Peak Limiting, Loudness Wars and Remote Mixing

Using the fine adjustment tool to crush the mix.

You probably heard of loudness wars by now. Back in the ’90s, somebody thought it would be a good idea to make a mastered mix as loud as possible so that it would sound explosive on the radio. The irony is that, on radio, quieter classic records from the 70s often sound bigger than today’s aggressively limited joints.

Wait a minute—that makes no sense! But it’s true. If during your next radio listen you happen to hear a finger-picked James Taylor tune like “Mexico” bookended by virtually any two heavy modern rock songs, you’ll be amazed at how rich, punchy and detailed it sounds relative to the others. Same thing goes for Joe Walsh’s “Life’s Been Good” or later Led Zeppelin records. If you really want to be blown away, hope that you get to hear Bob Clearmountain’s mixes of “Weather With You” or “It’s Only Natural” from the 1991 Crowded House album, Woodface, or his Beatle-esque tour de force, “Sowing The Seeds Of Love” by Tears for Fears. Those FM radio staples virtually jumped right out of the speakers when they were freshly minted, and they still shine today.

So, why would a quieter record sound better than a loud one, on the radio? Answer: dynamic range.

Radio compressors and limiters are designed to be a one size fits all answer to the problem of over modulation, or “overs” that you’ve seen when digital peak meters go into the red, indicating clipping. If you were a radio station, you would not want overs because they would cause the FCC to fine you. If you were a record company or a vinyl pressing plant, you would not want them because they might literally cause the needle to jump right out of the groove, especially on a bass-heavy song!

Anyway, radio compressors and limiters sound more musical when they can react to a decent amount of dynamic range, of which modern rock records tend to have very little. Super loud, overly crushed records drive the compressor into gain reduction, where it frequently remains until the quiet breakdown or the end of the song. One of the symptoms this is a strident, distorted sound that fatigues the listener.

Okay, but what does this have to do with remote mixing?

The exact same mix, played twice with a 1 dB (or less) volume difference, will always cause the listener to believe that the louder one is better. What this implies is that my colleagues and I need to make our final mixes at least as loud as the reference mixes we receive from the artist. If we don’t do this, we lose. Nobody wants to pay thousands of dollars for a professional mix that does not sound as “good” as the band’s rough mix.

Of course, the pro mix will always sound better if the listening environment is accurate and the two mixes are level matched. These factors are easily controlled when the artist attends the mix session. Plus we discuss artistic goals, decisions are made together, and the process is transparent. The artist becomes an invested partner in the mix. When we compare the rough or reference mix to the new one, we are always doing so with matched volume levels. It’s super easy to demonstrate the difference in audible distortion, so the artist buys into the idea of clarity and punchiness instead of sheer loudness.

When mixing remotely, however, it’s difficult to guide the artist towards an optimal listening environment. The first thing the artist tends to do is to load the new mix into the original Pro Tools session to toggle an A/B comparison of the new versus the old. This can lead to two potentially huge problems. First, artists and bands typically do not know how to tastefully peak limit a mix, so, on a quest for maximum loudness, they squash the life out of their rough mixes to the point that static instrument levels begin to change over the course of the song, depending on how much gain reduction is being applied. If I don’t want to lose the battle of first impressions, I must compete with this loudness. Second, the artist may in fact be listening to my mix through their overcooked compression and limiting chain because they may forget to deactivate it from the mix buss.

Fortunately, experienced artists and repeat customers have already been down this road, so they tend to leave the peak limiter off their rough mixes. They trust me, because we’ve been successful together in the past, or they want to attain the sound of my records that they already know and love. New artists, however, are looking for any excuse to go the DIY, do it yourself, route. They do not want to spend money on crafting their records because they do not believe that they will ever make any money from sales of those records. They expect to hear maximum loudness on the first listen so they can compete on loudness instead of artistry. For those guys, I add a peak limiter to the first MP3 that I email them. I make the file the same loudness as their rough mix to dazzle them and earn their trust, then I ask them if I can take it off and do my thing. After I assure them that the final master will be at least as loud as the reference MP3, they’re cool with turning up the volume knob to listen loud.

It’s funny to me that as a guy with audiophile tastes, I sometimes prefer the energy and sound of limited masters to the (relatively) pristine clarity of the mixes. In order to tell with certainty, however, the two audio files must be level matched. Creative use of peak limiting can add a sonic crunch to rock songs that creates a sense of urgency. Limiting is almost required if you want to ensure that your record will be audible over the engine and road noise on your car’s stereo system. The unmastered mix will sound terrific in a neutral acoustic space, but mastering will ensure transportable translatability and competitive loudness. Peak limiting is a necessary evil that isn’t necessarily evil if done with prudence and good taste.

With that said, I wish all my artists and clients could be present for their mix sessions so that they could hear the dynamic beauty of their song in its pristine unlimited glory at least once. The experience might give them the confidence and courage to avoid getting sucked into the loudness wars. It’s ironic that they go to such great lengths to ensure that every detail is audible in the mix, but then they allow and encourage everything to be steamrolled during the mastering process— especially ironic considering that a reasonably dynamic mix will sound bigger on the radio than a squashed one!

Kathleen Wirt (right) and I are happy because Marek Stycos fed us Thai food after evangelizing about audio quality. Kathleen and her crew at 4th Street Recording in Santa Monica do things right. Great vibe there!
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