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"I want it loud," screamed the client. A major component of the mastering process is track leveling or achieving the desired perceived loudness in a mix that compares favorably or is what's known as competitive with other mixes in that genre. Well, there are much controversies surrounding the battle for loud. Let's first look at how an engineer might achieve this and we'll address some of the considerations and concerns surrounding brickwall limiting. So before we talk about brickwall limiting and how we can make tracks loud, we need to understand headroom and average or perceive loudness and sort of what keeps our signal from being loud.
So headroom is the dynamic range between the normal operating level and the maximum output level or clip point of a system. Now, in Pro Tools and other DAWs, this is 0 dBFS. So you see how the meter here ends at zero. dBFS stands dB Full Scale and it sort of counts from zero into negative numbers based on the bit depth, whether it's 16 or 24 bits. Now, in the analog world, this is a bit gray. In the digital world, it's very black and white.
So if you think of like a concrete ceiling and you're jumping up and down, if you hit that ceiling, it's not going to give any. Whereas in the analog world, kind of the transition between soft clipping and hard clipping, this could actually be kind of ear pleasing. In digital, it just lops off the top of your waveform, at the loudest part of your waveform if you exceed this level. Now, if we think about perceived loudness, even though our transients approach very high levels in our mix, if we play this back...
(Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) So the transients are popping up here real close to zero. Now even though the transients are sitting there, the rest of our audio is much lower and what these transients are doing is it's preventing us from pushing or turning that mix up any louder. Because what happens is as soon as we raise the volume of the mix, those transients just get shaved off.
Remember, it's sort of black or white. It's there or it's not on the digital world. So if I take this fader here and I push it up, I'm just going to start getting distortion. (Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) So really what's happening there, really what's preventing me from making it loud is that as I push that up any louder, those transients start getting loped off. When I start loping them off enough, we actually hear digital distortion.
Now, perceived loudness is going to be the perception of how loud something is against something else. It's not how loud the transients are, but it's how loud sort of the average level of the music or the audio is sitting. Generally, it's the goal of mastering sort of match the perceived loudness with another similar track and without getting into the politics of what's loud and are things too loud. Generally what we're going to end up doing is using brickwall Limiters to protect the headroom of this system while bringing up the average level of the mix.
So again, this is where brickwall Limiters come in and the one that comes with Pro Tools is called Maxim. A brickwall Limiter or a peak clipper, its main goal is to take and raise the volume level of the mix and sort of soft-clip those transients. So you can think of it as sort of pushing a spring against a brickwall. You're compacting the coils, so I'm bringing up the average level or the fullness of the audio and that's going to raise the perceived loudness.
Now, it's literally soft- clipping the peaks or the transients. But it's doing this in a more graceful way than just pushing up the fader. Now, because it is clipping them, you can still distort the output of your brickwall Limiter. You can still get too much from it and lose all the impact of your mix. So typically, how we would use Maxim, if we started from scratch and I just insert this plug-in, so under Dynamics, you're going to see these two values, those are going to be threshold and ceiling.
Now ceiling is the maximum level that it's going to allow out of the processor. So generally, I'll set this below zero to protect that. If I'm going to be compressing it to MP3, I might set it a dB or two below zero, because the output of the MP3 is going to be a bit harder than the uncompressed signal. Once I've set this ceiling to right around -1, now I'm going to take and pull down the threshold. What this is going to do, it's going to simultaneously raise the volume of the mix and start clipping off those transients.
(Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never forget that sound.) (Male singing: Tonight I fell...) Now you can see the attenuation is measuring my gain reduction. It's sort of measuring how much that limiter is working on that signal, because a limiter is a compressor. It's not allowing anything over its threshold here.
Now you don't have an Attack setting on Maxim because it's actually looking ahead at the signals. So it's not allowing any of that Attack to get through. This is exactly what we want on a brickwall Limiter. We want to stop everything from coming out the output and clipping our mix bus. Now, you do have a release and the release control is how fast is it going to recover after it attenuates. Generally, if I'm doing light brickwall Limiting, I can leave it at the default setting of one millisecond, but as I go heavier and I turn the track up more and more by lowering the threshold, what ends up happening is the limiter is working so fast, it's actually tracing the waveform of the low frequency components in my mix and causing distortion.
If I bring this down, you're going to hear a lot of distortion. (Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never...) But as I brought that release up, the distortion disappeared, but you kind of really started to hear the compression with the limiting work a lot. So you're looking for a happy medium. You generally want to kind of pay attention to how it sounds. You don't want to go too loud. A track is always going to have a point where it starts getting destroyed, if you go any louder.
Now, this kind of brings up the point of how much do I want to pull down this threshold. It's important to talk about the difference between loud versus hard. Now, as you reduce those transients, your mix isn't going to sound as punchy. It's going to be loud, but you're kind of evening out the whole track. It's the difference between loud or the transients in those snare and kick hits and the rest of the mix that kind of gives it that punchiness. If I strip all that away, then I'm going to have a weak mix that's just loud.
That's generally not the goal. So you want to pick a happy medium that controls the transients and brings up the average level, but doesn't completely squash your mix. This is where a lot of engineers sort of start to disagree with the trends in limiting and mastering that a lot of people are favoring loud over a nice punchy dynamic mix that might not be as loud when played next to a commercially mastered mix that was just slammed, but it sounds a little bit better on a nicer audio system.
So, generally what I like to do is when I'm doing my own mastering, basically I'm going to get as much volume out of it until I really start hearing degradation of the dynamics or the signal. Now, a little bit of limiting, sort of packing in all the little kind of things that are popping out of the mix can be cool. But too much really destroys your mix. So I'll pull this down. (Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) (Male singing: And I'll never forget that sound.) That's probably the most I'm going to do without bringing it to a professional mastering engineer and most of the times this is close enough to a commercial level.
Some mixes can take more brickwall Limiting than others, but experiment and don't push it too far. So if you're curious as to how your track stacks up against other commercially mastered tracks, what you can do is you can actually measure the average loudness by using the plug- in included with Pro Tools under Sound Field called PhaseScope. What this is going to do if I choose the LEQ meter here, I'm going to get an average level measured over this window.
So I'll leave it at 2 seconds here and let me play back the mix. (Music playing) (Male singing: We hit the town.) And again, in one of the loudest sections. (Male singing: So take me down, take me down and my feet will follow, wherever my heart goes.) (Male singing: I'm come around, I'll come around, like I always. I'll keep my feet on the ground.) Now, if you were to take other mixes and bring them into your session and use this plug-in, you could get a good idea for that specific genre, what's the average level sort of sitting around.
Like I said, this isn't sort of an end-all be-all thing that you want to rely on, but it just gives you a good idea how your mix is going to stack up to others. So in the end, I'm not going to tell you to not make your track really loud, I think, the rest of the recording community has done an excellent job as wrist-slappers. If that's what you really want, then go for it, but I just really want you to understand the rationale and repercussions behind loud masters. A well-mastered track can be competitive and still retain punch and dynamics at all playback levels.
So when mastering things myself, I tend to air on the side of caution and leave it to the professionals when I need the super squash.
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