It’s been amazing to watch the average volume on CD’s progress over the years; so much so, that dynamic ranges of music today are, as Bob Katz says; as squashed as they were on the original Edison Cylinder over 100 years ago. With a desire to “make your CD louder than anyone else’s”, no matter what tricks are used, it’s at the expense of dynamic range, which to me, is integral to what can make music so, well; musical.
The bottom line is that in today’s digital world, nothing can go over 0db.
So, what mastering engineers used to do was trim off some ultra lows and/or apply compression very carefully in order to make your LP or CD “louder”, but while preserving the musicality of the dynamic range as much as possible. Now, there are any number of “limiting” and “maximizing” plug-ins that often have only two controls; Input (Limiting Amount), and Output Volume, and I’ve never heard anything more abused in the world of music than these two controls. And those are also the kinds of tools that I find so frustrating; it makes it seem as though anyone with a few plug-ins can master records, but, as Ive’ said before; few things could be further from the truth.
In essence, the “Limiting Amount” control is telling the computer how many db to raise the overall perceived volume of your music, but at the direct expense of your dynamic range by using a Brickwall Limiter. Since you can’t go over 0db, the only thing you can do is bring the loud and quiet parts of your music closer to each other, raising the overall perceived level, which makes it seem louder to our ears.
But, especially when entire albums are mastered this way, it’s actually fatiguing to the ear and the brain, and ends up being extremely unpleasant over even short periods of time. Yes, we can make your CD sound just as loud as the loudest CD anyone has ever heard here at the Playground, but honestly, your music will sound so much bigger and louder if you DON’T make the CD as loud as is possible. We never get something for nothing, and few things are more true than when mastering music.
And this is where a “secret” trick of mastering engineers often provides what is often a critical step in the mastering process: recording onto analog ½” tape. Because of the built-in soft limiting that analog tape is renown for, it’s possible to get an average of 6db more volume from a mix put to analog tape! In other words, even though the original digital master and the one re-recorded from analog tape will show the same level on a set of meters, the music from the analog tape will appear to be 6db louder.
Then, when transferring from analog tape back to digital, this is where one of my favorite pieces of audio gear comes in: The ultra-clean A/D converters on the WEISS ADC2 and their built in “soft-limiting” preamps (Crane Song’s STC-8 does something similar). I’ve done countless A/B tests of the soft limiting on the WEISS ADC2 and compared it to plug-ins such as Waves’ Ultramaximizer or the Massey L2007 when working with music in desperate need of increased volume, and the analog ½” tape and ADC2 combination, applied in the proper situations, can be unbeatable in terms of transparency and sheer volume.
The McDSP Analog Channel mixed with the Massey L2007 can often do a good job of mimicking the analog take and re-converting to digital when staying in the digital realm, but that’s the only combination of plug-ins that get me what I’m looking for.
So, as we try to stress in multiple places in the Mastering Blog, remember these two critical details when mixing down your music:
1. Never let the Master Fader go into the red, especially if you’re recording in 24-bit. And preferably, don’t let the level raise to any more than -3db at any point in the mix. Many people believe that you need to use as many of the “24-bits” as you can, but the truth is that with 24-bit recording, you can lower the volume by 48db before it matches the Signal to Noise Ratio of a 16-bit recording. And, cranking the level in whatever system you’re using can actually be detrimental to the sound, because many converters can’t handle 0db without introducing artifacts and distortion that become vividly apparent when getting to the mastering house. Remember, you want the cleanest and most transparent sounding mix you can get, so leave any volume adjustments to the mastering engineer and the devices and techniques specifically designed for this exact thing.
2. Never ever “Normalize” your tracks, especially if it’s the entire mix. Not only are you introducing further processing into your mix, but you are inviting quantization errors and digital artifacts. Again, even if we receive mixes that only peak at -10db, 9 times out of 10, it will end up sounding better than mixes that reached 0db or hit the “red” once or twice during mixdown.
Remember, worrying about Noise Floors was a factor in analog, but now with digital, there is no tape hiss and the Noise Floors of A/D and D/A converters of high quality gear is way below that of any of the amps, mics, effects, room noise, and preamps that you used to record your material in the first place.