The -6dB Rule

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Been seeing a lot of new producers asking why they should keep their DAW master meters around -6dBFS (or -3dBFS, -4dBFS, etc). While a lot of mastering engineers are the ones asking for mixdowns this way, there seems to be some confusion that this is something that is needed for mastering. In truth, mastering engineers could care less what the headroom of your tracks is, as long as there is some.

The real reason you want to try and keep some headroom in your mix downs is to make sure that you’re not inadvertently clipping. A lot of synths and effects use random modulations, even some dynamics processors are designed to mimic analog processors and thus might have slight variations each time you process audio through them.

By aiming to keep roughly 6dB of headroom on the master channel as you do your mix, you’re just ensuring that some of this randomness doesn’t clip. Just because your mix peaks at exactly -1dBFS one time when you play the song, doesn’t mean it will peak to that same value each and every time. Leaving some headroom just eliminates having to worry about this, it’s a safety net, nothing more.

In a perfect world if you’re 100% sure your mix is not clipping, you can render it as close to 0dBFS as you want. But that doesn’t mean that you’re going to gain anything by doing so, your mix won’t sound better.  So there’s really no need to push things that hard and risk clipping your file permanently.

As you can see, I tend to tell people to aim for roughly -6dBFS, but that’s just a personal preference. Some people recommend -3dBFS as well, either will work fine, just be sure you’re also working at 24bit or higher.

So what if your mix is too hot, and you don’t know the best way to fix it? In general I tell people it’s best to get in the habit of leaving the master fader at 0 and just lowering all the tracks by the same amount until you have the headroom you want. But there’s really nothing wrong with just lowering the master fader too, if that works better because you have a lot of track volume automation for instance. Use whatever is easiest for you, the key is just to get that safety in place.

I hope that helps clear some of this up, let me know if you have any questions!

Mixing and Mastering in Ableton Live – Decibel Festival 2014

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Just wanted to take a second to let any Seattle people know about a seminar I will be co-hosting with fellow mastering engineer and Certified Live Instructor Jake Perrine at this years Decibel Festival.  We will be talking about mixing and mastering using Ableton Live, and it will be a round table discussion featuring some of the artists from this year’s Decibel Festival line-up.  Still waiting on final confirmation from a couple of the artists, I’ll post who will be involved shortly.

Hoping to meet some of you there, please stop by and say hi before or after the seminar.  I plan on hanging out at the conference most of Thursday and Friday, so don’t be shy if you see me!  🙂

The seminar will be Friday, September 26th from 12:30-1:30 PM in the JBL Theater at the EMP Museum.   It’s FREE, so I hope to see a bunch of you there!

For more details on the Decibel Festival Conference, please visit:

http://dbfestival.com/db2014/conference

Thanks everyone!

The Anniversary Wrap Up

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Well, I thought it might be a crazy idea I’d come to regret, but my decision to offer 24 hours of free mastering as part of my Studio’s 5 year anniversary ended up being a real success.  I was able to meet a lot of new producers, and quite a few former clients I hadn’t heard from in a couple years came out of the woodwork too.  Not to mention the fact that it ended up being a lot of fun getting to work on so much new music, and across so many different styles too!

Quite a few of the producers I worked with were happy to let me use their tracks to update the before and after section of my website too, so I’ll have some mastering examples everyone can check out in a couple weeks.  Gotta find time to update the website first  🙂

One of the comments I got from multiple people was that they were very impressed with the results given my minimal gear collection these days.  It made me realize that perhaps that’s in fact why I like mastering so much, by it’s definition it’s almost minimalist processing of audio.  Do only as much as is needed to improve the mix, and leave everything else untouched to let the producers’ intention and styles come through still.

It’s no wonder I like this job so much, being a confirmed minimalist myself these days!  Though I have to say that new Fabfilter Pro-Q update is looking very sweet, so I might be adding to my EQ collection shortly!  Check it out:

http://youtu.be/GYTCQeggyzo

More than anything though, this recent anniversary made me realize how lucky I am to have the job I do.  And that I need to redouble my efforts to reach even more producers who might need mastering.  I want to make the world sound better one song at a time!

With that, time to get back to work.  Until next time!

Peace and beats,
Erik M.

 

 

5 Years & Free Mastering

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It’s truly hard for me to believe, but today marks the 5 year anniversary since I started running Inner Portal Studio full-time.  It’s been quite a journey so far, and I couldn’t have done it without all the support and trust of the hundreds of musicians I’ve worked with in that time.  As a way of saying thanks and giving something back, for the next 24 hours I will be offering….

… free mastering.

Yep, you read that right.  From now until 10:00 AM PST, August 19th I will master ONE of your tracks for free.  I expect to receive a LOT of tracks during this offer, so I’m requiring the following from people submitting songs to make sure this goes as smoothly as possible:

1. Please read and follow my usual guidelines on how to prepare your tracks for mastering: http://innerportalstudio.com/mastering/.

2. I am only accepting tracks sent to me via my Uploader: http://innerportalstudio.com/upload/.

3. All file names MUST include your name and the song name, i.e. “Artist Name – Song Name.wav”.

4. On the Upload form you will see the field “Type Your Message”.  You MUST include your real name, your artist name, the song name, and anything else I should know about your track and what you’re looking for in the mastering.

5. Please send me an email at Erik@InnerPortalStudio.com letting me know you submitted a track, and send it from the same email address that you put on the Upload form.  PLEASE include your Artist name and the Song name in the subject line as well.

6. When the offer is over, it’s over, so please don’t ask if you can submit late or if I can refund a previous mastering job.

Let me know if you have any questions, otherwise I look forward to working on your tracks!  Thanks everyone for an incredible 5 years so far, here’s to 5 more!

Erik
InnerPortalStudio.com

Welcome To The New Blog!

Woo hoo, welcome to the new blog location.  Sorry if you got multiple notifications for this blog post the last day or so, still working out a couple last minute bugs with notifications.  Ummm, that’s all I have, but more soon!

(Strymon Timeline review…..)

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Promoting Yourself

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Recently I had a friend send me an email to ask me how I went about attracting clients, as he was trying to get work doing audio engineering and was struggling a bit. It’s one of the many variations on a question I get asked all the time, how do I get work in the audio field? While this guide in general tends to stick with answering that question in terms of audio engineering, I think a lot of the things I recommend can apply in other fields too.

Someone told me when I was starting up my business that it’s 90% getting the work, and 10% actually doing the work.  It took awhile for that to really sink in, but over the last 5 years that I’ve been a full-time mastering engineer it’s really hit home how much time you need to spend to attract new people to work with. These days there’s just so many more “audio engineers” online promoting their businesses, so I’d say it’s probably more like 95% – 5% actually.  Not trying to be discouraging, there’s just a lot of people out there wanting to be audio engineers, mastering engineers, mix engineers, etc. It’s almost as crowded and competetitive a field as being a musician these days!

My start was slow, but I also didn’t really plan on doing this full-time initially. I was just having fun and making some extra money at the time, and I think that’s the best way to start. You don’t need to graduate college or some audio engineering school (ahem) and instantly be a booked-solid engineer. It’d be nice, sure, but that’s a rock star pipe dream. Happens to a few, but it’s definitely the exception and not the rule, so at least have a realistic plan in place for the long haul.

I did mastering on the side along with a normal day job for 10 years before I felt I had enough clients to go full-time, and even then it can still be pretty close some months.  I’ve tried all forms of advertising, web banners, forum signatures, Facebook, print ads, Google ads, you name.  The ONLY thing that has ever worked in my case was word of mouth from happy clients.  Everything else was just a huge waste of money.You need to make people see what you do as valuable, and they need to trust that you know what you’re doing with some many other people they could choose instead.

My blog and my production guides are a huge asset for me in this area, because a lot of people know me for those initially, and then find out I do mastering (usually).  By then I’ve already established some minimal trust, and hopefully shown I know what I’m talking about.  It makes people more comfortable in taking that initial chance on handing over their money.  I’m not saying you should do the same, just that you have to leverage everything you do to help nudge people towards working with you. And to not over do it at the same time, something that’s more of a struggle than most people realize.  Nobody pays attention to someone constantly pushing something at them 🙂

Oh, and always act like a professional online, people can google anything you ever wrote at any time these days, and trust me they do when researching you.  Avoid the flame wars, be nice to people (even trolls), and generally be as easy to get along with as you can.

I guess the core of what I’m trying to say is, you need to put your efforts into making people want to work with YOU. Having the right tools, experience, all that of that is certainly important, but those things should be a given if you’re serious about what you do. And the competition will have those things in place too, so it’s not really a selling point. It’s like trying to talk someone into buying a car by saying it comes with 4 wheels. 🙂

Stay positive, and Most of all, don’t give up!

iOS Mastering Apps Comparison


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As a full-time mastering engineer who likes to make music on an iPad in my spare time, it’s no surprise I have an interest in the recent flux of mastering related iOS apps coming out these days. Add to that how many people I see on various forums lately asking which of the options is better, and I thought it would be a good idea to take a look at a few of the more popular mastering apps and see how they compare. I’ll be looking at the following apps in this review:

Audio Mastering by iMusicAlbum $12.99

Final Touch by Positive Grid, Inc. $12.99

Auria with Fabfilter in app purchases $49.00 + IAP’s

This isn’t a full review of each app, those are already online if you want to learn more about the specifics of how each of them work.  Rather, I wanted to see what things (good and bad) stood out in each app, and how they directly compare to each other in terms of functionality and sound quality. For this comparison I am listening to each app with my iPad Air connected to a Lynx Hilo DAC via the Apple Camera Connection Kit, an Emotiva XPA-2 amplifier, and finally my Tyler Acoustic D2x monitors.  Custom room treatments by GIK Acoustics USA.

I’m using a few songs I wrote entirely on the iPad for testing purposes, in a variety of genres.  Most have a good bit of low frequency information useful for testing dynamics processors, and they were made on the iPad and thus keep with the iOS theme.  Audio Mastering and Final Touch both can function as Audiobus and Inter-App Audio effects, as well as load files via Audioshare, Audio Copy, etc.  Auria is a dedicated DAW in it’s own right, and functions as an IAA host, as well as Audiobus Output. For all three apps I used iTunes file-sharing to import my songs however, and it was quick and painless in each case.

Because Audio Mastering and Final Touch both are similar all-in-one mastering solutions (ala Ozone on the desktop), I’m going to focus on the comparing them first, then discuss how the Auria method of iOS mastering differs.  Let’s get to it then…

Being all in one solutions, Audio Mastering and Final Touch both share a lot of features, though more differences than I expected too. Both allow you to insert various mastering related processors into your signal chain, though in Audio Mastering’s case, the order of effects is fixed. It still largely makes sense except for putting the reverb in front of the compressor, but then again I personally have never understood the need for a reverb in 99.999% of all mastering. Regardless, point for Final Touch for allowing your to freely change the order of processors, as well as for having two EQs available.

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Navigating in both apps is basically through tabs for each type of processor, with navigating done via dedicated transport buttons and a waveform you can scroll with your finger. Final Touch has the waveform visible at all times, while there’s a dedicated tab you need to go to in Audio Mastering in order to change the playback position precisely. Almost another point for Final Touch, but it has this weird fade-in it does each time the playhead is moved or playback begins. Makes it difficult when you’re trying to narrow in on a problematic transient I found.

One big difference in the apps is that aside from just audio processing, Audio Mastering can also apply user defined fade-in and fade-outs, convert file types before saving, as well as loop portions of the waveform if needed. So for more detailed and precise audio problem-solving, I find that Audio Mastering has the lead here.

Alright alright, but how do they sound is all anyone wants to know, right?

EQ

Of the two, I preferred the sound of Audio Mastering’s EQ to the one in Final Touch. Sweeping the mids you can hear that it’s a very smooth and natural sound, there’s very little phasey-ness happening around the active band. It does what you want and stays out of the way. The Final Touch EQ isn’t bad at all, but it can get a bit harsh the more you boost it,  it definitely imprints it’s own sound with more than a few dB’s boost. Opening the Q helps some, but I still preferred the sound of the Audio Mastering EQ for most uses.

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However I have to point out that Final Touch EQ can also be used in mid-side mode, in fact almost all of the Final Touch processors can run in M/S mode, and that’s a huge bonus. I use M/S processing a lot in my mastering work, it can work wonders when you learn to think from an M/S perspective!  Also of note is the fact that every EQ band can be set to multiple types ala low pass, high pass, peak, shelf, etc.  If you just need a few small EQ tweaks in your track, Final Touch definitely has more options in how you use it.

The built-in analyzer in both EQs work fine, though in Final Touch they are definitely smoother and better reacting, as are all the meters in Final Touch. The interface overall is generally smoother in Final Touch if I’m honest, everything moves fluidly and it’s very easy to find exactly what you’re looking for. Audio Mastering looks and feels more like a piece of lab equipment, precise and designed for a very specific and functional purpose.  🙂

Moving on…

Compression.

Both Final Touch and Audio Mastering are set up by default to work as multi-band compressors, though Audio Mastering can also be set to single-band, which is likely how I would use it for most of my mastering work. You’d be surprised at how little multi-band compression is actually used in professional mastering, but I digress…

In it’s single band mode, I thought Audio Mastering sounded very good and would likely be my first choice between both apps if that were it.   Transparent and works exactly like you’d expect, this is not a colored compression.  However in multi-band mode, I preferred Final Touch for both it’s sound and ease of use. Although strangely, there’s no way to see your actual gain reduction when using compression in Final Touch, which seems like an odd thing to remove from a compressor!  Maybe I’m missing something…

The compressor display in Audio Mastering is slightly confusing, and working with multiple bands feels like it takes a lot of tapping to get things done. One thing that’s true across Audio Mastering though, it’s much easier to nail precise settings thanks to the large faders for almost every parameter.

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Final Touch’s multi-band compressor is pretty easy to figure out, and overall sounds decent for what it is.  Though as I mentioned, I thought dialing in precise setting with the little dials a bit fiddly at times. To sum up, for compression I’d normally reach for Audio Mastering in single-band mode, but if I needed multi-band compression (and I rarely do) then Final Touch would get the nod.

Reverb.

Hands down Final Touch wins this one, unfortunately it’s not even close. Having a lot of reverb experience from their guitar apps pays off it seems, the reverbs are much more realistic and better sounding than those in Audio Mastering. In fact, Audio Mastering’s reverb is the most perplexing thing about the app for me. It’s more like an echo pre-delay sort of thing than a true reverb. It gives space without muddying things up, but it’s still a very artificial sound to my ears.

Considering this is the least important tool in the mastering chain (IMVHO), not really a big deal either way.

Spatial Tools.

Of the two, Audio Mastering gives you slightly more control over adjusting your spatial parameters for things like stereo spread or making the low end more mono-compatible, with multiple user-defined processing bands available. There’s also a built-in harmonic exciter (which I thought sounded pretty good in small doses), something Final Touch doesn’t have.

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However I personally find Final Touch a little easier to use, and the metering a bit more helpful in actually setting the parameters. Final Touch also has simple tools for checking mono compatibility, flipping channel phase, and swapping left and right channels.  While I would probably choose Final Touch for the interface alone, either one is more than good enough for the tiny tweaks processors like this usually handle in mastering.

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Limiting.

It’s hard not to associate loudness with the term mastering, as it’s what most people attribute the mastering process to. While this is handled typically by peak limiters in the studio, both apps here call these processors Maximizers.

Both limiters sounded more than good enough for transparent limiting of a few dBs, and they both surprised me by how far they could be pushed before distorting (handy for you Beatport producers 🙂 ).

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This time it’s Final Touch that gets more control over the limiting parameters, including one of the most comprehensive dithering sections I’ve seen in almost any app, iOS or otherwise. Struck me as odd that they simplified in so many other areas (I.E. no compressor gain reduction), but choose to offer a huge range of choices here.

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However, despite having a lessor degree of control, I found that when pushed hard I preferred the sound of the maximizer in Audio Mastering more than Final Touch by a little bit. It was easier to retain transients and if I was called on to make things stupid loud it would go a bit further than Final Touch before starting to distort.  This is only in extreme cases, like I said for light to normal limiting duties, either app works just fine in this regard.
The more I think about it, the harder it becomes for me to say that one is better than the other. The basic mastering tools in each are more than capable for self-mastering your own releases. They each have additional tools that are slightly different from each other too, things like harmonic exciters and additional EQs.

Overall I found that Final Touch was easier to navigate in, and also simpler to figure out the controls for the devices. That doesn’t mean that Audio Mastering was difficult, just that with the flat display (which I prefer normally) and the single color interface, it can take a few seconds to find what you’re looking for. In it’s favor, you typically have finer-control over those parameters once you do.

In terms of sound quality it’s a toss up depending on what type of processing you use the most. For EQ and limiting, as well as it’s single-band compressor mode, I’m personally favoring the sound of Audio Mastering. For reverb, spatial tools, and the multi-band compressor I’d lean more towards Final Touch.

Both apps are on sale at the moment for $12.99, so if you’re serious about mastering your iOS tunes it would be well worth having both in your arsenal. At the very least it’s a small investment to make to try both and see which you prefer yourself, considering how important this step of the production process is.

Which brings us to….

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Auria

While not a dedicated mastering app in it’s own right, there’s enough professional tools available for it that Auria can fill that role easily. As a stand-alone DAW, it has all the editing and exporting options you could ask for, and the built in EQ, compressors, and limiter are all made by PSP Audioware, well-respected plug-in manufacturers in their own right.

The real power comes when you consider that you can also purchase all of the Fabfilter plug-ins to use in Auria, and for MUCH cheaper than their desktop counterparts. This gives you access to Pro-Q, Pro-C, Pro-MB, and Pro-L, some of the best plug-ins ever made and in use in professional mastering studios around the world.

These are identical to their desktop versions, and since there’s plenty of reviews of those online, I won’t get into the features. Suffice to say these are already some of the best software mastering tools you can buy, so there’s no worry about quality.

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The downside is of course the higher cost, you’re looking at $50 for Auria and on average about $30 for each of the Fabfilter plug-ins (Pro-L and Pro-MB are $40 each). It’s a sizable investment, and quite a bit more than the alternatives I compared above if you only want them for mastering. However you get a lot more flexibility with the Fabfilter plug-ins than with the alternatives too. Dozens of EQ or compression bands if you need, different limiting algorithms, upward compression and expansion, comprehensive metering and spectral analysis, etc.

But I think for some producers, some of that complexity could be overwhelming. There’s a lot of ways to alter your audio, and if you don’t know what you’re doing, not always for the better. And of course you can only use those plug-ins in Auria too, they’re not Audiobus or IAA compatible.

For me it’s an easy choice, I know my way around EQs and compressors, and Pro-L is hands down the best limiter made if you were to ask me. I’ve already mastered a few projects for people using the iPad and these tools, and they impressed me just as much as they do on the desktop. If you want the very best and you know how to use them, it’s hard to beat the options this method of iOS mastering offers.

I have to admit though, I was pleasantly surprised at how well done both of the other alternatives are. The gap in sound quality and functionality was much smaller than I expected it would be with the tools I use daily in my mastering business. So while I’m content to continue using Auria for my iOS mastering, I’m actually really glad I spent time with Audio Mastering and Final Touch too. I came away much more impressed than I thought I would be.

For 95% of all producers out there, these are all you need for mastering your own music. All the tools you need are included, they both have decent presets to get you started, and they both sound really good until pushed much harder than you probably need to. I’m pretty awed with the power and sound-quality of the tools we have at our disposal on the iOS platform, and I never thought I’d say that about something like iOS mastering tools as well!

Hopefully this helped clear up some of the differences and similarities between the mastering tools I’ve talked about here. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments or on the forum where you saw this posted. Happy to answer any questions if I can!

Peace and beats,
Tarekith

The Tarekith Update

Well I know it’s been a bit light on blog posts here lately, so I thought I’d do sort of a general update on a what’s been happening here in the studio. I’m in sort of a bit of flux in a lot of areas right now, so my apologies if this comes off as a little rambling! 🙂

For starters, I wanted to thank everyone wishing me luck with my shoulder surgery earlier this year. Things have been progressing great, I almost have full range of motion back and the physical therapist has me weight training already. Still fiending to get on the bike, but I know I’m almost halfway there now so trying to be patient 🙂

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My plan while recovering from surgery was to renew my focus on learning guitar, especially with the new Taylor acoustic I bought. Happily that has been going very well, I’ve been practicing almost daily and already starting to notice huge improvements. I’ve ditched the pick all together at this point, and am now focusing a lot on fingerpicking. Not so much traditional fingerpicking, but definitely learning as many techniques as I can to add my own style and feel to it.

Because I’ve been enjoying the guitar so much, I’m starting to consider putting together a new live set using it as my main instrument. Quite a jump from hardware groove boxes! I’m still mentally toying with different options, but in the mean time I decided it was time to start playing around with some dedicated guitar pedals. My Boss Tera Echo is still a dream to play, and I just ordered a TC Hall Of Fame reverb pedal, and an Xotic EP booster to get the Taylor’s signal a little more usable.  Thinking about the TC Flashback x4 as well.

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When I haven’t been working on the guitar, I’ve been thinking about where I want to focus next when it comes to studio and live work. I’m still happy working on the iPad for tracks now and then, but I want get back into more of a hardware workflow too. Not just for writing tracks but for performing them too.

Strangely, for some reason I’ve really been giving serious thought to Maschine Studio. Crazy, I know 🙂 But it looks like the newest software updates have solved a lot of my previous complaints about Maschine. And it’s hard not to appreciate how much more hardware-like the new display will make the controller feel. As much as I love Push and Live, I have to admit the Live library really doesn’t do much for me when it comes to finding sound ideas to use when creating tracks. That was one area I really liked about Maschine when I tried it previously.

But, we’ll see, nothing is decided yet. I still might go with more traditional hardware too 🙂

The mastering business was a bit slower than normal to start the year, but with me being out for surgery anyway it worked out.   Things have ramped up a lot since then though, and 2014 is already looking to be a great year.   And it certainly is fun listening to those Tyler D2x’s every day!  🙂

Last but certainly not least, I  broke my right hand in three places last week.  Yes, right when the shoulder was starting to feel better, I decided it would be a good idea to hit the refrigerator in a rare display of frustration.  Stupid I know, and now I get to pay for it.  Oh well, no guitar for a bit I’m guessing, so I’ve decided to just spend my time focusing on music theory again.   I was doing a little every day as part of my guitar practices anyway, now I can sped more time on it 🙂

Well, that’s about it, and not terribly exciting I’m afraid.  Hopefully the hand heals up fast and I can get back to writing again soon!

Loudness Wars Part 2

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I’ve been getting a lot of questions about my blog post on winning the loudness wars earlier this week, so I made some examples to put this in perspective. Don’t analyse or anything first, just play the first one and turn up your monitors until it sounds nice and loud like you’d normally listen to your music:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Deviate01-1770.m4a

Now without touching the volume, play the second one:

http://tarekith.com/mp3s/Deviate02-Limited.m4a

Both of these were peak normalized to read -20 LUFS (Loudness Units Full Scale), just like they would be in the ITU-R 1770 spec we’re talking about. The actual number doesn’t matter here, just the fact they they are both set to the same LUFS value, and thus should sound the same loudness.

At first listen, not too much different right? So big sigh of relief people, we’re not talking a huge change here. 🙂

However, when you listen a little closer, hopefully you can hear that the second file is a little less punchy, just as loud but not quite the same impact from the sounds. A tiny bit distorted too, a side-effect often times of the volume levels we must master to today.

So there’s definitely an audible difference, but it’s not huge. At least in this example, I’ve heard worse with examples like these.  Like I said, some people won’t care given that it’s not a huge difference. For those that do, likely it means you’re just going to be mixing and mastering the same as before, you just won’t use a peak limiter at the end. That’s it.

Same EQ and colorful compression if you want, but no need to slam it to make it loud, as you can hear it’ll be just as loud as one you do limit. So why bother? Aesthetic reasons perhaps, but it won’t be a knee jerk reaction that you apply to every song as a matter of course like it is now.

Hope that helps!

(Don’t forget to turn your monitors back down 🙂 )

We Won The Loudness War?

Fellow Seattle producer and Ableton Live Trainer Isaac Cotec asked me to write an article for his blog about the recent news that an end to the Loudness Wars as we know them might be coming soon.  I attempt to give a brief overview of why people are saying this, and how it affects your average producer now and going forward:

http://subaqueousmusic.com/production-articles/sound-design-tech/223-we-won-the-loudness-wars

Hope you enjoy, and expect to me return the favor and host a music production-based article by Isaac in the future!