This week we are talking all about the “loudness war” in music production, and how you get get your tracks as loud as possible. We will be discussing how these artists view loudness, the strategies they use to measure how loud their tracks are, and the techniques they implement to make their tracks so loud.
Techniques in this week’s episode come from artists including Virtual Riot, Hardwell, Oliver Heldens, Nicky Romero, Tascione, Tisoki and Justin Mylo.
Hey everybody and welcome to Sound.Academy Podcast, the show where we discuss and breakdown the production techniques and strategies of the music’s biggest producers. I’m your host, Stephen, and I’m glad to have you hear with us today.
Here’s your tip of the day from our Sound.Academy Instagram: don’t be afraid afraid to go slightly off the grid with your sounds. It can add swing to your track and help things sound more human and natural.
This week we are talking about the notorious “Loudness War” in the production world. This is a topic that has been requested by a bunch of you, and is often quite challenging for producers trying to figure out how their favorite artists get their tracks so loud. We will be discussing how these artists view loudness, the strategies they use to measure how loud their tracks are, and the techniques they implement to make their tracks as loud as possible. Techniques in this week’s episode come from artists including Virtual Riot, Hardwell, Oliver Heldens, Nicky Romero, Tascione, Tisoki and Justin Mylo.
Our team has also created a really awesome free download for you guys this week. For those of you familiar with the Fletcher-Munson curve, these EQ presets for Ableton and Fab Filter Pro-Q will enable you to turn down frequency areas to which the human ear is most sensitive with the turn of a knob. This helps you push your track even louder, while making it sound less harsh to the human ear. We’ll talk more about the Fletcher-Munson curve and why its so important in production later in the episode.
To download these EQ presets and access this week’s show notes, simply click “Buy” on this track on Soundcloud, or visit Sound.Academy/podcast. Now without any further ado, let’s get into the show!
Okay guys before we get started, I just want to thank you all for the support we got last episode. We were at the top of the r/edmproduction subreddit for two days, and so much positive feedback from our listeners. It means a lot when we hear how much we’re helping you guys as producers.
Also, we’re now on iTunes, Stitcher, and Player.FM, so you can stream your favorite music production podcast in whatever way is easiest for you.
Lastly, we were blown away at how many of you guys purchased track feedback for our Cyber Monday sale earlier this week. We’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback from everyone who’s taken advantage of the service, and we’re thrilled that we’re able to help you guys on an individual level.
Enough about us, let’s talk about loudness.
The Loudness War
Over the past decade or so, there has been a dramatic shift in the dynamics and levels of music. Electronic music especially saw a progressive increase in average volume of tracks in the late 2000s. Some producers say the “loudness war” that began in that era is over, while others say its still going today. The reality is that loudness is necessary to create a successful track today, but exactly how loud really depends on your genre.
Genres like big room house or riddim can get extremely loud, simply because there’s very few elements occurring at a certain time. In big room house, it might just be a kick, small bass and a synth. Same for riddim, with just a kick, snare and bass. Progressive house on the other hand is never quite as loud, simply because there is so much more going on in the sound, and they are more dynamic by nature.
Producers today are still constantly driving to get their tracks as loud as they can, sometimes at the cost of their own mix.
To get started today, let’s dive a little bit deeper into the concept of loudness and the strategies used to achieve it with one of the instructors at MixbusTV.
To start off, he commented that the “loudness war” is currently ongoing, and will continue to be for quite some time. Although, he did remark that it isn’t quite as bad as it was just a few years ago. It seems lately producers have begun to not worry about their overall volume so much as worrying about how their tracks actually sound.
One of the first things they discussed was terminology related to mixing and loudness. We will include an image to go along with these descriptions in this week’s show notes, so be sure to check those out if you need any clarification on these topics.
First off, Peaks are the points at which your track is the loudest. These are where your sounds are getting closest to 0db. Next, there is the Average Level. This is the average volume of a given section of your song. Lastly, there is the Crest Factor, which is the difference between your peaks and average level. More specifically, it is the ratio of Peak value to RMS value.
A good crest factor will mean that the difference between your peaks and the meat of your audio, the average level, is not excessive.
He also mentioned LUFS, or Loudness Units Referenced to Digital Scale. This number is available on most metering plugins. Different streaming platforms have different target LUFS. Spotify’s is -14 LUFS, Apple Music is -17, and YouTube is -14.
From a mixing engineer’s perspective, after arrangement and composition has been completed, the most important factor in determining potential loudness is balance. By this he meant that, say you have your project put together and your performing your final mixdown. If you suddenly turned a specific element, say your vocals, up 6db, you would effectively ruin your mix. The balance between elements would be totally off, and you would now also remove any opportunity to get your track as loud as possible. This means that if there is just one element in your mix that is taking up too much room, it could severely limit your potential loudness.
Next, he goes on to discuss that although producers usually think of compression and dynamic EQ as two or the biggest tools when mixing for loudness, saturation is really the most effective tool. A saturator boosts harmonics that are already there, making things typically sound fatter and louder, and giving you more headroom before clipping. When using saturation, he remarks that you need to be taking baby steps. 1db added here, 1.5db lowered there, nothing too crazy.
Virtual Riot (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ihtV6Bmm7q4)
In one of Virtual Riot’s recent production live streams, we broke down a few of the steps he takes in getting his tracks as loud as necessary. One of the first things he does once he has his mix sounding pretty good is use a midside EQ to clean things up and open up some additional headroom. He first EQs out the lows on the side up to somewhere between 100-200hz. This creates a lot of extra headroom if you have low end elements on the side as those low end elements take up the most room in your mix. This often sharpens your stereo image, and ensures you’re not wasting any frequencies that may not be heard on certain mono club systems.
One of his most powerful EQ techniques for loudness is making slight cuts around 3.4 kHz. This is the frequency to which the human ear is most sensitive, as this is the frequency at which a baby’s cry can be heard. Have you heard a baby’s cry lately? Next time you do, you’ll know what I’m talking about. It’s piercing, so you want to be careful with your frequencies in this area.
By making this EQ cut here, it enables Virtual Riot to turn his mix up even louder without hurting or tiring your ears. He describes an example to prove his point: if you have a white noise sample covering the entire frequency spectrum and turned it up as loud as possible to the point where it hurts your ears, you could add this EQ cut at 3.4 KHz and you would be able to reduce that harshness and turn it up even louder.
Following this, he brought up the Fletcher-Munson Curve. For those of you not familiar, it helps us see how frequencies are perceived by the human ear. Humans do not hear the entire frequency range at the same loudness level. As amplitude changes, so does our ears’ response to the frequency spectrum. In other words, certain parts of the frequency spectrum may seem louder to us than others, and when the volume increases or decreases our ears hear these frequencies at different loudness levels. For example, as you turn your system louder, bass and treble sounds will increase while the midrange frequencies begin to get drown out.
At a basic level, what Virtual Riot is saying is that we’re least sensitive to lower frequencies, and more sensitive to higher midrange frequencies around that 3.4 kHz region.
Our team has replicated the tool Virtual Riot used in this tutorial by creating both an Ableton and Fab Filter Fletcher-Munson EQ. These tools will allow you decrease harsh frequency areas along the Fletcher-Muson curve in your track with the turn of a knob, and can also help to spot the common problem areas for harshness in your mix. To download these, just click “Buy” on this track on SoundCloud, or visit Sound.Academy/podcast.
Another EQ cut he mentioned he makes is below 20 Hz. These subsonic frequencies aren’t heard on headphones or the speakers in your house, but can be played by some festival speakers. This can sometimes create problems in your mix if your song is being played out on these massive speakers as those subsonic frequencies take a lot of energy to produce, and will affect the rest of your low end sounds coming from that same sub. Basically he’s just taking a little bit of energy away from a place where its not needed, and allowing that energy to be distributed throughout the rest of the track.
He is also very calculated in exactly how much sub he wants in his final mix. Your low end frequencies will always take up the most energy in your final audio file, so by removing just a bit of low end sub, your able to gain a lot of midrange and high end volume, created more perceived loudness.
Another one of the tools Virtual Riot uses to gain loudness is a substantial amount of multiband compression. In this specific example he just used Ableton’s stock plugins, but basically what he’s doing is just closing the gap between the quietest areas of his track and the loudest, squashing any peaks, and in doing so making more headroom available for him to push his mix a bit further.
When measuring how loud his tracks are, he really likes to A/B them next to his favorite tracks. To do this, just drag a few of your favorite songs into your DAW, have you mix and reference tracks going to the same channel, and use visualizers and meters on that channel to ensure everything is up to par.
One viewer on the livestream asked Virtual Riot if the loudness comes from the mix or the master. He responded by saying that your ability to get your track loud really comes from the mix. If you have a messy, unbalanced mix, you track will start pumping, clipping and distorting way earlier when trying to make it loud in the mastering stage.
One of Virtual Riot’s final comments was for producers not to get too caught up in loudness. If it sounds good, that’s all that matters. Popular platforms like Spotify and iTunes already have an internal volume normalization algorithm which attempts to make sure that all of their songs are roughly the same perceived loudness. That’s why when listening to Spotify playlists, every song is pretty much the same volume yet on Soundcloud, I’ll have to change the volume of my headphones between songs.
So Hardwell recently discussed his approach to loudness, when asked during a recent masterclass how he gets his kicks so loud. One of the first things he mentioned is that he gets all the other elements out of the way as much as possible. He wants to create that pocket in the mix for his kick to come through, so he likes to sidechain other elements heavily to his kick.
Another trick he discussed is that in the mix, he typically likes to have his kicks just a little too loud. He will keep them too loud going into the mastering chain. Its at this point when the compression applied will bring them down slightly, but still allowing them be be loud and punchy.
When actually measuring the loudness of his mixes, he remarked that he doesn’t use meters. Instead, he says he just uses his ears. He will typically push most of his sounds as far as he can until he begins to hear distortion, then will come off the volume slightly. I’ve heard lots of artists try to push their tracks too far from a volume perspective, and you just hear so much distortion, especially in the low end. You should never have to sacrifice the quality of your mix for volume.
When mixing his tracks down to get them as loud as possible, he will also use reference tracks. He will listen in to key areas on the spectrum and ensure his mix is as balanced as possible to allow him to get his track as loud as possible.
One of the last points he mentioned is that the optimal loudness of your track is really going to depend on the genre. For some of his big room/hardstylish tracks, he’s getting them extremely loud. For his more progressive tracks on the other hand, he doesn’t push them quite so far in an effort to preserve the dynamics as much as possible.
Oliver Heldens (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SbJ_c5EP9Ok)
Oliver Heldens recently broke down his hit track “I Don’t Wanna Go Home,” and touched on something very important when it comes to mastering. Although the majority of his tutorial was focused on the individual sounds in the track, he spoke briefly about his perspective on mastering to get your track loud.
He tries to do minimal processing on his sounds, because as he said, a shit sound will still sound shitty no matter how you process it. For this reason, he tries to not do anything crazy on his master, or really slam sounds into a limiter. Instead, he focuses on making his tracks loud using deliberate sound selection, ensuring he chooses good quality sounds, and placing the right sounds in the right places to fill out his frequency spectrum.
Nicky Romero (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q2JPZzQlcKw)
Nicky Romero has been kind enough to do quite a few tutorials from his studio lately, and breaks down some of his biggest tracks. In a recent tutorial he discussed the mixing on his track “Novell”, and mentioned a few tricks he used to gain some volume. First of all, he runs everything through an analog compressor first to even out any areas sticking out too much, as well as bring up any specific spots that may be too quiet. This helps him increase the perceived loudness of his track, and creates an opportunity for him to push his song a little bit further.
Following that, he used Logic’s stock limiter to ensure his track doesn’t go over 0db at any point. He makes a point to always ensure his levels stay below where they need to be, as going above 0db at all has never worked out well for him. On his tracks, it always comes out messy and sounding undesirable, although he admits some producers he knows are able to go over 0 db and have it sound good in their tracks.
Now dubstep artist Tascione recently discussed his perspective on loudness in a livestream he did. If you guys aren’t familiar with Tascione, he’s an amazing dubstep/trap producer, and an amazing instructor.
Tascione started the discussion off with the fact that he just doesn’t worry too much about loudness. With a clean mix, he is usually able to get his tracks as loud as he needs to. Especially after some of the typical mastering he does, using compression, saturation and limiting with Ableton’s Glue Compressor, his track usually up to snuff with similar tracks.
He uses one of his favorite visualizers, a free plugin called Voxengo SPAN, to double check the loudness on his track if necessary. If you don’t have SPAN, we definitely recommend you check it out as it is a very simple yet powerful tool to have in your arsenal.
In addition to referencing the visualizer displayed for any areas sticking out too much or any areas lacking, he uses a few key values displayed by the plugin. The first is Peak value, or the loudest part of your song. He is careful to ensure he is always below 0.0 here, as that would be clipping. Instead, he aims for -0.1. He also looks at the RMS value, which is the average volume between the loudest and quietest parts of your track. In parts of his track he’s around -5db, and in other parts much quieter. For the RMS value, he recommends that producers always aim to land somewhere between -8 and -3.
Just a quick side note – Tascione mentioned that in a perfect world, there simply wouldn’t be a “loudness war.” Unfortunately, though, there is. The loudness of your track plays a big role in determining your tracks success and who listens, but Tascione harped on the fact that mix is always more important. Sometimes when striving to get our tracks as loud as possible, we might push them a little too far with compression, saturation and limiting to get them louder. In fact, in this specific track, Tascione mentioned that he thinks he pushed it a little far.
By this, he means that he created added distortion, especially on the low end. This distortion can quickly ruin your mix, leaving it sounding much less clean and far messier. He encourages producers to always wait till the end to add the mastering chain and strive for loudness.
Tascione mentions the best thing you can do when striving for loudness is choose good sounds. Its all about sample selection. If you’re choosing the right sounds and putting them in the right places, everything falls into place well. If instead you choose shitty and conflicting sounds, have them going over each other, your track will never be as loud as you want it to be. Adding Ozone or any compressors or limiters on the master will just exacerbate the problem and add even more unwanted distortion.
One last thing he discussed regarding getting your track as loud as possible is to mix at low levels. It’s common practice to keep turning your speakers up when producing, or to really blast your speakers during a mixing session. The problem with that is to our ears, louder sounds better. Any track played loud enough will sound good. Any reasonably mixed track will sound huge in a club, but the real challenge is to get your song to sound big at a really low level.
If you listen to someone like Skrillex’s tracks at a low volume, they still sound massive. On the other hand, if you listen to your producer friend’s mix at a low volume, it might quickly become clear that certain elements are too loud, or that there’s too many sounds conflicting in a certain frequency range. If you can get your mix to sound huge and loud at a low level, it will absolutely sound massive at a higher level.
Dubstep-artist Tisoki is another bass producer with notoriously loud tracks. He’s been one of the biggest dubstep artists for years now, so its clear he knows what he’s doing when it comes to getting his tracks loud. Once of the first things he mentions when discussing the topic during a live stream on UpSound is that he will mix quite loud. His tracks are often clipping slightly when he approaches mastering, but he ensures there is no audible clipping.
He likes to measure the loudness of his tracks using Voxengo SPAN. He too likes to use it as a reference for the RMS levels on his track, and mentioned that he finds it much more accurate than Ozone’s RMS readings.
Justin Mylo (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fPz5sF5lrU0)
Justin Mylo recently broke down his track “Jumping Jack” which has been one of his biggest tracks. When discussing his approach to loudness, he’s a big fan of Izotope Ozone. In this specific track, he began his mastering chain Ozone 5 where he performed compression, saturation and maximization. Following that, he had an instance of Ozone 7 on his master (where he was doing maximization), followed by a standalone Izotope Maximizer. For those of you counting, that’s 3 Izotope Maximizers so far.
For those of you not familiar, Izotope’s maximizers are basically just limiters, but they use a very advanced algorithm to minimize distortion and other unwanted effects when boosting your track. He’s ended up doing some substantial compression to really push his track and loud as he could.
After those plugins, he had an A.O.M. Invisible Limiter. This is an extremely popular plugin for producers to have on the end of their mastering chain, to give their tracks that final little boost in volume. Justin really likes this limiter, as he said it lets him get things really loud without introduce an unwanted effects like pumping or distortion.
Alright guys, I hope you all enjoyed this episode of the Sound.Academy Podcast. Hopefully we’ve demystified one of the most challenging topics to new producers, and you guys are now able to get your tracks as loud as you want.
We will be covering more about loudness in upcoming episodes on mixing, mastering, compression and more.
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