I get this question a lot.
What can I do to make my music sound louder?
Well, there’s lots – in fact most things you do when making music affect loudness somehow.
Loudness is genre dependent and not everything needs to sound loud and thick. I think the ongoing loudness trend has made music in general sound increasingly worse, and I don’t aim to make the loudest music personally. I prefer my music to have some dynamics.
However, there is a time and place for this stuff, so for the purposes of this post we shall forget the debate. We’ll purely concentrate on how to beef things up.
We need to understand there are two different processes at play when we are trying to make a track loud: the production/mixdown stage and the mastering. It’s always better if you can get your music mastered at a professional mastering studio. But most of us will be doing their own mastering in any case, even if it’s only for testing tunes out in the field before the actual mastering. So for the context of this post I will be talking a little bit about DIY mastering as well.
Now, it’s perfectly normal not to have your tunes quite as loud as commercial releases. Of course the mix has everything to do with loudness, but commercial releases are also professionally mastered. Professional mastering studios have extremely skilled engineers and the best equipment and facilities that money can buy. It’s hard if not impossible to match that combination in a DIY situation. Remember this when comparing your music to commercial releases.
Having said that, even a professional mastering studio won’t be able to make a bad mixdown sound really loud and clean. So learn to cover your ground on the mixdown department, but cut yourself some slack when it comes to DIY mastering. And please, don’t ruin your tracks with too much limiting.
Okay – let’s get to it: 7 tips for achieving louder tracks.
1. Use good quality sounds
The quality of the samples you are using is the quality of your mixdown’s foundation. This especially goes for the drums. With messy sounds you will never achieve a loud mix. Ever. So make sure you’re covered on that department.
How to tell if something is of good quality? If you have a decent listening environment, you will learn to know a good quality sound when you hear one. It’s hard to explain in writing but I tend to listen for the low and high ends especially – are they clean and crisp? Another important thing to listen to is the dynamics. Are they intact? If you’re new to making music, just train your ears and you will get better at it.
The best way for me to get quality sounds is to get them from a trusted source. These days I use the Wave Alchemy Complete Drums sample pack a lot. I can really recommend this pack to anyone looking for a serious drum sample pack. These sounds stand beautifully on their own, but are also great for layering with breakbeats for example. And I never have to worry about the quality. You should also check the Gold Baby sample packs which are absolutely fat.
2. Learn Compression
Notice I am saying LEARN compression – not USE compression?
People often seem to think compression is the magic pill for making everything loud. Yes, compression is a great tool but if used unwisely it will do you more harm than good.
You must spend time experimenting with compression and learning to hear the difference each setting makes. Eventually you will start to understand how to shape the dynamics to your liking.
For loudness, it’s especially beneficial to learn about multiband and parallel compression. Get practicing.
There are a couple of posts about learning compression here that I recommend for you to read:
Saturation has become an invaluable tool for me. A nice trick is to saturate your individual channels slightly by driving each channel a tiny bit louder. You could then group these channels up and have each group go into it’s respective mix bus, which you can use as another stage for saturation, before going to master for final processing.
Experiment with what type of saturation gives you the best results. I find tape saturation often works great for drums. Different plugins also give different results so make sure to try out several.
Be careful with saturation though. A little goes a long way: when I say slightly I do mean it. Again this is somewhat genre-dependent. Drum&bass music for example tends to get away with more distortion than many other genres. In any case it’s easy to ruin your mix with too much saturation.
Here is a post about saturation you should read:
4. Create room in the mix
It’s not enough to have nice clean samples to work with. Loudness is all about balance, so you need to think about what kind of elements you have going in your mix and what frequency areas they are occupying.
Where needed, use EQ to craft some space for your sounds.
Guitar, for example, is a tough one as it covers a lot of frequency range and usually overlaps with many other things. In such case you might want to perform some EQ cuts in the guitar where appropriate.
Overlapping is inevitable, but be conscious about the elements in your mix and what frequency areas they occupy. Try to make it so that the entire frequency range is covered in the final mix in a balanced way.
Another way to create room in the mix is by using the stereo image to your advantage. If you have two instruments competing of the same frequency area, placing them to different positions in the stereo image helps.
5. Watch the bass!
Bass takes up a huge chunk of energy in the mix. If you have it going all over the place, loudness is the first thing that suffers. Use a spectrum analyzer to make sure you know what’s going on in the low end.
Remove low bass frequencies where you don’t need them, and watch the loudness of your main bass source. If it’s jumping up and down a lot, you might want to use a compressor to tame it a bit. Multiband compressors are great for taming only the lowest end of the bass.
6. Use the right limiter
There are big differences with how different limiters behave when you really start pushing them. Some will distort sooner and more apparently than others. For what it’s worth – Fabfilter Pro-L, Sonnox Oxford Limiter and iZotope Ozone have performed great in this respect in my tests. The Pro-L is my go-to limiter currently.
7. Multiband limiting
This is a pretty new feat on the software market but we have been starting to see multiband limiters pop up in the past years. Brainworx bx_XL is the first one that springs to mind. iZotope Ozone does it as well.
Multiband limiting can be pretty cool for squeezing an extra dB or two of loudness out of your mix. As always – limiters are very destructive devices so be careful. Push the multiband limiter too hard and your mix will lose integrity.
As final words I would like to say: don’t worry about the loudness too much. A lot of people hitting me up seem to be overly concerned about it.
It’s better to spend the bulk of your time concentrating on the musical ideas and finishing tunes. Your mixdowns will get better and louder as a byproduct.
Tips like the ones here are good pointers, but actually learning to mix loud is something that just takes a lot of time and trial & error. As you gain experience you will develop your musical instincts and situational awareness, and you will be able to make better decisions.