If you’ve listened to music over the past few decades, you’ve probably noticed it getting progressively louder. We have the pop industry to thank for that.
The music industry is in a loudness war that pushes the limit on the overall volume of records.
As the capability of audio reproduction technology (vinyl, CDs, and now digital formats) increases, so does the volume level of the music getting released.
With increased volume comes a new set of challenges facing audio engineers and producers. The ability to produce a song has never been more accessible to beginners, and that’s a good thing!
However, the role of the mastering engineer is getting more commonly overlooked in favor of algorithmic software.
Tools like iZotope’s mastering assistant or websites that instantly master your music are everywhere.
These programs do a great job of making your music louder (I use them all the time for sending demos to clients!).
What they lack is the human touch necessary to elevate your music the way a good master should.
If you’re like me, you want your music to have that polished, professional shine that you hear on the radio.
You want the vocal performance to shimmer in the speakers, the bass to fill the room without distorting, and the kick drum to punch you in the gut without getting muddy and lost in the bass frequencies.
You want your musical voice to shine through the way you hear it in your head.
So why does professional music sound so… professional? And, more importantly, why doesn’t yours?
Two words… Sound quality.
Your music sounds quieter, and you’ve tried to do everything you can think of to make your audio louder:
- You’ve moved your master fader up to +10 dB
- You’ve turned every track up until every single one is clipping
- You’ve even plugged your mp3 file into a volume booster you found online
It sounds louder in your headphones, but once you compare it to the pop hit of the summer, it’s still so much quieter!
For some reason, you can’t seem to get the sound you want. So you ask yourself…
WHY IS MY SONG SO QUIET?
Nine times out of ten, the problem is with your mix.
It might sound a bit like a contradiction, but your mix is too loud! So what makes it too loud?
1.) Your song doesn’t have any headroom
There have been countless occasions that I am given a mix to master, but the peak level is +2 dB. There’s no room to go up from there!
Let’s say you’re building a room, but you accidentally build the ceiling too low. It’s only an inch away from your head when you’re standing upright.
At any given moment, if you take a step, you crash your head into the ceiling. No fun, right?
Well, let’s say we move that ceiling up 10 feet. Unfortunately, now you can’t reach the ceiling no matter what you try.
That’s not necessarily a problem when you’re alone, but if someone a bit taller than you comes over, you feel bad that they can touch the ceiling and you can’t.
If the ceiling is high enough that you don’t hit your head on it but low enough that you can touch it if you try, then you have yourself a pretty great room.
The space between you and the ceiling is your headroom.
Your master fader, at 0 dB, is the ceiling; the peak level of your song is you. There’s not a one-size-fits-all peak level.
Generally, I aim for my mixes to peak at between -12 dB to -6 dB. This range allows me to increase the overall volume of my track in the mastering stage without hurting the sound quality.
2.) Your song has too much dynamic range
Going back to the room analogy, now we know how high our ceiling should be, but what about the floor.
Sometimes the floor is high, and other times the floor is low. While you walk through the room, as you go over the higher parts of the floor, you get close to the ceiling and, as you go over the lower parts of the floor, you get far from the ceiling.
What you want to do is level out the floor as much as possible. That way, you’re not walking up and down to get across the room.
The distance from the lowest point to the highest point on the floor is the dynamic range.
To translate the analogy more accurately, it’s the space between your song’s loudest and quietest parts.
When you decrease the dynamic range of your music, you can increase the overall volume of the song much further.
3.) The perceived loudness of your song is too low
The perceived loudness of a piece of music is how loud an average human perceives it to be.
The loudness of any audio gets measured by LUFS (Loudness Units relative to Full Scale). This measurement system allows mixing/mastering engineers and home producers alike to create consistently loud masters.
Different sites have different standards of loudness. Sites like Spotify, YouTube, and Pandora have various LUFS values that they set streamed audio to.
These sites use loudness normalization to ensure that users have a balanced listening experience without drastic changes in volume.
Since these sites have different standards, do you need to create a new master for each site?
To be honest… not really. As long as your master level is somewhere in the area of -14 dB LUFS, you should be fine.
So now that you know why your mix is too quiet, how do you fix it?
HOW CAN I MAKE MY MUSIC LOUDER?
So then, what steps can you take as a mixing/mastering engineer or a producer to make your song louder without losing quality?
Of course, outsourcing your track to an experienced engineer is a safe option, but that can get expensive fast!
You’ve gotten this far by yourself, and you shouldn’t have to rely on others to get your music made. So how do you start?
1.) Start by improving your mix!
A great master always comes from a great mix. That is where headroom comes into play.
At every stage of your mix, you want to watch the peak level on your master fader and make sure it stays between -12 dB and -6dB.
As we discussed earlier, your master volume should always stay at 0 dB, don’t touch your master fader!
A clean mix starts with a clean recording.
While you’re recording, be sure that your mics aren’t clipping. Getting a clear signal that still has headroom is the key!
Be sure to bounce your MIDI tracks to high-quality wav files before you start to mix.
If you record any MIDI tracks using VSTs or synths, such as Kontakt, Massive, or Omnisphere, bounce them to a new audio track before you begin to process them. Working with audio across the board can make your mix more consistent.
Apply EQ sparingly and do your best to cut the frequencies you don’t want to hear rather than boost those you do.
For example, if you want more bass in your track (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t?), cut the bass frequencies (150hz and below) out of tracks that don’t need them, such as the guitar or vocal tracks, rather than boosting the bass.
Doing so will cut out muddiness and lead to a cleaner mix!
Add compression to tracks that you want to stand out in the mix!
Tracks that have a lot of dynamic range, like the vocals or drums, can be evened out a bit by adding compression.
This will allow you to raise their volume level, resulting in louder tracks, without increasing your overall volume too much!
Make sure you practice gain-staging as you add effects!
Adjust the output level of your EQs and compressors so that, when bypassed, the general volume of the track doesn’t change.
You’ll have to do this by ear, so it takes some practice, but once you get the hang of it, you’ll see how much extra headroom you end up having to work with!
Finally, make sure you listen to your mix in different settings.
You want to make sure that your mix sounds good no matter where you listen to it.
I like to use what I call “The AirPod Method”.
You don’t need to have an iPhone or AirPods (I don’t!). You just have to get the cheapest headphones you can find (I’m talking MAX $20).
Bounce a wav file and convert it to an mp3.
It’s important to convert to an mp3 file, rather than just bouncing one, due to the lossy compression of the conversion (you’ll lose some quality present in the wav).
Go for a walk and try to find a somewhat busy road. Listen to your mix there.
It will sound bad! That’s okay!
Compare it, at a similar volume level, to a song that you think sounds great. If it sounds close in quality, you probably have a good mix!
2.) Master your music!
You finally have an awesome, high-quality mix! Time to make it louder.
By fixing your mix, you’ve set yourself up to create a loud master without losing the quality you just added!
Now that you’re in the mastering stage, bounce your mix!
To set up a successful mastering session, bounce your mix to a high-quality wav file (I recommend at least a 44.1 kHz refresh rate and a 24-bit depth).
Avoid normalizing the track as you bounce the file.
Increase the stereo spread of your track!
You can achieve this by applying multiband compression and stereo imaging to the song.
Try centering the low and mid frequencies and expanding the mid-low and high frequencies. That will give your music more spread and widen the listening experience.
Apply a limiter!
If you take away anything from this article, applying a limiter is the most important. A limiter is the most important tool to make your music louder!
Essentially, what a limiter does is lower the dynamic range of your track and raise the overall volume. Make sure you have at least one good limiter in your arsenal (I like IK-Multimedia’s Stealth Limiter).
Using a limiter is the perfect way to fix the room we talked about earlier. The limiter’s ceiling is the volume level that your music will never go past. The threshold is the level at which the limiter activates.
Once you decide on your limiter’s ceiling, adjust the threshold to increase the overall volume. I typically set my output ceiling to -0.2 dB.
Listen through the master while you monitor the perceived loudness (LUFS). I like to use the Waves WLM Plus plugin to accurately measure LUFS, but there are plenty of solid meters out there.
Make adjustments as needed so that your song peaks at the limiter’s ceiling and maintains the LUFS you set as your goal earlier.
I usually master to -2 dB True Peak and -14 LUFS. Setting a target level when you start your master is a great way to ensure you get a powerful finished product!
Music production can be hard work!
Whether you’re a home producer, a mixing engineer, or a mastering engineer, you will get a mix that gives you trouble once in a while.
The important thing is that you don’t give up on making your music sound the best.
If you are ever having trouble getting your music to sound like the songs you hear on the radio, refer to these expert tips!
Knowing what steps to take to improve your songs is the first obstacle. Use this as a guide so you don’t have to sacrifice sound quality to make your music louder.