One of the most asked questions I get is “Why are my mixes so quiet?”
This simple question has a slightly more complex answer. But don’t be afraid. When you are done reading this article I am confident you will have improved the quality and loudness of your mixdowns by at least 50% (just a wild guess!).
The trick to getting your music as loud as the pros lies in 2 fundamental concepts. Balance, and Dynamics. Once you achieve a good balance and learn to control the dynamics of your sounds – a nice fat, loud mix becomes easy to achieve. You should also note that a huge part of getting a loud mix is having a well-composed track with sounds that fill out the frequency spectrum and fit well together. So if your track is badly composed, mixing it will be a nightmare and getting it loud will be damn near impossible.
In this article, we will go over 5 techniques that will help in controlling the dynamics of your mixes. Make sure to read our article – Basic Wavez Ultimate Guide to Professional Mixdowns to make sure you have a firm grasp on how to achieve balance through setting your levels correctly.
What is Dynamic Range?
Dynamic Range is simply the difference in loudness between the peak, or the loudest part of a sound, and the quietest part.
If you look at the following example of the waveform of this 909 clap, you can see the peak is hitting at around 0db while the body of the clap is around -10db and decays to around -32db. This difference is what we refer to as the Dynamic Range of a sound.
Why do we want to reduce Dynamic Range?
If we want to make this clap louder, simply turning up the gain won’t work as this will cause the peak to go over 0db and we will get some nasty sounding digital clipping. But what if we could turn up everything AFTER the initial peak of the waveform so that only the body and tail of the clap went up in volume? This would make the clap sound a lot louder while the peak is still sitting just under 0db. In doing this we are reducing the dynamic range of the sound and making it louder without actually increasing the peak loudness at all.
Here is the clap before and after some limiting was applied in order to turn up the volume of the body and tail without turning up the initial peak.
If you look at both of these claps on your mixer channel, they will both be peaking at 0dB, however, the second one is very noticeably louder than the first.
One of the most powerful mixing tools we have in our arsenal is saturation. It can be used to distort sounds, add harmonics to make them richer and warmer, add interest, and most importantly reduce dynamic range in a way that sounds great. There are many different forms of saturation but for this example, I am going to be using a form of saturation called soft clipping.
What is clipping?
Clipping happens when the peak of a waveform exceeds the maximum volume that a device is able to accurately reproduce. In the analog realm this maximum capacity is defined by the maximum voltage the given device can output, so what it will do in this case is simply output the sound at its maximum capacity and no louder.
What is the difference between soft clipping and digital clipping?
Soft clippers are modelled to react in the same way as the analog circuitry. Soft clipping will still reproduce the peak of the waveform, but it does so at its maximum capacity, so what we see when a sound is pushed past the maximum threshold, is a squared-off peak, and what we hear is nice warm distortion in the form of added harmonics, caused by squaring off of the waveform.
With digital clipping, when a peak exceeds maximum capacity it simply cannot be reproduced at all. This causes the peak to be cut off harshly, there is no smoothness or rounding off of the corners of the clipped peak. This is what causes the harsh, abrasive qualities of a digitally clipped waveform.
How do we use a soft clipper to reduce dynamic range?
The act of driving a peak over the maximum threshold will cause the quieter part of the sound to be louder, thereby reducing dynamic range and making the sound louder. The added benefit of this is that we get some extra harmonics which give the sound more character and fullness.
So to put it simply, all you need to do is put a soft clipper on what ever sound you are working on and increase the drive until you hear it distort, you can then dial it back a bit until you hear the distortion go away, or if you like the sound of the distortion, keep it.
Imagine we put a soft clipper on every single sample in our project, I’m not saying you should do this, but if you did, the accumulative effects would increase the maximum loudness of your mix drastically.
Let’s test this out.
I have created a drum pattern with a kick, clap, hats, and percussion. Now I am going to turn up the gain so that the peaks are hitting 0db. Let’s measure the loudness using 2 common measurements – RMS and LUFS.
Listen to how it sounds:
And we can see this coming in at around -14 LUFS/ -15.5RMS:
Now I have added a soft clipper to the drum bus. The soft clipper is being pushed pretty hard, the peaks are being clipped by about 4-5 dB, I pushed it to a point just before we begin to hear the distortion become prominent.
Let’s look at the change in RMS and LUFS. We see an increase of about 5dB on both measurements. While the peaks remain just under 0dB.
Listen to the difference in loudness and sound quality:
The effectiveness and the added character you get from saturation is the reason why it is my favourite tool for reducing dynamic range and increasing loudness.
Not all saturation plugins are equal, each one adds harmonics in different ways and will give different character to your sounds, so be sure to experiment with different plugins. I love Ableton’s Glue Compressor which has a built in soft clipper, I also love Decapitator by Sound Toys.
Another tool that is great for controlling dynamics is Multiband Compression. It allows for you to split the sound into multiple different frequency bands and then compress them individually. If you don’t understand compression yet, I suggest reading our guide to compression and then coming back to this post.
For the context of this article, I am talking about Multiband Compression as it would be used on your master channel. I am also speaking from my own experience of mastering 100s of songs and really getting to know and develop an intuition for multiband compression. Most mastering engineers will tell you to stay far away from multiband compression as it can easily do more harm than good, but I would rather learn how to use properly it as it can do wonders for tightening up a mix and controlling the dynamics of it.
I will typically create 4 bands. The first one will be from 0 to around 110Hz. This isn’t exact as it depends on the mix, but what you want is for the first band to be catching all the sub notes and your kick, so If your highest sub fundamental hits at 80hHz and your kick at 55hHz, then you can probably set your subband further down to around 95Hz. The second band would be to control the low mids and mids around 120-700Hz. The third band would be around 700 – 10kHz. And the final band would be for 10kHz and up.
Now, what I’ll typically do is find a reference track, one in the same key as mine and in a similar style. I’ll drop it into my project and copy the multiband compressor over to that channel.
Make sure that the reference track is not being routed through the master channel as it will then be affected by your mastering chain. We can now solo the sub band on the reference track and listen to how the kick and sub are interacting.
A well-mixed kick and sub will have some separation and you will be able to clearly hear and feel the thump of the kick, it should not be masked by the other instruments, if it is, I suggest going back to the mix and checking that the sub is side chained properly to the kick.
You can then pay attention to the volume of the kick sub vs the volume of the instrument sub. If they aren’t in a similar range then you can go and correct this in the mix down by increasing or decreasing volume.
However, sometimes we are happy with how the sub sounds and we don’t want to turn it up and down in volume. We can then use the compressor to tighten them up. I will typically set the threshold to around 3db below the peak of the kick and sub, with a ratio of about 2:1 or maybe a bit more.
Depending on the track I will set a long attack if I want to emphasize transients or a shorter attack if I want to decrease them a bit. There’s no correct way to set these parameters so you will have to do this by listening and adjusting them until you get the desired result.
For the midrange bands, I will do the same but generally just 1-2db of gain reduction. If there’s anything jumping out and peaking in these ranges then you can address them in the mix, but again, use the compressor to solo the band and compare it to your reference track. Check how loud the midrange is as opposed to the sub-range. If for example, your Sub is hitting -16 RMS and your mid-range is hitting -22 RMS, but the reference track is hitting -16 RMS and -19RMS, then you know you can probably compress the midrange a bit harder and bring the loudness up.
For the 10kHz range and up I want to talk about upward compression?
We know how normal compression works, if something crosses the threshold it reduces the gain.
Upward compression works by increasing the loudness of all sounds below a certain threshold.
With the 10kHz band on my multiband compressor I use upward compression to emphasize transients, to allow them to cut through the mix.
If you set your compressor up so that the range is at +3-6 dB and then set your threshold to the peak of your loudest transients, the compressor will only kick in when sounds hit threshold, everything else is being increased by +3 to 6 dB or whatever your compressors range is set to. If you set the attack to be longer, then the transients will be able to cross the threshold before the compressor is able to react to them and that’s how the transients get emphasized.
The reason I do this is because top end above 10kHz or so can tend to get really cloudy or messy. When we use this method of compression, we are squashing down the tail of the sounds and really tightening them up, which helps to create clarity in the top end. So while this doesn’t necessarily directly contribute to the loudness of your mix, it does allow you to push the mix louder and keep the top end clean to some extent.
A limiter works like a compressor with an infinite ratio. Meaning it will never let anything cross its threshold. I seldom use limiters in my mixes but one thing I do use them for is a final loudness push on my mastering chain.
After everything has been saturated, downward compressed, upward compressed, and balanced I will run it into a limiter to make sure nothing is going over 0db. My favourite limiter is iZotope Ozone 8’s IRC IV Limiter.
I like it because it allows me to push it relatively hard – I routinely get it to around 4-5 dB of gain reduction without really noticing any distortion or loss in quality. It also has a “true peak” toggle which, when enabled will control ISP (Inter Sample Peaking), which is essentially just increasing the number of samples in the waveform to prevent any undetected samples that may have crossed the threshold.
My process for setting up the limiter is really just driving the limiter until I can hear it affecting the mix, then I back off on it a bit. I might play with the character slider but I generally have it more on the fast side, around 1.5 to 3.
I recommend checking out iZotope’s guide to mastering which covers limiting and compression.
Thanks for reading and if you want to share any of your own tips or have any questions please let me know in the comments!