One of the most striking differences between a track you may have produced on your own in your home project studio versus a song produced in a professional studio, is the overall loudness.
Maybe your track sounds flat, small, weak, and deflated in contrast to the “real” production.
This can really get under your skin and cause you a lot of grief.
Here are 5 tips for getting a louder, fuller track that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with any pro mixdown!
1. Gain Staging
Getting a louder song begins long before you click “Record”.
For instance, let’s say you recorded a rhythm guitar by micing an amplifier.
Does your recorded waveform look like this?
This last waveform is the most ideal of the three.
Recording a full, beefy signal that still leaves some headroom, and is NOT clipping, is where it all starts.
Clipping is what happens in that second waveform picture above, when your signal hits the maximum value that any signal-processing device can handle. The signal slams into the “ceiling” and is clipped off to avoid overload.
This creates audible distortions that can pile up in your mix, and besides making it sound quite shitty, can also collectively reduce the perceived loudness.
Avoid clipping like the plague!
You have to check the strength and integrity of your signal at every stage along the way to the recording software.
Is your amp or other sound source set to an optimal loudness?
Is the microphone used to capture this sound source dialed in to include as much signal as possible without clipping?
If you’re recording instruments direct, check the input meter of your audio interface—is it hitting the red (clipping), or is it sitting comfortably in the top portion of the “green zone” and peaking no higher than yellow?
There is something called signal to noise ratio (SNR) that directly relates to gain staging and ultimately great sounding tracks.
Every signal carrying device (guitar pick-ups and output jack, amplifier, microphone, pre-amp, instrument cable, FX unit, audio interface, etc.) has an inherent amount of background noise.
The amount of actual signal being passed through a device (the sound of your guitar, your voice) compared to the amount of background noise defines the SNR.
You control the amount of signal by adjusting the amount of gain or volume on your device/instrument. This also increases the noise just a bit, but only by a small fraction of the signal.
And remember too much gain can lead to clipping!
You need to get as much of the signal as you can along every step of the way so that the noise does not dominate the SNR.
So, just remember two things, really:
- Too much signal and you get unwanted clipping.
- Not enough signal and you get more noise to work with during mixing than good, usable signal.
If you’ve got your gain staging right, consider this topic mastered!
There’s a helluva lot we can still do in the mixing stage …
2. Filter Out the Hungry Low Freqs
When mixing your track, be aware that frequencies below about 125 Hz are very hungry energy hogs.
This means that they eat up a lot of the headroom, constitute a big part of the overall volume, but contribute a lot less to the sound or character that is actually heard.
Some instruments have characteristic frequencies on the low end, like bass guitar and kick drums, that really are critical for filling out the bottom end of your track.
On many other instruments, these lower frequencies can be filtered out completely, because they are non-essential to that instrument’s character.
Make sure you are using a low-cut (aka high-pass) filter to block all of the low frequency junk that contributes nothing to a particular instrument.
For example, try completely filtering out the lowest, most unimportant frequencies in the following instruments:
- Synth Pads, Leads, Pianos and Keys
- Shakers/Tambourines etc.
You’ll need to use your ears to determine where the cut off point is between non-essential and characteristic frequencies.
If things start to sound thin or odd, you’re taking too much of the lower end resonance off.
Keep trying and tweaking, you’ll get it.
Filtering out the low frequency mess in those instruments can leave room for a fuller, more pronounced bass and kick, and lets you drive the entire track considerably louder when mastering without the useless low-freq garbage overloading the limiter.
3. Dynamic Discipline
While mixing a song, watch your master output meter level as you play it back.
Is the only thing causing clipping that damned snare drum hit? Is it, like, +8 dB over the ceiling (0 dB) when every other instrument track is peaking at -3 dB max?
If one or more of your instruments are playing problem child—spiking up way above the volume of the rest of the song’s instrumentation—spank them hard!
Sometimes an entire frequency range can have a frequency “pile up”, where some instruments just overlap and create a lot of energy together.
Using a multiband compressor on the entire track during mastering can help you target specific frequency ranges to apply compression to, and tame the build-up.
Compressing instruments properly in the mixing stage is going to allow you to bring the bulk of that instrument’s volume up without pesky peaks clipping every other beat!
A a consequence, you’ll be able to drive the loudness of the entire track up a little further during mastering.
4. Perceived Loudness
Our ears are very sensitive to the range between 3 kHz and 4 kHz.
Check out this super-nerdy graph from one of my favorite physics websites, if ya don’t believe me!
With an EQ on your Master Output, arm a bell band with a Q value of about 0.30-0.75, and gently boost that 3 kHz to 4 kHz range.
Use your ears to find the exact spot to center the band.
You shouldn’t have to boost by any more than 1.5 to 2.5 dB to hear the difference in perceived loudness.
Another way is to add a bit of distortion or saturation (which produces some harmonics) in the 3 kHz – 4 kHz range.
Try out a very mild, mostly transparent saturation distortion plug-in and see what you get!
Fancy saturation plug-ins, like FabFilter’s Saturn, allow you to select specific frequency bands to generate distortion in.
The Bedroom Producer’s Blog has a nice list of FREE saturation plug-ins to check out.
If you don’t immediately hear the track increase in “loudness” using either the EQ or saturation methods, this frequency range may already be adequate enough in terms of energy.
Be careful with these tricks.
That 3 kHz -4 kHz band is a very sensitive range of our hearing, as I said, and too much of a boost can easily make the track sound harsh, unnatural and fatiguing.
Just a touch!
5. Last Stop – The Limiter
At the mastering stage, relying too much on the limiter to bring your mix up in loudness is a big mistake.
You will usually wind up with a harsh, slammed sounding mix that can easily fatigue the listener.
You also sacrifice lots of micro-dynamic information by slamming the track to the roof for the sake of sounding louder (remember, louder does not equal better).
A good little rule of thumb I picked up is to monitor how much limiting is going on by examining the output meter on your Limiter.
If you are consistently pegging above -4 dB, you may be applying too much make-up gain with the limiter.
If you are cracking that -4 dB limiting level, try to see if there is anything more that can be done in the first 4 tips listed above!
This is why, as a self-produced artist, I like to combine mixing and mastering into one process, because I can still access the multi-track stems and encourage loudness from the inside out.
When is it Loud Enough?
Take into account the following things as you ask yourself “is my track loud enough?”:
- Does it sound like it is being smashed to pieces?
- Are you losing the subtle micro-dynamics?
- Are the drums losing punch, are the guitars bleeding into the drums and everything starting to smear and roar?
- If it doesn’t sound like it can breathe or it sounds like it is not open anymore, back off on the loudness!
- How does it compare to a professional song?
- Continue to A/B your song/mix to a pro tune (preferably one that is not overly loud itself).
- If you feel like there is a glaring deficiency in loudness in your work compared to theirs, then reevaluate the above steps to see if you can do more.
- If your track is sounding great, breathing well, balanced, but is maybe just a little less loud—don’t worry about it! Time to move on. You have reached the loudness potential of that song. Do not crush your track for the sake of getting it just that extra bit louder! If your music is great, people will crank it!
- What does my metering tell me?
- When you’re mixing or mastering, placing a metering plugin on your Master Output channel is a great practice!
- One of the values I like to pay attention to is RMS (root mean square), which is a bit like “how loud your song is on average within a given time-frame”.
- Other parameters are gaining more attention these days (like LUFs, etc.), which you can read all about here on Ian Shephard’s wonderful blog.
- However, I’m sticking with RMS for my own purposes. I like to keep my RMS between -10 and -8 dB, and the track will usually fall down to -14 or -12 dB during a softer segment.
If you don’t have a good metering plug-in, check out Melda Productions’ great free bundle including an all-around analyzer here:
- There is no concrete loudness value you need to adhere to, just know when you have crossed the line between your song sounding nice, present, open and full, and sounding squashed into distorted bits of sh!t.
Easy Does It
Without re-igniting the fires of the Loudness Wars, I do advocate for a healthy degree of loudness in your songs, but not so much that it becomes fatiguing to listen to (like so much of modern metal and of course, pop music).
I hope this helps you to engineer a louder track without sacrificing quality. Let me know if this has been useful to you!