Some tips for achieving loudness in the mix
I quite often get asked to make a track as loud as xyz. There are certain processes involved in mastering which are used to make the record appear loud, and some tracks benefit from these processes better than others. A track can only be pushed so far before negative artifacts start to affect the sound, and some tracks can be pushed much further than others. This is down to how the track is arranged, recorded/produced and mixed. Here are some to tips to achieving a well balanced, clean mix that will allow your track to have high ‘loudness potential.’ They are by no means exhaustive, just some helpful hints which you can choose to use or lose!
1) PLAN your arrangement from the outside so that each instrument or sound has it’s own place in the mix. Instruments fighting for the same frequency content will become blurred and unclear. Decide which aspects of your mix are important. Is it a vocal based track? Then try to fit the other parts around the vocal and give it some room.Our ears our most sensitive to those between 2-5khz, so bear this in mind if you are mixing for loudness and make sure yuou have enough content here. Get it right at the beginning. Fixing it in the mix (or master) is always a compromise, so make sure you spend plenty of time getting the right sounds in production and recording.
2) UTILISE the entire fequency range and stereo field. Pan hard left and hard right, have the important aspects you want to be heard at the front of the mix. Wide mixes will sound much louder and fuller.
3) CONTROL individual tracks and busses. Get rid of any unwanted noise using eq or high pass filters (but be carefull not to make your mix sound too thin.) Compress and even limit tracks/busses if they need it to try and maintain dynamic control throughout the track. If you do have sounds that are fighting for space, use eq, panning, reverb/delay to create new space for them. Sometimes if your kick and bass are fighting for the same space, having the kick trigger the sidechain of a compressor on your bass track can help it poke through and create a pumping effect if desired. Kicks with a lot of frequency content from 200-400hz often interfere with an electric bass, so a little EQ dip here might be all that’s needed. Getting your kick and bass to sit well together is often the hardest, yet most important part of the mixing process. Don’t be afraid to carve the sound of your kick using EQ so it fits around your bass. Try not to let the low mid range get clogged up. Often, the punch of a snare, lower vocal frequencies, guitars, bass and synths can all be adding to congestion in this area, so decide what needs to be most prominant here and eq the rest to fit around this.Too much going on here and you have a dense, unlcear, congested mix, too little and you have a thin, weka and possible harsh sounding mix, so pay close attention here.
4) KEEP IT SIMPLE. Busy arrangments and mixes will be much harder to get sounding loud. If your planning a loud track you should be aware that reverbs and delays will be accentuated. Keep their use to a minimum, eq or use high pass filters to stop them clogging up the low midrange of your mix. You can even use the sidechain input on a compressor, so that the reverb/delay is compressed when the vocal is playing, and released when it stops, for instance.
5) HOW LOUD DOES IT NEED TO BE? As with everything in music, loudness comes at a price. Decide what your track needs, if you really want the chorus to have impact, you can’t have it loud all the way through. Do you want a wall of sound or do you want to keep plenty of punch? If it’s the latter, be careful not to overcompress, especially on the drums and bass. And whatever you do, don’t use compression or limiting on the master bus to achieve loudness, this will only make the mastering process harder and most probably less effective. If you use compression on your master bus for a specific effect, it’s probably best to provide the mastering engineer with 2 versions of your track, one with and one without the extra processing.