How to Make Your Mix Sound Louder Without Destroying Sonic Quality

Firstly, you have to realize that loudness is genre dependent and not every track needs to sound loud and thick. Obviously there are 2 stages when you can make your track sound loud.

 

 

Mixing stage and mastering stage

It is always good idea to have your song mastered in a professional mastering studio. The most prominent and successful mastering engineers have years of experience, trained ears and necessary knowledge how to use the sophisticated mastering processing gear. Mastering is very important final step, and any respectable mastering engineer will tell you that even a professional mastering studio with extremely skilled engineers and the best equipment and facilities won’t be able to make a bad mix sound really loud and clean. Therefor firstly you have to learn to cover the ground on the mixdown department, so the mastering can take your mix to totally another level.

 

Using quality samples and recordings

You have to have a decent listening environment, so you can make decision what is a good quality and what isn’t. Then you will easily learn to know a good quality sound when you hear one. It is all about training you ears – daily practice will get you there. When you hear sound, tend to listen for the low and high ends especially – do they sound clean and crisp? Are there any unwanted noises? Another important thing to listen to is the dynamics. Are they intact?

 

Learn compression and don’t ruin your tracks with too much limiting

People often think that compression is a magic pill that will help sound everything good and loud. Sure, compression is a great tool, but you have to learn how to use it properly. General rule of any compression is to use low ratios and to avoid short attack times. Short attack time usually kill audio. To avoid over-compressing your mixes you should remember, that the higher the ratio, the higher the threshold should be. Never forget, that heavy compression is always audible. Better idea is to use compression gently at different stages of recording and mixing. Also if you want to go for loudness, it is beneficial to learn how multiband and parallel compression works.

 

Saturation

Saturation is very powerful and often overlooked tool. By adding little bit of saturation to individual channels you can drive your mix a tiny bit louder. It is always worthy to experiment with saturation – different plugins give you different results. You can add saturation to bass track, tape saturation work excellent for drums. Saturation in any form adds harmonics to the sound. The perceived volume is raised as natural compression with little bit of limiting. These combined effects add up to what could be called ‘fatness’ or a ‘warm’ analogue feel. Remember that saturated audio should still sound clean and not distorted.

 

Be careful with bass

Bass is usually taking lot of energy in the mix. It is always good idea to use low-cut filter to stop very low frequencies to get out of control. If you want to be sure what’s going on there, use a spectrum analyzer!

 

Balance your EQ

If your mix is unbalanced, it will never sound loud. In other words – balance is everything. For total loudness of your mix is very important to have balanced your Mids and Hi-Mids area. Our ear hearing is very sensitive in the 2kHz region – you can always use this trick to make guitars and drums sound loud and aggressive without pushing up the average level.

 

At the end of the day don’t worry about loudness too much. As you will practice with mixing and as your ears will be more trained, your mixdowns will get better and louder as a byproduct. Also with more practice you will develop your musical instincts: you will be able to trust your intuition while making a decisions.

Music production tutorials that will help you with mixing

music production tips and tricks

Let’s face it out,  Grammy Award winning mixing engineer Dave Pensado is not only great music producer, sound engineer and mixer responsible for countless hit songs played on the radio charts (Beyonce, Mary J. Blige, Pink, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, etc…), but also with his weekly show PensadoPlace which is dedicated to mixing & engineering techniques he is a great tutor and teacher.  For those who haven’t seen his show so far, it is a MUST! You will love this guy.

His weekly show consists of two parts; from episodes – interviews with many famous and prominent people behind the music industry (mixer, sound engineers, artists, etc…) speaking about various angles of music production and Into the Liar section, that is something like How to guide – he shares and explains there various mixing techniques, tips, tricks, hints and other aspects of his work in details. If you don’t know where to start when it comes to learning music production, this is definitely the place, that will keep you busy for a few weeks/months. Dave is a very humble guy and shares basically everything what he does in his work. I learnt a lot just by watching them and always when I’m frustrated with my dull mixes, just by watching these videos it always gets me inspired. Here is the selection of my favorites Daves Into the Liar music production videos. You can start with these videos, and then check out more when you have time! 

 

Working with low frequencies

This is alfa and omega when you want to have a nice and clean mix with readable and powerful low-end. You have to learn how to work with low frequencies.

I don’t carve frequencies, I just mess with it until it sounds good

Dave explains his tips in these great videos: working with low frequencies, using filters when mixing bass and how to get great bass track. More bass tips >>

 

Using Compression

Sometimes it is a good idea to use instead of compressor tape emulation or saturation. However, if you don’t know where to start, you have to watch this video about compression techniques and  advanced parallel compression technique.  Dave also recommends you to experiment with presets as a starting point – advantages of presets are, that usually they are designed by professionals, so there is a big chance you will get them work in your music production. This is another great music production tutorial about compressions and audio compression ratios.

Always focus on emotion and energy in your track, rather than the technical aspect. Be careful with compression, because when used in a bad way, it can take your track down.

Using EQ in front of the compressor you will get a good clean signal to work with. To tune the color of the material, use EQ after compressor. Read more on compression here >>

 

Train you hearing, use reference mixes!

When you are new to music production it is a common thing that you will struggle with understanding or hearing compression, EQ, applying reverberations. Usually it takes a long time to learn how to hear the difference. Dave once told a story that he started to mix as a older guy – in his 30s, but first 3 years of his job he was dedicating 2-3 hours daily only to listening others mixes. Sooner you start with training you ear, sooner you will be able to use it in a proper way. Don’t get discouraged – every skill is trainable.   Inspire yourself by watching these 2 Dave’s videos about ear training. Also remember, it is important to listen reference mixes while making your own music production. It is always good idea to place reference song within your project, so you can quickly access it and use A/B comparison. Use your own invention! Don’t try to simply copy/paste your reference track. Reference track is a good for use of checking the levels of various elements, looking for the dull spots in the song, etc…

Referencing is a short cut way to taking a break. It refreshes your brain because we tend to get used to what we hear, and lose objectivity in the process.

Learn how to use reference mixes from Dave.

 

On PensadoPlace there are many other short episodes, that can help you with your mixing skills. Which is your favorites one? Share your thoughts in comments.

 

Compression and limiting — practical applications

dynamic compressor pultec

As we have seen the main job of a compressor is to reduce the dynamic range of the audio material it is applied to. Peaks are reducedand quiet sounds are more audible. The main effect is to give a more stable overall levelbut an added density or thickness to the sound and enhanced character or ‘warmth” can be welcome side effects. There can be trade-offs though. Over-compression can increase unwanted noise that is not part of the musical signal such as breaths, rustling paper and fret noise or it can increase room ambience. If you have recorded in a great sounding room this is not necessarily a problem but if you’re recording in a home environment you’ll probably want as little of the room sound as possible so as to add a nice convolution reverb later. Badly applied compression can also introduce audible ‘pumping’ which is not usually desirable unless you want it for a special effect.

On the plus side again though you can affect the amplitude envelope of a sound by adjusting the attack and release times of a compressor. This means you can enhance (or for that matter, reduce) the front end crack of a snare or the click part of a bass drum, or you could bring out the sustain part of notes on acoustic, or clean electric guitar. If your compressor is quite transparent and you want to hear more effect as a general rule use a faster attack, a shorter release and a higher ratio. If you’re after a smooth compression sound use a soft knee approach but if you need tighter control and a more obvious effect go for the hard-knee option.

 

Drums

The impact of drums can be changed dramatically through the use of carefully applied compression. By nature drums have a large transient peak followed by a quieter “body” sound. Compressing the transients will make the kit seem louder but it is easy to squash the life out of it too by eliminating the crack in the sound completely! A slowish attack time will let though this initial crack so that you retain some life in the sound (possibly peak Limiting will be needed to prevent overload). The decay of a drum will be altered by the release control: with a slow release you will get a bit less of the “body” part of each drum sound since the gain will still be at a reduced level. A fast release will seem to extend the sustain, the natural decay being in effect faded up. A possible use for a slow release is to subdue an over bright and rattly snare. On the other hand if you have a snare that needs to be fattened up a bit and perhaps you’d like to hear more of those rattly snares then a fast release will bring up those sounds (and the noise too unfortunately) after the initial compression of the snare’s attack. Compressing the drum overheads will tend to make the room character more noticeable. If your recording environment did not flatter the sound then it might be better to use less compression on the overheads and use a good room ambience on the close-miced dry kit sounds. If you have made a stereo audio subgroup for your drum kit it often makes sense to apply some overall compression (or even limiting) at this stage to help gel the sounds together and present the kit as a coherent instrument in its own right rather than as a set of individually played disparate elements.

Bass

This is one area where you can be quite aggressive with your compression, as bass tends to fluctuate in level by considerable amounts. It is important for your whole mix for the energy levels in the low frequencies to be as smoothly controlled as possible especially if you’re using a mix compressor and you want to avoid pumping artifacts on the mix bus. Bass compression will fatten up the tone and prevent more quietly played notes from getting lost. High ratios of up to 10:1 are not uncommon for bass depending on the playing style and quality of the performance. You can also adjust the attack and the release times, of course, to enhance or reduce front-end click on the bass as desirable.

Guitars

Acoustic and clean electric guitars also tend to benefit from compression. They often sound smoother and fatter and, if the release is fairly short with a high ratio, it will bring out the sustain, If you want to enhance the initial transient, just as for drums, you can use a slower attack time to let it through. For slighty distorted guitars, compression can help to increase sustain. With a heavily distorted sound there is unlikely to be much dynamic range anyway since the process of overdriving an amp or using a distortion pedal limits the output in itself. So there’s not a lot of point in using compression here. It is more likely to bring up the level of unwanted noise or hiss during any pauses.

Vocals

Compression is widely used on vocals in rock and pop mixes. Rock and pop backing tracks tend to be quite powerful with up front drums, guitars and bass. The voice is a comparatively subtle instrument prone to large changes in dynamics as a result of, the singer’s expressiveness. Therefore, in order for the voice to sit comfortably in this kind of mix, the engineer will generally use some compression to bring down the peaks, even out the sound and thereby raise the average signal level. This results in a tighter, punchier and more confident sound for the vocalist. Compression can also help with unwanted level changes due to poor microphone technique.

As always the settings you choose will depend on the vocal performance and musical style, as a rule of thumb try adjusting the threshold so that the quiet parts are not compressed. This should help to avoid completely flattening all the expression in a performance through over compression. Ratio’s of between 1.5:1 and 6:1 are usually sufficient with attack times of around 1ms to 10ms and a releases of around 80 to 150ms as starting points. These figures are just a rough guide — you can always try out some of the presets that come with your software compressor and adjust from there. Try to work out why the programmers have chosen particular settings for a particular vocal style. Remember your ears are always the best judge.

Remember too that different parts of the song may have elicited different vocal styles from the performer. So you may need to use different settings, or indeed different compressors, in the chorus as compared to the verse. This can be done through automation or by chopping up the audio file and putting the verse vocal on one track and the chorus vocal on another.

If you have a selection of compressors, either internal, outboard or both it’s a good idea to try them out on vocals, as this is where differences between models can come to light. For example the UREI1176 – which is widely available in software form – tends to be quite transparent — evening out the levels without making the process obvious even with quite heavy compression- whereas certain units, such as the Joe Meek ones, deliberately introduce ‘character’ to the sound. Neither one is best. Different material will require different approaches – it’s a matter of personal taste. Ideally it’s good to have both ‘character’ and ‘transparent’ styles of compressor in your armoury.

As we noted earlier backing vocals are often grouped together for level control and processing in a stereo audio subgroup. Very often compression, EQ, and possibly limiting are applied at this stage. If computer-processing power is an issue then grouping multi-tracked BVs and adding compression at this stage can be a valuable way to save resources. Even if you are