This topic is one of the first items that is discussed before any mastering work is started. Many mastering clients have noticed that some CDs are louder than others but have not given it much thought. Others will demand that their CD be as loud, or louder, as the latest major label release in their genre. Still others understand the implications of the process and ask us to make their album as loud as possible, but not at the expense of dynamic range. Obviously, the latter approach makes the most musical sense but that does not always happen!

Our approach to mastering is to present and explain the positives and negatives of what can be done with your mixes. In other words, many mixes are compressed and equalized in such a way that allow us to raise the volume without doing serious damage to the sound. On the other hand, some are not so easy! Occasionally its just one song on an album that defies all attempts to raise the level a hot as the others. In that case, if one wants the album aggressively loud, that song will have to suffer in order to not to bring down the overall level of the album.

After we point out the pros and cons, if the client wishes take a approach that we do not think is best for the mix, we respect their wishes. In other words, even if we think that your mix, or mixes, will suffer sonically when pushed to the level of the latest/greatest, we will do so as best we can to bring it up to the level that you wish!

If we need to explain the process of making an audio file louder, our favourite analogy is an old movie, with its whispers and screams. While watching such a movie, you try to set the TV's volume level to a point where you can hear the whispers but are not deafened by the screams, in other words, the average level of the program. If you are in a quiet environment, this will work pretty well until some outside noise intrudes into your space, thus covering the quiet passages, or until the commercial kicks in.

The commercial seems to be louder than the movie. Actually, it may not be any louder than the movie's peak point (the screams) but because the audio has been dynamically limited, it has almost no low points and therefore on average, sounds louder. In other words, through compression and limiting, the distance between the quiet and loud points have been reduced and the whole program has been altered so that what little peaks are left are at, or close to, digital zero.

Compression and limiting techniques are commonly used in mixing and mastering. In mixing, overdoing it will make the mastering either difficult or impossible (see A Guide For The Mix Engineer).

The mastering room is where most of the stereo compression/limiting techniques should be employed. There are exceptions of course, but generally, the mixer will usually stick to compressing individual tracks with possibly some light compression on the stereo buss, but only if it is understood how this will affect the mastering. Using mastering plug-ins is not advised unless you understand how they are going to affect our work.

In the early days the purpose of mastering was to fit a studio mix onto the medium of the day. For instance, if in the process of making a record, the bass or bottom end was too heavy, or in stereo, it would not fit on the vinyl medium and the needle would jump out of the groove. The solutions was to equalize, make mono and perhaps compress the bottom end.

Later, compression was used as a tool to enhance elements of the mix or master, i.e., giving the drums and/or bass more impact or "punch". This is referred to a "musical" use of compression as opposed to using compress strictly for getting more level out of a mix.

Eventually, as music began to be listened to in noisy environments, i.e., the car, it became necessary to reduce the dynamic range in order to hear all the elements of the music. For instance, when playing old jazz vocal recordings in a car, it was impossible to hear the bass without turning up the volume. Unfortunately, the vocals would then become too loud. So the mix balances that worked so well in a quiet home listening environment with a good stereo system didn't work in the car. So these days, even most jazz recordings use some compression and limiting in order to make the music listenable in more environments. With pop music, various types and levels compression and limiting are a given!

The reason for the next jump in compression and limiting to raise the apparent levels of CDs came with the invention of multi-disc CD player and continues today with the iPod. Many record companies, producers and artists did not want their album to sound quieter than the average and some wanted theirs to be louder than the average. This desire for one-upping the next guy has resulted in the biggest leap of volume over time. After all, if you want to be louder than the latest/greatest, then you set the bar for the next one..and the next one, etc.!

As we are mastering the initial track of the day, we are able to demonstrate various compression/limiting techniques by comparing the master-in-progress to various major label CDs that the client and engineer are familiar with. Keep in mind that not all mixes will be able to be raised to the same level as your favourite CD, at least not without introducing some distortion! However, with the multitude of compressors and limiters we have on hand, we can usually get results that will satisfy those who want the volume of their CD to be aggressive!

Over the years, we have learned to be sensitive to both the music and the clients and this applies to the absolute volume of your disc. For instance, a jazz album is approached with a more subtle approach than a "heavy" album. The tools that we have today at Silverbirch give us just about every option we need to get your level just right. For more info about the approach we take to volume maximizing, see the latter part of the topic "Making Your CD Loud", under the heading "Mastering Services". You will have to scroll down to near the bottom as the first part is the same as this link.

In conclusion, it seems pertinent to point out that the absolute volume level of the average CD mastered circa 2000 to 2004 and then 2005 to 2008 is significantly louder than in former years although we are hopeful that most producers are probably going to settle for the current level! We have also noticed that a few new release are noticeably lower, which is a good thing, because if the practice becomes more common, it will relieve the pressure on labels, artists and producers to engage in the volume wars, i.e., volume via compression and limiting over musicality.

At a recent session, in an attempt to establish where he should attempt to go with the volume level of CD about to be mastered, our mastering engineer asked how the client how they coped with the various levels of songs when listening to their iPod. The answer was "I keep my finger near the volume control". We couldn't have said it better ourselves!

However, our philosophy here is to offer options and education, but only if wanted. In other words some clients are not aware of these issues and others are. We DO NOT preach to those who know what they are looking for! Our job is to find our what our clients want and do the job accordingly. We understand that that the client is making the final call and we will ALWAYS do our "level" best to get you where you want to go!

Here's some interesting links for further information/education:

  • Here's a video which is a good tutorial on the process that is necessary in order to achieve modern CD volume levels. The dialogue is a little on the "preachy" side but no matter what direction you wish to go re the volume level, this video illustrates the before and after results very well!
  • Bob Ludwig, Gateway Mastering talks about the "volume wars" in an article called "Guns 'N Roses: Dynamics and quality win the Loudness Wars". " Guns 'N Roses: Dynamics and quality win the Loudness Wars". He also touches briefly on other client concerns such as volume of CDs and radio play as well as iPod and CD carousel comparisons. Another concern mentioned is the impact of CD volume at A&R and Radio Promoter meetings/panels./p>
  • Greg Calbi, Sterling Sound, same topic
  • Metallica "Death Magnetic" is one the the loudest albums of recent release. However, the sound has been universally panned by audio professionals and even the fans and mainstream press are becoming aware of the problems mastering engineers have been talking about for years! Here's one of many articles that are interesting. And here's another!

    And here's the response from the album's mastering engineer, Ted Jensen of Sterling Sound. Most people who have an idea about mixing and mastering think the mastering engineer smashed this on but according to Ted, the mixes arrived that way.

    Receiving mixes that are over-compressed and/or limited are an increasing problem for us at Silverbirch which is why our mastering engineer wrote this article with guidelines for the mix engineer.

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