This article was written on December 1, 2012 and is the copy written intellectual property of the trustees of OnlineMasteringStudio.com.

Louder is Not Better

We at TheMasteringStudio.com have been in the mastering business for many years. We have been delivering world-class masters to hundreds and hundreds of customers from all over the world. We have earned and developed many wonderful relationships with artists, producers, musicians, bands, and record labels from all over the world. We have developed a repeat business client base that indicates to us that we are exceeding customer expectations.

A subject and desire that often comes up from customers is to make their music sound louder.

Some customers will judge the quality of the mastering job on how loud their masters sound.

We at TheMasteringStudio.com often deliver loud sounding masters, but in a healthy way.

We are often surprised by the lack of awareness by the general public of how damaging achieving this loudness can be to your music.

Just as in the physical world there is a conservation of energy, in the audio world there is a conservation of dynamic range. Studio owners and home stereo buyers will spend hundreds and hundreds of extra dollars to buy equipment that can handle dynamic ranges of up to 109 dB or more.

Those who purchase audio gear often reference specifications to make sure that the dynamic range and the signal-to-noise ratio are very high figures.

During the tracking, overdub, and mixing processes engineers will do their best to preserve the dynamic range of the acoustic and electronic instruments being recorded. Studio mixes have a certain sound to them. They actually sound great. They sound punchy and they get quiet and loud. They can sound very realistic. Yet when you listen to a studio mix that has not yet been mastered, you will notice it does not sound like the familiar commercial release you are used to hearing.

One of the differences between studio mixes and finish masters will be a difference in the available dynamic range. With no exception, there is absolutely no way to make your music sound louder without lessening its dynamic range. As mentioned above, there is a conservation of dynamic range in audio. Dynamic range is what gives your music punch. Dynamic range is what allows soft parts to sound soft and loud parts discount loud. When you ask to make your music sound louder, the soft parts are not really soft anymore and the loud parts are not really that much louder. Also the louder you ask to make your music, the less punch it will actually have.

There’s absolutely no way around this.

We at TheMasteringStudio.com do agree that a certain amount of dynamic range reduction is necessary. It almost seems like a certain amount of dynamic range reduction actually acts as a brake for the speakers on car stereos and home stereo systems. Applying some dynamic range control can actually help final Masters sound more consistent from system to system because the speakers on the different systems aren’t being asked to move outside of their comfortable bounds by the program material.

The funny thing about this dynamic range reduction is that in some cases, on very loud masters, the average dynamic range is about 6 to 9 dB. So even though the stereo system is able to handle very wide dynamic ranges, the master only uses about 5% of it.

One of the ways this loudness is achieved is by means of using a digital limiter. The way a digital limiter makes things louder is by means of taking down the peaks. An audio system has a limited dynamic range. The meters on an audio device actually indicate how much of this dynamic range is being used. When you see the meters moving up toward the red that means they are nearing the top of the dynamic range or the point of distortion. Our ears perceive loudness as the average loudness of the audio signal over time. Instantaneous peaks do not contribute much to our perception of loudness.

What the digital limiter was designed to do is: take down these instantaneous peaks that don’t contribute to our perception of loudness. Once those peaks have been brought down, we can use what’s called makeup gain to gain the signal back up so those peaks that have been reduced are now right below the point of distortion. What this allows us to do is to bring up the average signal level of the music. As we just mentioned, the average signal level is what we perceive as loudness. Thus when we bring up the average signal level, the music will sound louder at the expense of bringing down those peaks.

Just so you know, those peaks were probably the punch of the kick drum, or the punch of the snare. But like we said before a little bit of dynamic range control can be a good thing. The problem is, many artists want their music so loud that they lose sight of the quality of their masters while pursuing loudness.

It is important to keep in mind while having any mastering done that there is a fine balance between the audio quality and the loudness. An experienced mastering engineer can provide you with both within reason. When loudness becomes a war between your band and another, damage to your mixes is usually the result.

The more and more digital limiting you do to a signal, then more and more the signal essentially starts turning into a square wave.

You could literally achieve the same results by running your mix through a pair of guitar fuzz boxes: one for the left channel and one for the right. This is about the same quality that people are getting when they ask for their masters to be too loud.

Another side effect of reducing dynamic range is loss of the apparent depth of field in the speakers or headphones. The more dynamic range reduction you use, the less three-dimensional your music will sound. Again there is no way around this.

Sometimes people think that they must make their music loud so it will be played back properly over the radio. There is a radio processor that is in use by over 90% of all radio broadcast stations. It is made by a company called Orban. The company Orban themselves has written an article that pleads with people to not limit dynamic range too much before broadcasting it through their radio processors. They say in this article that music that isn’t as loud will actually come over the radio sounding better and louder than music that is too loud going into this process.

We at TheMasteringStudio.com are passionate about audio. We always provide customers what they want. But, we do try to educate to propagate higher-quality audio and long-term customer satisfaction and success.

This article was written on December 1, 2012 and is the copy written intellectual property of the trustees of OnlineMasteringStudio.com.