Competing in the Loudness War

Is loud good?

Caution ⚠️

I know I’m opening a can of worms with this topic. The Loudness Wars debate goes back almost three decades. So I can’t guarantee that this will please everyone, but it’s simply an attempt at defining the boundaries and limitations of mixing for a loud medium. As I write this post, I will summon various interviews I’ve watched over the years from professional producers and engineers on the topic of loudness. With that said, let’s get loud!

No Surprises

I remember seeing an interview with Manny Marroquin where someone asked how to achieve loud mixes without inheriting unwanted artifacts. Manny’s response was that one shouldn’t “add” a limiter after they finish their mix. But the limiter should be active while mixing. In other words, don’t spend 20 hours perfecting your mix and expect the limiter to be completely transparent. Yes, adding a limiter after you’re finished mixing will affect the individual elements in your mix. Therefore, use a limiter as a “listen tool” so that your mix decisions complement what the limiting.

Use the limiter as a “listen tool”

Another approach is stem limiting. In fact, the Brainworx bx_limiter is called exactly that! The idea here is to apply small amounts of limiting to your groups (vocals, synths, drums, bass, guitars, etc..) so that the overall mix appears louder. With this approach you can add the limiter(s) at the end of the signal chain and boost about 1-3dB of gain to each group, making the whole track appear louder.

Lossy Codecs

Two questions I ask my clients are 1.) am I delivering WAV and MP3 formats? 2.) who is the target audience? If the client is a Hip Hop talent who’s fanbase will be listening through earbuds and Bluetooth speakers, then I know the drums need to pop through the mix. I work hard at making the low end appear loud on small speakers. If the client sends me an acoustic recording and will be printing CD’s then I can be more conservative with loudness. In each of these scenarios, I know what to aim for.

If you don’t know what you’re shooting for then you won’t know when you’ve hit the mark.

iZotope, Sonnox, and Nugen Audio offer software solutions that allow you to “audition” your mix through lossy formats – YouTube, MP3, AAC, Spotify, Pandora, Tidal. In my video, I use iZotope Ozone 7 for this exercise. Listening through the MP3 format while adjusting volume and EQ changes is a wonderful thing because it shows you how far you can go.

Try this exercise:

  1. Setup a brick wall limiter to make your mix louder
  2. Enable MP3 listen mode
  3. Apply a high-shelf boost to your mix until you hear harshness, then back down the gain boost.

Working around these limitations help to define the sonic boundaries in your mix. Therefore, you have all the freedom you want within these boundaries, but when you surpass them, know that there will be consequences.

Push it to Eleven

I was reading an article on Sound on Sound where Morten Pilegaard described how he added +2dB of gain boost AFTER the limiter. In his own words, this is what he states:

After the L2 [limiter] there’s a final Trim that boosts another 2dB. The L2 doesn’t quite get it up to zero, and the more you pull the threshold down on the L2, the more crunchy it gets, and sometimes you can’t pull it any lower, because it starts to add too much distortion. Pilegaard: “Does that mean that you have your L2 at 0dB [ceiling], and after that you are gaining to 2dB on the overall signal? So I guess that your peak level is 2dB over zero, so you’re overloading the converters when the music is at maximum?”

Bowers: “That is correct. Part of the whole modern sound is how far can we go into the realm of distortion. That sound is part of what people want to hear on records now. You take that away and it just doesn’t sound current. (June 2016)

Did that just blow your mind?!? 😮

It took me about a week to digest this new information and experiment with it. To my surprise, even though my DAW was telling me “you’re clipping” “abort ship” when I played back the bounced file on my phone, laptop, and Bluetooth speakers – guess what? – there was NO audible distortion!

Play Time

Try this yourself:

  1. User a limiter with the ceiling set to 0dB
  2. Adjust the threshold until its loud but not distorting
  3. Add a trim plug-in AFTER the limiter
  4. Set the gain somewhere between 0-2dB
  5. Export your mix and play it back on your phone

In my case, Studio One was warning me that the file had digital clipping. But when I played the file back on my laptop speakers, there was no audible clipping or distortion.I can’t give you a scientific explanation on this. I personally believe that the converters of CD players and MP3 players when they first came out were very poor on handling loudness. Therefore, we’ve been taught that the ceiling on a limiter should not surpass -.3dBFS. However, after applying this exercise of adding +2dB of gain after the limiter didn’t result in any audible distortion when playing back my file on consumer audio players. It’s still a new territory for me so that’s all I will say about it for now.

I can’t give you a scientific explanation on this. I personally believe that the converters of CD players and MP3 players when they first came out were very poor on handling loudness. Therefore, we’ve been taught that the ceiling on a limiter should not surpass -.3dBFS. However, adding +2dB of gain after the limiter didn’t result in any audible distortion when playing back my file on consumer audio players. It’s still a new territory for me so that’s all I will say about it for now. It’s still a new territory for me so that’s all I will say about it for now.

In closing, I’ve given you some hidden gems for you to try on your own mixes. I’d love to hear your thoughts below on whether this was a success or failure. Look forward to your comments!

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