This guide outlines five methods musicians use to boost the perceived loudness of sounds and achieve a more balanced mix.
For decades, musicians and engineers alike have been drawn to the warmth, low-end punch, cohesion, drive, and overall presence of various types of harmonic distortion effects.
Introducing harmonic distortion to a signal adds musical overtones to the fundamental frequency of a sound. Bringing out these harmonic overtones imparts a pleasing analog characteristic that enhances sounds in various ways. Applying harmonic distortion will also employ subtle compression which rounds off transient peaks more naturally. This type of dynamic control often called ‘soft clipping’ sounds more musical because the peaks are not cut off like when digital distortion occurs.
There is a range of different distortion models, each inspired by the vintage character of tape, tubes, transistors, and other circuitry. There are also several types of distortion effects such as saturation, bit-crushers, overdrive, guitar amps, and expanders. The various types emphasize harmonics differently from subtle to extreme in ways that brings out a unique character to your sounds and increases perceived loudness.
Compression is another essential treatment deployed for achieving a fuller, richer, punchier, and more controlled mix. Compressors have dramatically different purposes ranging from subtle dynamic reduction to radical tone shaping. However, when it comes down to it, they simply make sounds louder when used correctly.
In simple terms, compression reduces the dynamic range between the loudest and quietest parts of an audio signal. This dynamic control tames transient peaks, creates more headroom, and balances the signal giving you a more consistent volume. Clamping down on rogue or sporadic transients also helps prevent clipping and allows you to drive the signal harder into a limiter.
Parallel compression, also called New York compression, is another form of dynamic processing that will enhance your sounds and increase perceived loudness. This method involves duplicating a signal, heavily compressing the copy, and then blending the two tracks together. The original signal keeps its dynamics, while the compressed one adds punch and power. This method is an excellent way to add presence and depth while making sounds more consistent.
Also, treating your mix with compression in stages serves better results as well. Try applying subtle amounts of compression on the master, group buses, and individual tracks separately. This method spreads out the workload and maintains more natural cohesiveness.
Equalization is an efficient process used for cleaning up a mix, correcting problems, adding depth, and exercising creatively in various ways. However, equalization is also highly effective at making mixes louder.
Boosting frequencies is often the go-to move for emphasizing the most musical parts of a sound. However, boosting multiple sounds can cause headroom problems and can make elements in a mix sound unnatural when increased excessively.
A much more beneficial way of increasing perceived loudness is with subtractive equalization. Cutting frequencies is a more natural way of sculpting sounds.
For example, low frequencies produce much more energy than high frequencies. A buildup of low frequencies causes headroom problems and clarity issues which will reduce perceived loudness. Cutting the unwanted sub frequencies will instantly create more headroom and clarity which in return will make the mix louder. This method also emphasizes the higher frequencies without having to boost them.
It’s also important to add that high-pass filtering everything is not always ideal in some cases. There may be times when the low-mids cause issues rather than the lows. This area takes a little more focus, but with practice, you will learn what needs cutting and how much to create more headroom.
Creating space for individual sounds across the stereo spectrum is crucial to achieving a great mix. Several problems occur when too many sounds fight for the same space in the mix. The best way to create space, enhance stereo width, and deliver a more immersive musical experience is with panning.
Panning is necessary to correct sounds that sit in the same frequency range or sonic space. Placing sounds to the left and right at different areas of the stereo image creates separation. This method reduces the chance of multiple sounds masking each other, making it harder to hear them. Giving sounds their own space also allows them to cut through the mix better which in return increases perceived loudness.
Your mix will sound flat and lifeless if you keep everything centered or mono. Try placing your lower frequency sounds near the center and work outward panning higher frequency content out the furthest.
Limiting is necessary to achieving competitive commercial levels. If you followed all the advice above, you should be ready to drive your sounds or mix into a limiter more successfully.
Limiters allow you to create an overall louder or fuller sound by reducing the dynamic range and boosting the perceived level. They are essentially aggressive compressors, except they stop the signal from going over a certain threshold. Like compression, the goal is to maximize the level of your mixes without sacrificing dynamics and clarity.
Limiters typically sit at the end of an effects chain and are often used as the last treatment move. It’s important to have your mix sounding right before limiting. If your mix lacks punch, sense of depth, and the balance is off, then a limiting will make things sound unsatisfactory.
Bonus: Quality Material
Higher quality sounds simply sound better and often require less processing. Material that has more body, punch, and dynamics will sound louder and more full than flat sounding recordings.