The loudness war. You don’t have to like it. But it’s a reality. All else being equal, the average music consumer judges louder music as better music. Right or wrong, this is the criteria the market uses in buying or streaming your music.
Never mind that smashing your track through a brickwall limiter kills the dynamics of your music. Never mind that it introduces painful distortion. Never mind that it actually creates listening fatigue.
Especially in dance and pop music genres—but not exclusively—your music has to sound as loud as the tracks that come around it. Or else your track is the one with the “problem”.
But as a musician or producer, you understand the value of dynamics. You want music that ebbs and flows. That’s loud enough to compete—but not smashed into the red.
I have a quick tip that will help you.
It’s a compression “trick” most commonly used to tame really dynamic vocals and guitar parts. But, applied to your master, can give you surgical precision over your track’s “loudness”—allowing you to boost cleanly without smashing.
Try this next time you’re hoping to give that “loudness” to your tracks…
Step 1: Add at Least Two Compressors
You want to place the compressors after any master effects, as you’re looking to control the volume of the final signal.
Also, don’t hesitate to use two or more different compressors, that each will impart their own sonic qualities on your mix.
If you have to choose a preset, start with something along the lines of “gentle” or “subtle” compression.
Adding multiple compressors to your master FX section, shown here in Reason.
Step 2: Set Ratios Lower and Thresholds Higher
You want to gently compress the sound a few times in a row, rather than aggressively compress it once.
This means your thresholds should be higher—so the sound is only compressed when it’s at its loudest. And lower ratios gently reduce peaks, rather than chopping them off—helping your sound stay dynamic.
When doing serial compression, my target is a maximum of about 4 dBs gain reduction at each step—especially the earliest ones.
If your DAW has a built-in master compressor, it can be used, too. Reason’s default routing places the master compressor before the master insert effects.
Step 3: Adjust Attack and Release
Usually you want the earliest compressor in the chain to have the fastest attack and release. Its job is to simply tame the biggest peaks, so the sound going through to the later compressor(s) has a more consistent volume. Use later compressors more creatively, to shape the sound.
This is a huge advantage of serial compression over trying to do it all in one step. The compression of each peak is much more dynamic, relative to the sound itself. Big kicks might get more aggressive compression, where syncopated high hats are simply kept out of the red.
Yes, you can still use a limiter, maximizer, or high-ratio compressor when you’re doing serial compression. But the idea here is to use it gently. If there’s any intersample peaks, most limiters will do a better job of handling those than a standard compressor. Also, consider turning on soft knee or soft clipping, as these will reduce audible distortion at this final step.
This is also a great place to control your final volume. If you have a loudness meter plugin, use it here—make sure the max peaks and the perceived loudness of your track are within your desired range. A good loudness meter will also let you compare the loudness of your final track with a reference track of your choosing, which is a great discipline for DIY musicians and producers who insist on doing their own mixing and mastering.
Here Reason’s MClass Maximizer is stuck on the end of the signal chain, using soft clip to clean up intersample peaks. Also the Flower Audio Loudness Meter shows our max peaks are negative, indicating no master clipping.
Step 4: Serial compression is not a Magic Bullet, but it is a Useful Tool…
Just sticking a bunch of compressors in a row won’t automatically make your music both loud and dynamic. But by following the steps above, you’ll have a start at walking that line.
Experiment, listening carefully to the results you get. If your experience is anything like mine, I believe this will improve the final sound of your tracks.
And don’t be afraid to pull back a little bit from the loudness edge, in favor of dynamics. If your fans want it louder, they can almost always crank it up. But once you’ve cut away those peaks with compression and limiting, they’re not coming back for anybody.
Oh yeah, and remember to bypass this whole mess of compressors every once in a while, and make sure you’re actually making your music sound better!
Learn more about Reason in these videos.
Learn about Mastering in the Box.