss is the recordist and mixer for multi-platinum artist Akon, and boasts a Grammy nomination for Jazz & Spellemann Award for Best Rock album. Matthew has mixed for a host of star musicians including Akon, SisQo, Ozuna, Sonny Digital, Uri Caine, Dizzee Rascal, Arrested Development and 9th Wonder. Get in touch: Weiss-Sound.com

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