Why Aren't My Mixes 'Loud' Like Commercial CD's?

More accurately, the question you should be asking yourself is "Why don't my recordings have the potential to be as loud as commercial CD's?"

(This is an incomplete post - a partial post I posted on an audio forum - to be updated soon)

What I meant by the above statement was that there are a lot of (usually "less seasoned" for lack of a better term) engineers out there who shoot themselves in the foot by tracking and/or mixing "for volume" -- Destroying the dynamics, using up all the available headroom at the first stage - along with pretty much every subsequent stage.

That's not the way to make recordings that can actually handle "loud" later.

Track with plenty of headroom. Mix with plenty of headroom. Don't throw limiters all over the place just to get the mix "loud" -- Do whatever it takes to make the mix sound *good* and don't be concerned so much with volume.

I'm not saying not to use limiters -- But as a "rule of thumb," if you find a mix actually sounds better - And I mean *BETTER* -- Not "better because it's louder" -- If it actually sounds better being rammed into a limiter, take the limiter off and find out why. Maybe one thing in that mix is truly "too dynamic" for the rest of the mix. Put the limiter on THAT and see how it sounds. Use a compressor when something has a dynamic range that's too wide for the mix -- Not because someone told you that everybody compresses everything so it can be louder.

"Punch" and "impact" comes from the difference between loud and quiet - Not the absence of quiet. And although I'm not a fan of the current "level insanity" going on, it's better to have decent sounding recordings that have the potential to be loud than loud sounding recordings that should be shut off. Almost invariably, it's those dynamic, wide-crest mixes that have that potential.

Mixing "hot" doesn't do anything to make your finished product louder. Tracking hot doesn't either (I don't even want to get into the nastiness that can happen from tracking too hot). Headroom is good room. Keep it, love it, cherish it - Your mastering guy (even if that's yourself, which I also won't get into) is almost undoubtedly going to use it all up... Give him some room to move.

So, then we get to the 'meat' of the matter -- What does it take to make a recording "loud like a commercial CD?"

Well, if the recording is exceptionally good sounding, dynamic, clear, clean, punchy, etc., it's usually a simple matter of hitting it with a limiter. Pretty much any limiter for the most part. On the other hand, it might also be about chaining three, four, maybe five dynamics processes in line. One doesn't know until one is listening to the mixes.

But keep in mind - The vast majority of mixes out there will never have that sort of 'volume potential' from the start. I don't mean that to sound discouraging - It's just the truth. And if it makes you feel any better, mixes were never meant to be at the volume the artists and labels are insisting on. Yes, I've said it. Artists and labels. The listening public never asked for this - Most of them know where the 'volume' knob is.

The average charted recording out there has teams of professionals with aggregate decades of experience at every single stage in the game working in the best rooms with the best gear available. The mixes are amazingly good sounding - That is, until they end up squashing the life out of them during the mastering phase - And the fact that those mixes can handle that sort of abuse is a testament to the people who made it sound that good in the first place. And think of what the listener is missing out on... I'm as guilty as the next mastering guy about taking wonderful sounding mixes and using high levels of "damage control" to make them "commercially viable" by today's standards. You should hear what some of those recordings sound like when they're at the level they "want" to be at - which is part of pretty much every session (making it sound *good* before making it sound *loud*). If the listeners knew what I know, there would be an uprising from the public.

And in any case, once those mixes are at the volume where they "want" to be naturally, loudness beyond that point is a compromise. I was asked in the mid-90's (before the Loudness War was in full-swing - even though we thought it was at the time) if there should be a "standard" level that most music (pop/rock/metal) should be at once it leaves the mastering facility. Being fairly conservative on such things, I said "of course not - It would be silly to have a 'standard' for such things."

If I could only go back in time... Let's even throw a number on here -- Sure, it's subjective, but it comes from a lot of years listening to a lot of recordings. -15dB(FS)RMS. There's a number. I personally almost consider it a "magic" number of sorts. It's a level where most all recordings (again, pop, rock, metal, country, rap - Maybe take out jazz and classical styles) have impact and punch, reasonable dynamics, etc., without being irritating and fatiguing to listen to. To put it another way, I have yet to hear a recording - any recording - that actually sounds better at -12 or -10dB(FS)RMS than it did at -15. And I don't ever expect to. Sure - Some recordings have to potential to sound 'acceptable' above that level. Some recordings sound better with even a wider crest. But if there were ever to be a "standard" invoked by the industry, that'd be my vote.

Because mastering isn't about making recordings "loud" -- It's about assembling a collection of mixes into a cohesive and compliant production master. The "volume" thing is an afterthought. We do it ‘out of protest’ more than not. It's not the part of the job we signed up for. But in any case, work the mix. Don’t mix for volume. The good mix will reap the rewards coming to it.

John Scrip - MASSIVE Mastering - http://www.massivemastering.com