More Loud, More Better?

Just a few days I ago I was speaking with a friend of mine who is a very well-known mastering engineer and lifelong audiophile about how to get things loud. He was sharing some interesting tips with me about how to manage bass and EQ, what compresser settings he was using, etc. ‘Tell you what, send me a couple tunes and I’ll master them for you. I’ll even do it analog so you can hear what it sounds like.’

Dang. There wasn’t any beating that offer. So I quickly pulled up and polished a few old tunes of my own I’d been working on and sent them over. A few hours later, I received a ping back, the files were finished. I dropped them in my DAW for a quick listen, and as soon as I hit that the spacebar I was immediately reminded why he gets paid the big bucks. There’s no way around this, they were loud as hell and they sounded awesome.

A bit more midforward than my own final masters, a slightly different EQ profile and more noise from the analog process, etc. I ended up doing a few things slightly differently, but I did learn a few very important things, the most important of which is exactly how much dynamic range to shave off. I’ve seen some audiophiles bemoan overly compressed music, and while I tend to be quite a bit more conservative than many engineers in how much I limit, the pure and simple fact is that louder pretty much always sounds better… with speakers at least.

There have been a thousand well-informed and researched pieces about how loudness functions, and why things can and are often made loud that audiophiles still like – the latest Billie Eilish for example, has next to no technical dynamic range, and yet because of its clever arrangement and use of silence it gives the impression of huge dynamics. What I’m more interested in, however, is loudness and the quest for how maximum detail and loudness translate to headphones. There are a number of well-known mastering engineers in the biz nowadays who work extensively on headphones, and one or two who I happen to know work exclusively on headphones.

Of the differences with headphones a few standout as the really key factors when it comes to loudness: frequency response especially in the midrange, texture and detail especially in the bass, and dynamic range and phase information as it pertains to the mix. Those might all sound very complex but I think they’re actually pretty straightforward, focusing first on the frequency response and detail.

The first one has to do with program material, which in the case of American mastering studios often means close-mic’d vocals, and some kind of backing track ‘around’ the vocals, or in which they sit. A midrange boost in this situation will take the singer’s voice and place it right up front, super close and make it sound huge and hyper-detailed, again the aforementioned Billie Eilish is a great example, although for a more analog and ‘audiophile-approved’ track, you might listen to the ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ remaster off the 2011 QUEEN greatest hits album. The vocals are super clean, but again, heavily compressed for maximum detail and given a touch of midrange boost for that super aggressive, in-your-face sound. They sit a bit further back in the mix than the Billie Eilish, but are mixed essentially the same, with pretty much no reverb.

Now, with speakers this kind of midrange boost has the effect of making the sound kind of ‘leap’ from the speakers a bit, which can reinforce the phantom image. It brings the listener closer, exposes more detail and creates a greater sense of intimacy. In headphones however, extra midrange presence if often not needed, because all of the sound from the transducers is already close to the ears, and this can quickly go from the perception of someone singing in your ear to the perception of someone shouting in your ear… and the latter is definitely not pleasant.

Headphones already have that perception of detail and midrange presence, so in the context of mastering a slightly smaller midrange boost often works better, and this can also give the song the perception of more dynamic range, though it does come at the cost of a less perceptually loud master. This is also very closely related to the bass frequencies, which are even more different on headphones than the midrange.

In the bass, conventional wisdom in the mastering world is to compress it until you can get a nice steady RMS type of sine sound, something that pulses regularly and can be gently managed, rather than requiring specific and aggressive gain control. The more mono-dynamic and mono-textural the kick and low bass instruments, the easier to loudenate – yes that’s a technical term – it will be. On speakers, compressing and managing bass like this makes the bass incredibly punchy, and low bass rumble, can often be left in, as small systems won’t reproduce it, while large systems will benefit from displaying all that subterranean information. By contrast, headphones suffer from two limitations: dynamics and pressure are not in their favor.

On headphones, the very lowest bass frequencies are present, and may even be linear on a measurements rig, but even closed-back headphones lack the sense of dynamic punch that speakers have, and so your ear often ends up interpreting bass sounds below about 50-60hz as sort of vague pressure sensations. There’s not a real oomph to anything, but there is a ton of clarity and texture in the 80hz region. The result is that distortion or crackliness come through loud and clear, but the real weight of bass instruments and kick drums is lost. Again, compare the Billie Eilish on a stereo versus headphones. On headphones it’s prominent, but the ear is naturally drawn to the upper harmonics and texture, while on speakers the ear is more drawn to the scale and the sense of dynamics imparted by the silences. Outside of a handful of headphones which have exceptional bass slam and dynamic scale, bass on headphones can be a bit… lackluster. And something that may sound great with a light touch on headphones can reveal itself to be a total mess on speakers, though usually bass that sounds good on speakers will sound good on headphones.

In mastering, the music is not only turned up and limited, but the mastering engineer must also compensate for final tonal balance in three ways. The overall ‘sound of the album’ which we aren’t too worried about here, the frequency-dependent limiting factor, and the actual perceptual frequency response of the final track. Concerning the second, limiter’s will behave differently when slammed with a lot of bass versus a lot of midrange, which is to say, they distort quicker with too much bass. If the bass has been ‘RMS-ified’ as mentioned earlier, then midrange and potentially treble can be boosted quite a bit more to provide a bright and detailed sound which will increase perceptual loudness more than bass dynamics. This isn’t something that will show up in LUFS, but can certainly be heard. On headphones we don’t often need treble boosts, but for speakers it’s not a foreign concept.

This in turn is an important consideration for the song – despite the fact that a song may have an overall ‘dark’ tonal balance, at least in the mix, the master may end up being quite bright to bring out detail in an otherwise dark mix. If mixed purely on headphones, you might end up with something that sounds ever so slightly dark on speakers, though the reverse isn’t necessarily true. Remember how the midrange and bass are proportionally different than speakers? Stay tuned for part two as we’ll dive further into why that is and how it works, and examine some trends in music mastering that may help explain why you like different music on headphones versus speakers.

KaiS's picture

The louder the better???

I thought we'd finally overcome this concept, now that all streaming services use some kind of loudness equalization.

Today you can push up your master as much as possible - when streaming on Spotify e.g. it will not sound the smallest hair louder then any other track.

The streaming services equalize all tracks to their internal standard, same loudness.

What will happen:
If the mastering engineer sacrificed the sound quality for squeezing out the last dB of loudness, your track will sound inferior to others, squashed, boring, impactless - and very often full of audibly distortions and compression artifacts.

Put your title, original and mastered versions, into your DAW, compare them at the same perceived loudness, either by ear or using a LU meter.
If you did a great job with mixing your track, this will be an eye- (ear-) opener.

Of course there are reasons in the final touch up mastering gives to a track to use dynamic control and all kind of processing.
But just for loudness - this is an outdated concept.

For the record:
I am an audio engineer, producing, recording, mixing and mastering music for several decades in a high-class studio.
I know what I'm talking about.

Grover Neville's picture
Clients want what they want. Myself and the mastering engineers I know in LA, some of them quite well known, don't like it any better than the next person. I've done A/B swaps for clients to show them that getting turned down by the streaming services does nothing for them. They still ask for the louder mix almost every time. Even when they admit the 'proper' one sounds better. I wish it were as simple as principals always coming first, but a lot of the mixes still sound basically good and we in the production world often don't have the luxury of turning down a paycheck.
lamode's picture

Very disappointed to see this article here. Do you realize the lengths some of us have to go to just to find masters with maximum DR?

Grover Neville's picture
There are entire genres of music which have exceptional DRM ratings - most classical and jazz for example. A lot of bluegrass as well. I really enjoy those recordings too, and perosnally really enjoy listening to music that is not overly compressed. I'm hoping just to offer a perspective from my work in the music industry here.
IgAK's picture

Sorry, chum, I'm not going to "bemoan" this.
NO-O-O-O-O, I'm going to SHOUT it:

While battering our ears.

Louder, if you are really an audiophile, does NOT sound better. It is only more attention getting, an entirely different thing. A fool you for a moment or two thing and no better. What says REAL more than any other single attribute in reproduction, is dynamics. There is simply no getting around that! Between two tracks equally well reproduced otherwise, what makes it sound live - real -you are there at the event live sounding - is *dynamics*, and no excuse for why compression is unavoidable overcomes this.

So if *REAL* sounding reproduction is what we are supposedly about...then compression doesn't fly, except "in the face of"...

This nonsense sure pushed my uncompressed hot button! And yes, I have made direct comparisons and am not parroting any standardized attitudes. That is simply the way that this works when commercial considerations aren't t rumping good reproduction to elect something to the top 40's charts and such.

flamingeye's picture

I'm not to technical savvy , but I am a hard core music lover/audiophile . If I want it loud that's what my volume dial is for , I love all genre but rock, pop is what got me there and there are many rock/pop CD's I'd love to have but I can't play them on my high end system because of that loudness your speaking off . the more dynamic range the better .