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!

Mix Tip: Lead Vocal Compression/Limiting  

 

Happy singers = happy mix engineers!
 
Do you ever wish you could make a lead vocal sound “urgent” and heavily compressed in the mix, without all the nasty pumping artifacts? We’ve all hyper-spanked a vocal to create a glorious larger-than-life character because it sounds uber cool to do so, only to find that the sparkle disappears and the breaths become almost louder than the words. 

Despair not, for I have a technique for you to try!

Instead of driving a single compressor/limiter into super heavy gain reduction, try using two separate compressors in series. Keep the gain reduction small, and the ratios low. 

A classic sound is Teletronix LA-2 or Urei LA-3A into a Urei 1176. Opto into FET. I guess the theory is that the opto compressor smoothes the dynamics and shapes the tone, then the FET further limits the dynamic range and adds groovy harmonic distortion. 

Generally (but not always) I prefer going the opposite direction. I use the 1176LN to precondition the signal before it gets to the the opto. This is a cool sound. Preconditioning the signal ensures that rogue peaks do not cause the opto to go so deeply into GR (gain reduction) that the recovery (release) becomes too slow for the rhythmic cadence of the melody. We don’t want the recovery so slow that it steps on the beginning of the next vocal phrase. 

By putting the fast FET limiter first, and setting it to get in and out quickly, we can keep the opto in its sweet spot. If you’re not sure where to begin with your 1176LN settings, start here: input 10 o’clock; output 2 o’clock; attack 10 o’clock; release 2 o’clock; ratio 4:1. These input and output settings, of course, are based on the assumption that the source signal was recorded at a proper level for a “+4” analog world, where pro audio equipment is designed to work in its sweet spot. 

If your taste is anything like mine, you will quickly find that the 10 o’clock attack setting is too fast and the 2 o’clock release is too slow for modern rock and pop vocals. More often than not, I crank the attack all the way counterclockwise (the slowest setting)  to allow sparkly transients to pass through, and I slam the release fully clockwise (fastest) before carefully twisting the knob back the other way to make it incrementally slower until the pumping disappears. 

Faster release times make the signal seem to be louder, more urgent, and more aggressive, but not as smooth and polished. Experiment with this by closing your eyes and listening to what happens as you turn the release knob. Superfast release times will sound almost brittle if they are too fast.  It’s an artistic choice, not a matter of right or wrong.

Circling back to the input and output settings, in this series configuration I like the sound of the 1176 when the VU meter is bouncing around from zero dB to minus 3-4 dB GR. The occasional -7 on a rogue peak might sound OK, but you better use your ears to confirm this. Adjust the input knob to get in this zone. Then set the output control so that the output meter reads approximately zero dB. You will definitely hear a strong “1176 character” if you set it up this way. It may be too much for your taste, or not enough, depending on what sonic texture you’re going for.

The next item in the signal path, the LA-3A opto compressor, is easier to set up.  With only two knobs, you’d think that everybody would get it right, but this is not always the case. As stated earlier, you have to be careful about driving it too far into gain reduction because the recovery becomes slower—too slow for this series application if the VU meter shows more than one and a half dB of GR. 

On a tangential note, an LA-3A can sound mind-blowingly cool if you slam it with 10 to 20 dB of GR! Of course you will need to crank up the output to make up for lost volume. You’ve heard this sound on hundreds of beloved classic records. It sounds like the guitars on Bryan Adams’ song “Cuts Like a Knife” may have been recorded or mixed with this technique. I may be totally wrong about this being the case, but at least the example gives you an idea of how an LA-3A  can sound larger than life when pushed. 

That, however, is not the way that we are using it in this particular application, in series with an 1176 on a lead vocal. By keeping the LA-3A’s gain reduction at about 1 to 2 dB, we ensure a more organic—yet highly energetic—vocal tone that is the undisputed ruler of the mix. The vocal will still have the illusion of being dynamic, and it won’t require much EQ to make up for the darkness that compression can add.

After experimenting with this technique and tweaking it to your taste, try a variation of it: route LA-3A in parallel instead of series. You can get away with more than twice the amount of gain reduction because you will be blending it to taste (on a separate fader) with the 1176 sound. That means that you can create an aggressive and urgent sound with the 1176, and supplement it with the added sustain and warmth of the LA-3A. Because it’s not in series, you don’t need to worry about it swallowing transients or recovering too slowly.  Just blend it in until you dig the sound, and you’re good to go! 

Another variation on this multi compressor theme is to put an opto compressor first, then an 1176 in series and a second opto in parallel. I’ve had a lot of success with this technique when feeding a Manley ELOP into an 1176 to get a compelling punchy sound, and then blending in a “pushed” LA-3A in parallel to harmonically fatten up the tone. 

Try these techniques and become inspired to create some new ones of your own. Make sure that you experiment with different routings and settings. Remember that my suggested starting settings are just that: suggested, not required. They will be dependent on the program that you intend to process and the mood you want to create, so adjust accordingly and appropriately.

If I were to add just one philosophical thought about compression and limiting in general, it would be that my personal taste is to see the gain reduction meters always “dancing” near zero on the VU meter rather than constantly being driven into deep compression. If you haven’t already done so, experiment with this concept and let me know what you think. 

Whatever you do, in life or in the studio, make sure that you follow your own muse, not somebody else’s. 

These cookie fortunes seem to be strangely related to vocal compression aesthetics.
 

How To Prepare Pro Tools Sessions For Upload To Mix Engineers (Video Tutorial)

I frequently get asked how to prepare and clean up audio files and Pro Tools HD sessions for efficient uploading to online remote mixing service providers like IndieProMix.  This home-brewed video shows how to create alternate playlists, delete unused playlists and audio clips, consolidate/merge files, save a lean & mean session/project instead of an unruly beast, and more.

If you have not done this process before, or simply need a refresher, watch this thing twice. Watch it all the way through the first time, then be ready to pause it every few seconds the second time while you follow along in your DAW.

Alternatively, you can click on http://www.indiepromix.com/guidelines.html and navigate to a printer friendly description of the process.

Following these guidelines will ensure that your FTP upload will be as fast and efficient as possible, and that your mix engineer won’t waste precious creative time in housekeeping mode.  Better preparation = better mix…faster!

Feel free to share the video and this post with anybody who can benefit from it.  Let me know if you have any questions or related tips and tricks of your own.

Incoming Asteroid: Adaptation or Extinction?

Short story:

1) Evolve your customer service to accommodate changing times.  2) Constantly learn and develop new creative techniques to remain relevant—if not ahead of the curve.

Long story:

I became a professional musician in 1981, at the age of 19. Like the majority of folks in this business, I’ve had my shares of ups and downs over the years. Unlike most of them, however, I’ve stayed the course and I’m still making records 34 years later.

Why is that?

I attribute it to two main reasons, neither of which is talent. Number one: I pay attention. Number two: I choose adaptation over extinction.

I’m not saying that I don’t have talent, nor am I saying that I am a chameleon. It’s a given that the record business is filled with talented folks. The ones with longevity are not those who change like the flavor of the month, but rather those with a strong point of view that does not gratuitously change with the ephemeral fashions of the times. They know how to retain their unique perspectives while adapting to evolving technologies and changes in the needs of their customers (artists, labels, et al.)

Last Thursday presented opportunities to practice adaptation from both business and creative perspectives. On the business side, I did something unusual. I offered a potential client a one hour “rough” mix. Some people ask for a free test mix to find out if they want to work together, but I don’t play that game anymore. That’s the equivalent of telling a painter that you’d like your house painted for free as a test, and it if you like it, you will pay for the job.

Nonetheless, if you want to generate enough work to make a good living, you have to find a way to inspire enough confidence in your prospective clients to have them hire you instead of somebody else, especially if you’re competing with quality as your main criterion, not price. Fortunately I’ve been doing this for very long time, so my track record helps me in this regard.

However, I encountered a grey area in which maintaining absolute boundaries would have prevented me from closing the deal and booking the job. Rather than saying, “Dude, just take a leap of faith and hire me because I’m special!,” I adapted to the situation, and put a small amount of time into a rough mix.

Let me define the term rough mix: a mix that is mostly concerned with overall balances. Broad strokes, not details… Sometimes the rough mixes end up on the finished album because they capture the essence of the song on a visceral level. They are imperfect, but can be exciting. By nature, they don’t allow you the luxury of the laboring over details, so you’re forced to focus on the most important elements that tell the story or create the vibe. A rough mix may require anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or two, whereas a full mix may take a full day or two to complete.

You might think that there is no way that a rough mix can compete with a fully developed final mix, and in many ways you are correct. That said, my workflow is set up in such a way that I can very quickly achieve broad stroke results that are 90% of the way to the goal line. I can get the basic tones and overall balances together faster than you’d guess. It’s the minutiae that takes time. Hundreds of detailed volume and FX automation moves can really bring a mix to life.  If a bangin’ rough mix can qualify for the Olympics, a fully developed final mix can win the gold medal.  Even without doing all the detailed moves, I’m confident that an exciting rough mix, in the right situation, can be a powerful sales tool.

Anyway, the new artist/client is a really cool guy who was referred by one of my trusted colleagues. Despite writing catchy songs with radio-ready hooks, he’s still an indie artist who is bootstrapping to fund his records. Thus, he was very stressed about his budget because he wasn’t sure if he needed to mix one, two or seven songs. Five of them had already been professionally mixed and mastered by some other engineers–twice!–so the thought of going back a third time was pretty nauseating to the guy. 

Maybe I need to clarify this. We already have a deal in place for mixing his newest song, and if that goes well, the same deal will apply to another new song that he is in the process of recording. A big concern is that these new mixes will sound better then his extant five (already mastered) mixes, potentially causing a lack of sonic continuity on his album. In his mind, he can imagine spending anywhere from $2000-$20,000, which is a big difference. 

Because I’ve been through this before as an artist, I can totally relate. My instinct told me that I could do something to help him sort through this. An exciting rough mix would answer a lot of questions for him. Maybe his five extant mixes/masters are already “good enough.” The best of them was obviously a cut above the other four, so we chose that one as an experiment to find out if the gains would be significant or marginal. If the improvement was marginal, he would only need to be concerned with coming up with the budget to mix one or two songs instead of seven. While any normal person would prefer the job security of having “more” things in the pipeline, I would rather commit to doing one song for an ecstatic artist than seven for a stress-case in panic mode. Happy artists equal lifelong clients.

I booked an hour before my formally scheduled session to do the rough mix. When I got into it, I had momentum and was excited to raise the bar. I spent more time than I planned, but I felt good about it. I was having fun and I knew that I was providing a very helpful service for my client, even if it might lead to ultimately mixing fewer songs than I’d prefer.

I uploaded the result. The artist was over the moon about it! He asked me to make a couple of small changes, and I ended up booking the whole package deal instead of merely a song or two. Plus, he now feels great about it instead of stressed. Win-win accomplished.  If I did not adapt, this would’ve never happened.

On the creative side, I also ensured adaptation rather than extinction. After uploading the rough mix, my formally scheduled client, Wishnefsky, arrived so we could begin mixing his new album. Over the years, I’ve trained him to deliver his files in such a way that we can crank out four or five songs per day. 10 years ago, it was one song per day.

Back in the day, Wish delivered his audio files the same way as everybody else: one track per microphone. His layered synthesizer arrangements always sounded perfect in his rough mixes, which at the time lacked in every other regard. Although I could quickly make everything else sound much better, it took me an inordinate amount of time to get the synthesizers to sound only 80% as good as the rough mix. So one day I asked him to make me a stereo submix of the synthesizers only. I flew that into my mix, and it came to life.

Several albums later, Wishnefsky’s mixing chops are much improved. He brings submixed “stems” to our mix sessions. I have control of only four individual instruments: lead vocal, bass, kick drum and snare drum. I don’t really mix his stuff as much as I improve the work that he has already done. Regardless of what you call it, I am providing a service that helps him achieve his artistic vision.

Over the past few years, we’ve gotten comfortable with the knowledge that this is the approach that works best for him. That said, we were feeling a little bit too comfortable, like we need to shake things up. So we did an experiment.

Our plan was to pick a song and then compare four different mixes of it:

  1. ITB (inside the box) digitally summed from submixes
  2. OTB (outside the box) analog summed from sub mixes
  3. OTB from sub mixes, plus buss EQ and compression
  4. OTB from the ground up, i.e. a proper Michael James mix from the individual elements

I’ve done similar experiments several times, and years ago determined which approach sounds best to me. That said, it was wise to do it again to ensure that Wishnefsky could make the best decision with respect to how deeply to put himself into the hole.  He simply couldn’t afford two weeks of mixing. 

Wishnefsky and I have known each other long enough that we consider each other close friends. He would have trusted me if I simply told him which version was the best choice for his budget. I already knew the answer, but… If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that there is always more to learn.

Technology is constantly improving, so the experiment was not simply for the benefit of Wishnefsky. I was able to re-examine the results to learn if today’s differences are as dramatic as those of yesteryear.  I’ll spare you my opinion because ITB vs OTB is widely considered a game of inches and the debate is heated, with many inexperienced “experts” spewing untested philosophical opinion as fact. Perhaps it’s time for those folks to evolve before going the way of the dinosaurs.