Being a soundy, recordy type person (technical term) part of my job is to master songs in order to tweak and bring some sheen to the mix.
Sometimes it can go too far, and it’s become a trend!
We’ve all heard of the loudness war where songs are absolutely smashed to buggery with compression in order to try to get them to sound louder. It got to the point where music was becoming unlistenable but trends never did care much for quality. They by their very nature are all about competition and popularity and so it was all just numbers.
In the last few years it’s got a little better with groups releasing their album with two masters, one loud and one which has dynamics. Some bands don’t even get their tracks mastered as they like it how it is and some even prefer the absolute lo-fi quality of a demo.
Mastering is a lot of things but part of that is undoubtedly notching up the perceived volume a bit. That’s ok but where does it stop?
First I want to explain what’s happening when you master a song to get louder. The key element in that will be what’s called a limiter. A limiter is just a compressor with an infinite ratio. But what’s a compressor?
A compressor is just what it says, it compresses things. If you have an audio signal like a guitar and at one point the guitarist hits the strings mega hard then the signal will peak higher than the rest of the guitar part. What a compressor does is it allows you to set a threshhold and if the audio volume goes higher than that threshhold then the compressor will reduced the volume by a desired amount which you can set in ratios. Say the signal passed over the threshhold by 2dB then you could set the compressor to turn it down by 1dB and then set another gain switch (makeup gain) to compensate for that 1dB reduction by bringing everything else up and therefore evening the audio out as a whole.
That’s it in a nutshell. It’s a big automatic volume control.
What a limiter does is it completely prevents any signal from passing the threshhold (it limits it) and since it is still compressing the signal it will bring the quieter sections up and therefore make it appear to sound louder.
There’s obviously more to it then my Pedegree Chum explanation but you get the idea.
If you’re an audio production person you’ll have probably been in the situation where your mix is sounding great and it’s holding up well against your reference of choice (usually a commercial CD of the same genre). All is well and then you maybe click to see what someone else has been working on and their mix is so much louder and clearer than yours….and then you die a little inside.
I’m totally guilty of it….or at least I used to be and furthermore I hated myself for it because it shouldn’t matter one bit. Of course sometimes this can be a good thing and it can push you to better yourself but on some occasions I’ve ended up ruining mixes just to get it loud and I convince myself that the sacrifices are ok which of course, they aren’t.
If you look at music from 20 or 30 years ago then they are significantly quieter than today. Metallica’s Black Album which at the time was a huge leap forward in the world of metal production, is pretty quiet when compared to a modern day song of the same genre if played side by side. However if you just adjust the volume on the stereo then the mix is actually still amazing and far more dynamic, so why do we as production people waste our time and effort trying to get an effect that the listener can just do themselves by “turning it up”?
Because we’re idiots that’s why!
It makes no sense for me as I actually respect and prefer quieter masters. Andy Sneap is a world famous producer/engineer in the metal genre and his masters are significantly quieter and a little darker than most of his competitors yet it still sounds great. George Marino is another excellent mastering engineer who just adds the sheen that the song needs and that’s it.
I have a few bad habits when mastering but I’ve learned to work around them without inducing damage to the track. I often mix with a “safe” limiter on the master bus (0.0 threshhold) and sometimes I’ll pull it down to see what’s happening. I tend to have an SSL bus compressor on there too and I like to think it gives me a heads up for problems before I export to master (obviously with all limiting and compression taken off beforehand).
When I master I usually hit about -9 RMS (Root mean Square AKA the average) which is pretty standard for most commercial music (maybe even a bit much) and the perceived volume is round about the same, maybe hovering around -10.
There’s absolutely no need to go any further than that yet some do (Metallica’s Death Magnetic was peaking at about -4dB RMS which was ridiculous ) and some dance tracks are similarly crushed to death. and devoid of any dynamics.
It’s important to know that loudness isn’t achieved by just crushing stuff with compression. Often it has a lot to do with EQ and things will sound louder with more high end on them therefor a high mid range heavy song may not need as much compression as it’ll already sound loud due to the frequency it’s mainly operating at in relation to our ears.
Watching meters helps too. I use a nice little plug in called T-Racks from IK Multimedia and it shows a lot of information about the track which helps with tweaking yet it can be deceptive. Low end can trigger the metres to go crazy and you’ll end up scratching your head as to why it has a commercial loudness according to the numbers yet it sounds dull and quiet to your ears. A few tweaks which slash some low end and a boost the upper mids (in other words go back to the mix) will bring out the sheen and the whole thing will sound fuller and louder but without any more limiting added. This is also true with stereo field and a few tricks like a 1dB mid range dip on one guitar and a boost at the same place on the other can give the illusion of wideness just that little bit more.
Mastering shouldn’t be competitive, it should be what’s best for the song. It’s an art that really should be handled by proper mastering engineers in proper mastering studios but in this world of low wages, slave labour and general skintness people are always looking for a bargain and as such one must be a jack of all trades.
At the end of the day if it feels good and you can hear everything in the mix then your job is done. If people want it louder the they should turn it up on the stereo but as we all know people are cunts, musicians are bigger cunts for wanting it and sound/mastering engineers are the biggest cunts for letting their competitive streak get out of control and entertaining it.