How Loud is Loud?

Last time we touched on a few of the things to think about before sending your tracks off for mastering. This time I wanted to take a look in a bit more detail at the loudness issue – something of a hot button topic in this day and age.

“I want it loud but without losing dynamics”

This is probably the number 1 sentence used when clients try and tell us how loud they want it, and is the main reason we ask for reference tracks.

Essentially, this sentence sums up arguably the main goal of mastering, but there is a fairly wide spectrum within which that objective is met. And whether that’s loud enough for you depends on what genre you’re working in and where you stand on the infamous ‘loudness wars’.

One person’s loud is another person’s soft and vice versa.

A brief history of loudness

We all know the story by now so I won’t delve into it in too much detail, but it’s worth thinking about when considering how loud you want your record.

Put simply, pop music used to be much much quieter. Partly as a consequence of technology (they didn’t have brickwall limiters in the 50s) and partly as a result of good engineering practices.

As the technology developed it became easier to make things louder and louder. This became an arms race as everyone wanted their tune to sound the hottest on the jukebox and/or radio. This practice reached its nadir in the ’90s with the introduction of digital technology like brickwall limiters and the practice of clipping high-end A/D converters.

Nowadays there is a move back to more dynamic masters, but it’s a difficult transition to make as people still don’t want their tracks to sound quieter than their favourite records from the 90s and onwards. Added to that, new technology has made it easier to get to those levels without completely mauling the sounds (I’m looking at you Izotope IRC III).

So where do you stand?

So when considering how loud you want to go, it really is a case of deciding where you want to stand on this.

One of the biggest developments in mastering moving back to more dynamic recordings in the introduction of Bob Katz’s K meters. If you want to get really involved with this, take a look at a few of your favourite recordings using a meter that will display using these scales – Voxengo’s SPAN is one that does it for free.

We consider ‘loud’ to be just touching the red on a K-12 scale in the loud sections of a song. Although Bob Katz would argue that’s still too much (it’s way over on a K-14) we think it’s a nice compromise and our masters certainly don’t sound squashed at this level.

In dance music there is still a tendency to push things way over, and there’s no way round that as it will make a difference in the clubs. The sad thing is it still means plenty of DJs are pushing things into digital distortion. That’s where we draw the line, but dance still makes us see plenty of red on a K-12 meter.

A Paul Weller story

To sum up, we once did a track for a Mod revival band who sent us two reference tracks by Paul Weller. One was a cut from the 80s and another from the mid-2000s.

The former was very quiet, not even peaking to full scale (peaks were well below 0dB), the latter was bright, brash, harsh sounding and very loud. The band not having expressed a preference, we pitched it for about halfway between. They were very happy with the result.

I think that sums up nicely just about where we should be on the loudness curve. We don’t need to make things as quiet as they were pre-1990s as we have the technology to get things louder, using up all the bits, without mauling recordings like they did in the ’90s. But with that comes a responsibility to not push things as far as we possibly can, because that doesn’t make for an enjoyable listen.

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