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  Hot CD Disease!!!

Increasing loudness waveform  

The trend of increasing loudness as shown by waveform images of "Something" by The Beatles mastered on CD four times since 1983.
Courtesy Wikipedia

"I listened to all the CDs submitted to NARAS for consideration in the 'Best Engineered Non-Classical' Grammy category. Every single CD was squashed to death so that their CD would be the loudest.

Roger Nichols - Grammy winning engineer for Steely Dan, Beach Boys and more
- Jan. 2002 Eq Magazine

I wrote this article in 1999 and added to it occasionally. Along with many other mastering engineers, I honestly think music would sell more if it went back to a decent "standard" level. A STEP IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION, FINALLY, IS MASTERED FOR iTUNES. And it's notable that iTunes Radio turns DOWN super loud audio masters - and Apple encourages dynamics to be put BACK in music for the sake of better sound!

Meanwhile, what I've been saying since in this largely ancient article from 1999...

The recent (2005 to 2014)
hot CD levels have become the standard. The labels and A-List artists have dictated how we should "calibrate" sound quality through more and more ridiculous volume. Louder CD's don't sound as good on the air, and they can be more fatiguing to the ear.  Truly, the "good ol' days" when vinyl (records) kept the playing field more even have faded...

But the good news is that we've developed HD Separation Mastering, which actually restores dynamics, even at hot levels. (Maybe not STUPID hot, but competitively hot levels.) Contact us to inquire about how to get mega-hot levels and still keep the feel of a dynamic mix. Meanwhile...

12.12.06 - I was working on a Separations project and things were going well, just a few tweaks were in order.  The client mentioned that toward the end of a particular song, the "volume dropped."  What actually happened was: in the place where the volume dropped, they had added in more instruments to their music, which in turn saturated the overall signal!

Filling up with more instruments makes a waveform more complex. This makes it harder to hear what's going on. Key: fewer instruments are easier to get louder.

When the client added more instruments, more density/complexity added to the mix displaced the openness required for a louder sound.  The "Teeter Totter Principle" was at work! More density/more music, less space = less volume. Hint: Hip hop music sounds really really loud because the arrangements are sparse, not dense! 

Creating insanely loud CD volume comes with a price - you have to limit the amount of stuff that you pile on top of other stuff - because the waveform changes as it gets louder.  Here's a huge message that all the LOUD CD fans can consider....

Percussive things like drums suffer the more the overall volume is raised. This may sound "smooth" to you. It's because the peaks have to be reduced. You lose character to the peaks. The more the mass of the song is raised, the more sustain develops, especially in the bottom frequencies. More sustain = more drone. More drone = less punch. Punch comes from PRESENCE followed by ABSENCE OF PRESENCE.

I have to tell you that in this world of loud digital music. we WERE at a point of NO HEADROOM WHATSOEVER. Whenever there is clipping, there are NO BONUS dBs after 0dBFS. What that means is that if you add something to the ALREADY-MAXED sound, something has to give DOWNWARD. Many mixers don't listen to SPACE. What is open underneath the thing(s) I really want to hear clearly. 

(Tip: Don't think of the little red clipping "over" lights the same way you would think of the red area on a VU meter... it's not even close to being the same...
VU meters are missing 11 dB above the +3 mark in order to "register" anything close to a "zero point" - 0dBFS....)

[2014 - What's great is that Mastered for iTunes is cooling our "loud" jets a bit, and it's about time...]

Note! Anything music that sounds great on an exceptionally loud CD has been musically arranged to accommodate a saturated waveform while still leaving some trace of musical muscle in tact.  If something is loud, it is because space has been created behind it to allow it to come forward and be heard.  To keep this all working on your song, I must decrease something in order to accommodate your more-of-everything musical arrangement.  The saying "Less is more." means less stuff piled on top of everything will allow for more sound to come through. 

I will try cutting off the low end of the backup vocals at that point of your song.  Low frequencies have more energy, so if I reduce some lows, it will be a thinner additive that comes in on top of the already-maxed sound.  If this project was not using Separations, you would have to set the level of the entire song based on this last portion of the music... make that right... and then live with the rest of the song at a lower volume... or you would have to figure this phenomena out and remix this portion of the song. 

The major lesson: at loud levels, only so much sound will come through and retain it's punch.  Add more and more instruments and fill up more sound space, and the punch gives way to longer more sustained and even (square?) waveforms.  Punch comes from something being louder than something else that is softer.  If NOTHING is softer, then the result is smooth sustain, the opposite of wide excursions of varying sound wave levels (and therefore corresponding varying speaker movements).

This becomes frustrating when you make your mix - and it sounds fine. But then it goes to mastering and I'm adding all this gain in the "no bonus room" department.   Try adding 15 dB of level to your mixes and see how they react!  Mastering didn't used to be a place where the mixes got squashed into whipped butter!  Big-label mixing engineers often understand just how much stuff must be removed at mix time in order to allow for that big sound to stay big.  Quincy Jones, I think, once said that a mix was finished when there was no more stuff that could be taken out of the mix without losing the flavor.  Sparse arrangements = loud punchy music.  Take rap for example.  Often, it's sparse instrumentation mixed back so that the drums are huge by comparison.  It's all about what's RELATIVE to something else. 

Given all that.... some loud CDs can sound very good, but over a long period of time, squashed waveforms lose their natural breath - which is part of what keeps music interesting.
Why the big volume contest?

Record companies know that consumers listen to music in the OPPOSITE way that musicians play it.

Musicians play music at normal volume, and when they want it to be more exciting, they punch it louder.

The home listener is different. They turn their stereo to a comfortable listening level. When they hear something softer, they perceive it as being weaker.

Since record companies don't want their artist's CD to sound weaker than anybody else ... they almost always strive for the loudest sound possible, not the most ideal sound possible.

The down side: Some artists are flattening out their sound.... rendering it punch-less and distorted... with no low end muscle, soggy mid-highs and flat high end. They're using tons of pluggins and compressors (more info on compression here) to approach what mastering does to get those CDs hot.

The rub.... as the CDs of 2007 get even hotter than 2006 and 2005, you almost have to slam and compress your mix... because the mix frickin' changes as you limit those pesky dynamics!!!!!  How else will you know if you're putting enough kic in the mix...? or enough clarity on the vocals (cause the instruments just keep a comin' up as the mix gets squashed....)?  How do you know what to do to PREDICT how to mix for a hotter final CD???

Rule: In order to cut a slammin hot CD, you must smoothly limit the peaks in order to not create clipping which can sound harsh and fatiguing in time.  Yet, the whole effect of a musical peak (like say on a kick drum) is that the waveform surges out over the music. The peak sound has a cool impact that stands up from the other sounds. This is punch that comes from a wider speaker excursion caused by that bigger peak, which means the speaker is actually moving more air... farther - therefore... more punch.

When you flatten out all these peaks by over-compressing or hard limiting and bring up the softer material that is all around those peaks, the speaker excursion (distance it moves) is relatively smaller (in relation to the softer parts) - thereby reducing the punch of the music. Granted, the overall sound is louder coming off the CDR, but the overall sound is flatter and less open sounding.  Everything is more in-your-face all the time. 

High-tech hint: There are different kinds of loudness. One that is sometimes overlooked is called "apparent loudness" which is a frequency-dependent kind of level. This is a phenomena whereby the meter level doesn't increase but the apparent volume does. Use your ears, and pay close attention to the arrangements of top-drawer commercial CDs.  Less is more! 
Q) John, can you reduce the guitars on the sides of my mixes and bring up the drums in the center for more punch? -Jeff

This question was submitted before we started doing HD Separation Mastering which solves issues like this.  However if someone is using a traditional stereo mix, we can reduce the width of the side guitars, but as the drums in the center come up, the vocal and other elements in the center will come up as well.  Taking the guitars down will "teeter-totter" everything up in the center of a 2-track mix.  A subtle change may do the job - it's all about preferences and references. 
Before Separations, we would say "we can't make an apple into an orange. we can, however, shine up the apple."  Using Separations, we can in fact actually create an "appleorange."  In all cases, creating the final balance is always about the teeter-totter effect.  If we tilt one thing back, something else comes forward.  The same is true with the arrangement of the instruments - add more and more instruments and it's harder to hear the drums.  The teeter-totter effect is the same for actual frequencies - you have to carve a "frequency hole" for other elements to come through and be heard.  It's important to know how mastering affects mixes, so experiment with pre-squashing your mixes to see what needs to be done to keep the music punchy.

Problem: How do you keep your mixes hot and punchy without owning a high-end mastering rig?
Solution: Create Separations.  No more alternate mixes, no more late night debates - get your mix to sound great and create separated musical elements -- and in mastering, it all comes together.  If you have 14 songs and #8 needs the vocal brought up a bit, simply open the non-destructive file format and bring up the vocal.  If song #10 needs more drums... go for it.  If you prefer the stereo mix, it's all there in the format - nothing is sacrificed.

Most important: Save time by doing homework, and get the mix correct. The best way to do that is to A/B your mixes with commercial CD productions on a level-matched system.  Leave headroom in your mixes (2dBFS is good) and build the excitement into the individual tracks for a musically vibrant, punchy sound.  Then let the mastering engineer send it through the roof for ya. With $100,000 worth of eq's, compressors & such in the processing chain, the chances are that you'll end up with just as much level with more punch and musical impact... and a CD that is more pleasant to listen to over a longer period of time... because it will breathe more naturally than a total squashed-to-the-max stereo mixdown.  And yes, the mastering process might cost a bit more than that cool $150 SuperGodSmasher Plugin for your PC...  add in the flexibility of the Separations format, and so long as you've made good sonic/recording/arranging/production decisions during your project, you'll have a competitive final sound. 

Put more
energy into your mixdown "performance". It's more exciting and more magical, and it's worth it. For this reason I don't recommend mixing through a Finalizer unless you are very conservative with the settings. It makes it too easy for everything to sound good. I've mixed this way, and I immediately knew what the problem was once I got my own mix into the mastering room.

Hey, this is a no-rules business, and certainly everything you've done up to this point may be exactly what the doctor ordered for your project to hit the top ten - exactly as it is.... so use your best creative judgment, have fun, and DON'T get addicted to the technology!!! Keep your music first and use top-notch talent every step of the way - at a price that's appropriate for you. Get people involved, promote relentlessly, and have a good time along the way.

More info: Wikipedia,  great article on Dr. Lex' site and more here about the end of dynamic range.

Remember the rules:

1. There are no rules.
2. If you can't make Separations, make alternate mixes so you aren't boxed
into a creative corner.

3. Label your masters. Clearly. ID numbers, song names, take notes, etc.
4. If possible, don't use audio CDR's in for mastering - use original 24 or 32 bit files!
5. Leave a second of "air" before your song starts when making a mix or a Separation file

Vestman High Definition Mastering
Laurie Morvan Band - Fire It Up!
Laurie Morvan
HD Separations
Stephen Stills
Stephen Stills
Fly Miracle Project
Chaka Khan - Fly Miracle Project
Chaka Khan
Fly Miracle Project
Spiritual Chillout
Spiritual Chillout
Brazil's A cappella BR6
Brazil's BR6
Arthur Adams
Arthur Adams
Blues legend

"I have been to "world famous" mastering facilities and John's abilities and ears are right in that league. As long as I make CD's, I will have John Vestman master my work."

-Andy Roth, God Help Me! Music

Created 11/10/99 Modified 11/22/14
Keys to getting a bigger sound on tape even before mastering
Info about compression
More info about cutting hot CD's/audio files

8-Channel mixer with A-B functions

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