46: How Loud Should My Songs Be?

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Have you ever had one of your songs randomly come up on a playlist immediately after a commercial release and wondered, “why is it so quiet…and thin?” 

This can be a frustrating experience. It can leave you thinking that you just don’t have the tools or the knowledge to get a “professional” sounding record. 

While there are, of course, many factors that go into the quality of a finished production, “loudness” is one factor that will reliably lie to us and make our comparisons confusing at best – or useless at worst. 

Understanding how we perceive loudness, how we control loudness and how keep loudness from lying to us are absolutely key to a successful DIY production. 

In this episode you will learn:

  • What “loudness” even means in the context of a production and why it’s more than just turning the volume knob in your car up or down. 
  • Some reasons why you may want to make your song louder
  • Why things that are “louder” can sometimes sound better and why this is dangerous
  • The history of the loudness wars and why they’re actually slowly coming to an end
  • What you sacrifice by pushing your song to louder levels 
  • A brief overview of the concept of “dynamic range”
  • A better way to compare your mixes and productions to commercial releases
  • Some helpful analytical tools and techniques for figuring how loud your song should be
  • About dynamic range through real-world examples the guys play for you to compare
  • And more!

Where to Find the Guys
The DIY Recording Guys Website – www.diyrecordingguys.com
Vadim’s Studio Site – Get your FREE test mix today! – https://calmfrogrecording.com
Benjamin’s Studio Site – https://dreamloudstudio.com
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What Is Loudness?

To start let’s define what loudness is and how we can measure and control it. Loudness (in the recording world) is defined as how close we can get our music to the digital ceiling which is 0db. In this case, we’re talking about the average volume of the song getting to 0 not the peaks of the signal. A few ways to measure loudness are through, RMS, LUFS, VU Meters. Keep in mind that there is a difference between actual loudness and perceived loudness. As an example consider the loud subwoofers at a concert that vibrates the room and compare that to an infant crying and screaming. To the listener, the crying infant doesn’t seam as loud as the subwoofer at the concert, but it sticks out so much more to our ears. Our ears are designed to be more sensitive to certain frequencies by nature.

Can I just turn the knob or push the fader up?

Pushing up your fader will make your song louder, but if you push it your signal too far it will eventually start to clip and that clipping will distort what what you are listening to. Can you get your songs louder without clipping? Yes! The first way to get your signal louder is to compress your signal. When you compress you are making the peaks and the valleys of your signal closer to each other which will give you more headroom. Once you have that headroom you can then raise the volume of your tracks with less risk of clipping and distortion. Another way of thinking about this is to think of it in terms of dynamic range, which is the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of the song. By compressing your signal you decrease your dynamic range which allows you to turn your now compressed signal’s volume up.

My Song Sounds better when I raise the volume. How loud should my song be?

When we listen to music at loud volumes they not only sound louder, but also better and fuller. That’s due to a psychoacoustic effect that fools our ears into perceiving louder things as better. This effect is called the Fletcher-Munson effect. When we listen to music at lower levels our ears have perceive the sound in a “U” shape frequency response. Our ears are more sensitive to low and high frequencies at lower volumes as compared to mid-range frequencies. The louder that a sound source becomes, the more our ears level off and our sensitivity to all frequencies gets flatter.

Knowing this, should we squash the life out of our music using compression? How heavily can we compress our songs so that we can reach the maximum loudness? People listening all have the ability to turn up the song with their volume knob so why should you care about increasing the perceived loudness on the recording and producing side of the speakers?

  • Consider how songs with wider dynamic ranges can risk losing the quietest parts of the song to the outside noise heard by someone listening to music while driving or taking a walk.
  • Radios combat this by additionally compressing their signals so the dynamic ranges aren’t as wide and nothing gets lost.
  • Generally speaking, music that has smaller dynamic ranges tends to sound better because the compression tends to glue the song together. Compression can be used in a musical way. This is true across the board for nearly all genres of music with a few exceptions (think classical music or live acoustic performances).

Why can’t we just push our songs as loud as possible using compression?

  • The louder you push your signal into a limiter (high ratio compressor) the more your low end seems to lose energy and presence.
  • You also begin to lose all sense of dynamics in your music the more you push the song into a limiter. Those dynamics make your music sound punchy and alive so it’s important to keep some and not eliminate them completely.

The Loudness Wars

From about 1997 up until the peak in 2010 we experienced what we now call “The Loudness War”. During this time engineers were trying to push their songs to be the loudest that they could be to make their songs artificially sound better than their contemporaries. Death magnetic by Metallica is one of the most notorious albums to suffer from an over-compressed sound. For that album in particular, there was a big push to try and get it to sound as loud as possible. This caused people to start protesting against the loudness of the album. One of the earliest examples and an album often attributed to kicking off the loudness wars is Californication by the Red Hot Chili peppers.

Thankfully over the past decade, a lot of music-industry creators, producers and engineers (including us) have come to the conclusion that loudness is over hyped. This is a very good thing!

The De-escalation of the “War”

Streaming platforms have helped to de-escalate the loudness wars by instituting normalization of audio, which is volume matching the levels of songs to ensure all songs are played back at the same level. This was birthed out of a “playlist era” behavior of music listeners where it’s desirable to have all songs at the same levels. This allows us to preserve some of our dynamic range because streaming will turn it down to match all the other songs at a certain level. Be aware that music streaming will turn down songs but generally won’t turn them up so make sure your music is at a minimally loud level and use references from music that you like in a similar genre to base your levels off of. Unfortunately the loudness wars are still technically in full effect on SoundCloud that don’t employ these normalizations.

The Good, The Bad, and Dynamic Range

  • Dynamics are typically harder to perceive than the loudness of a track. When comparing songs the louder one will always sound better to us, but if you level-match them to a more dynamic version, the dynamic version will tend sound better compared to the overly-compressed one.
  • The transients of a song are what makes the music sound punchy and impactful. Over-compressing them can reduce their impact. Going too heavy handed with compression can also result in weird, distortion artifacts and vacuum-like, sucking sound to your music.

Measuring and Comparing Loudness

Now that the specifics and technical stuff is behind us let’s talk about how to measure loudness and accurately compare and actively listen to your mixes and masters. The only way to properly compare things is to level match them. When level matching it’s better to trust your ears and balance the loudness between the two to make sure you aren’t just picking one because it’s louder. If you have any questions, you can always email us vadim@diyrecordingguys.com and