Why Your Song Doesn’t Sound Loud Enough
So you’re hitting -8rms and limiting the hell out of your track, it’s starting to sound over-compressed, but it still just doesn’t have that in-your-face sense of loudness that your reference tracks have. Every producer and engineer has been there at some stage in their journey and it can often seem like there’s just some sort of dark art that you don’t know holding you back. I’ll be honest, it does take time and practice to get your tracks sounding that loud without totally crushing them with compression, but the good news is it’s not black magic and I can share a few tips that will help you along the way!
Loudness is all about perception
The first thing to understand if you want your tracks to sound louder is this - Loudness is more than just a reading on a meter, it’s a matter of perception. When we say a song sounds loud, we don’t just mean it in a sense of the physical volume - it’s a sense and a feeling that the track gives off and this starts long before the mastering stage. In fact, I’d say that mixing and production are far more important when it comes to making a song that sounds like it’s bursting out of the speakers.
Do you have a “loud” arrangement?
If you want your music to sound loud, the arrangement will be one of the first factors to consider when you’re producing a song. You may assume that a dense arrangement with a ton of layers and elements is going to sound louder than something more bare bones right? It seems backwards, but this is rarely true. Typically a more spacious track, with only a few elements hitting our ears at the same time, will sound way louder. Think of it like a painting - If you have one with a lot of white space and just a few carefully selected bright colours, it’s much more eye-catching than a super detailed and dense renaissance painting. Your songs need some “white space” to give them that initial sense of loudness. When the frequency spectrum is busy and cluttered, it becomes harder to make the song sound as loud, but when there’s more space, it’s easier to push it louder.
Do you want your song to be dynamic or more loud, more often?
Another thing to think about earlier on in the process is your song’s dynamics. Do you want the verses to be really quiet and subdued, with a much louder chorus? Or, do you want the song to sound loud all of the time? If you’re making it more dynamic, that’s great, but remember that your verses will not sound as loud as the chorus of a pop/rock song, because they weren’t written or arranged to be that way. This means that it’s probably not going to sound as loud as something that’s in-your-face the whole way through like most pop music. Again, I’m not saying dynamic is bad in any way (I love a song with contrast between sections that takes you on a journey), but a more dynamic song structure will work against you if your aim is to be as loud as Dua Lipa.
How loud are the vocals?
Our ears have evolved to be most sensitive to human voices. After-all, hearing people’s voices is how we communicate, detect danger and sense emotion. Because of this, songs with more upfront vocals will often come across as louder than songs where the vocal is dipping behind the instrumental. This is why the vocals in most modern pop songs are produced to be really in-your-face. Keep this in mind when you’re mixing your tracks! If loud is the aim of the game, I tend to try and keep the vocal right up there with the kick and snare to keep the track punchy and ear grabbing. Also remember that faster release times on your compressors are going to push your vocal forward a little, making it sound nice and upfront. Beware though, if your vocal is too loud and your instrumental is sitting too far back, it can quickly go the other way and start to sound quieter again. You have to strike a balance!
Frequency balance is everything.
When it comes to mixing, not only do you need to consider the balance between the different elements of the track, but also the balance of the frequencies in the mix as a whole. This can have a huge effect on the sense of loudness that you’re able to create. For example, low-end is the first thing that’s going to hit a limiter, so if you have too much of it, you’re effectively restricting the level your mid-range and high-end elements can reach, because the bass is going to become over-compressed and distorted before the higher frequencies are even touched by the limiter. One result of this is a mix with too much low-end will sound quieter on smaller speakers that aren’t able to produce that sort of bass. On the other hand, if you haven’t got enough low-end, your mix is going to sound thin and will lack impact and depth. Then you have the mid-range, which is a whole other can of worms. It’s all about striking a perfect balance across the frequency spectrum, which suits the particular song you’re mixing.
I think that this is absolutely the hardest thing in mixing. It just takes a ton of practice and thousands of hours of listening to train your ears to know when things are right. On top of that, there are tons of factors fighting against you, the biggest being your room acoustics. Naturally, all rooms have an effect on what we hear, especially in the low-end. This is why your mix can sound huge and punchy in your home studio, but weak and thin when you take it somewhere else - your room may have a build up of bass frequencies, fooling you into not adding enough bass into your mixes. The good news is, you can absolutely learn the listening skills needed to get this spot on every-time. I have three tips that I wholeheartedly believe will speed up this learning process and make your mixes sound 100x better. The first would be to spend time listening to your favourite records on your monitoring system. A lot of people will have some fancy headphones or speakers for their music production, but only ever listen to their own music on them, so they don’t actually have an indication of what a finished record should sound like in their studio. If you spend some time every day (or even just every week) listening to some music in your studio, you’ll soon begin to learn how loud the bass should be, how the midrange should sound and how much top-end you need. The best part is this mostly just happens subconsciously while you’re enjoying songs you love.
My second piece of advice would be to forget about studio monitors. Big statement I know, but if you’re not in a professionally treated room, I honestly think they’re a waste of your investment. You could have the best speakers in the world, but if your room is untreated, you’re still not going to hear anything accurately. Instead, put a bit more of your budget into some quality, open back headphones and learn them like the back of your hand. You’ll be able to hear the frequency spectrum way more accurately and as a result, your mixes will sound louder and translate far, far better. You can (and probably should) still use speakers for quick reference here and there, but not for anything critical. The final tip is to build a relationship with a mastering engineer. I know, I know - of course the mastering engineer is going to say that, but there are honestly so many benefits. We have very, very accurate monitoring that we know like the back of our hands, so if there are any balance issues in your mix, we will pick up on them straight away. We also work on thousands of songs every year, whereas a producer or artist may only work on a handful. This experience means we know what a finished record should sound like and we can help you get there. A good engineer isn’t going to simply churn out your master and send you on your way, they will give you feedback on your mixes, where to improve and where you’re nailing it. They’ll learn what you like in a master, what characteristics your mixes tend to have and how they can best serve your work. It doesn’t have to be me, but find yourself a mastering engineer who will communicate with you, build a relationship with you and become part of your team.
This one turned out a little longer than I originally thought it would, but I hope it helps you to make songs that sound as loud and professional as the records you’re inspired by. With some practice and objective decisions along the way, you can absolutely get there! If you’d like any feedback on your tracks, just drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org.