‘My tunes aren’t as loud as my friends”

[Note: This is a copy of an email reply to a bloke that got in touch in a real state, very upset that despite 2 years of picking apart other people’s mixes and spending thousands of euros on plugins, his mixes weren’t as loud as his friends’. My reply is copied here with his permission.]

Before going ahead, I want to say that I’m going to speak very honestly and frankly here, I hope nothing causes offense. That’s my last intention – I care a great deal about people who make music.

The first thing to say is that your mail made me feel incredibly sad. I must have missed something somewhere; I thought making music was supposed to be fun. I thought expressing yourself through music was supposed to be an enjoyable, cathartic, rewarding pursuit. Instead we have frustration, stress (I mean, really? You’re stressed by it?) and sadness because you can’t get your tunes aren’t as loud as your friends’. And you’ve spent loads of money to feel like this. It’s very, very sad.

You can follow formulas and write/arrange specifically for loudness if you want. That’s fine – but you will sound like all the other people who follow the same formula. I hear stuff like that all the time; I find it very difficult to recall the names of any of those artists. They come and go. They make no mark. Their music is entirely unremarkable and bereft of personality. But at least their stuff is loud, right? If you want to do that then I’m afraid I can’t help you, there are better people to ask. I mean, say you make a great loud mix, you finally make ‘that’ mix and you ‘win’. Then what? A week later someone comes along with a louder mix. Great.

Look, I’m being a bit strong here. I understand the need to want to ‘compete’. I know that louder = ‘better’. I get all that. And I’m not a dynamics Nazi, I make stuff loud all the time. But you’re putting the cart before the horse. You have driven up a dead end, chasing the wrong things, with the wrong motivations, and now you wonder why you aren’t where you want to be. I suggest you forget all that stuff and start again.

The truth is that you have answered your own questions in your email. I’m going to copy and paste some things here to show you how I see it.

spendt most of the time in this two years listening, analyzing, decostructing music and mixes. I don’t have an acoustically treated studio (unfortunately). […….] in 2 years of really hard work, thousands of euros spendt in gear and plugins, i’m still left with nothing.

This sums up the entire problem. Too much producing, not enough listening. Not just for you, but how things are these days. More processing, more plugins, more more more.

The market sees people chasing the next ‘magic, must-have plugin’, looking for the next thing that is going to give them the ‘magical mix’. People use more and more and more processing instead of less and less and less, and wonder why their sound is bad. Audio is delicate. When it comes to mixing (not sound generation), the fewer tools you have, the better. The less processing you do, the better. You have spent your money in the wrong place, on the wrong things. Sorry. But all is not lost 🙂

Sell loads of your plugins (if you can) and invest in your monitoring. I don’t mean monitors, I mean, in your monitoring. Whatever monitors you already have will be fine. But put time, effort and energy into your acoustics (I’ll have a walkthrough for this on my blog at some point).

Average variation of home studio nearfield monitors = +/-1dB

Average variation of home studio = +/- 20-25dB

And you think another new compressor plugin will help?

If you can’t hear what you’re doing, you will make poor decisions – usually, doing too much processing. The last thing you need is even more plugins, that you feel you have to use because you paid the money for them. You know that feeling, right? 😉

As it is, you have the cool car, the alloy wheels, the go-faster stripes, the low profile tires, the huge spoiler and the big exhaust, and then when you get into your car to drive you put a blindfold on.

Maybe your friends don’t have great studios either, maybe they’re just lucky, maybe they get great mixes by luck. But who cares? Worry about what you’re doing, and do it right. The rest will take care of itself.

If you would like to share with me some of your tips to make a good, solid, intelligible mix that would be great. A sort of “how your edm tracks should sounds before you send it to me” guide.

This is easy. Make it sound how it sounds in your head, or as close to that as you can. Just don’t try to make it loud. It never works.

Even some examples of gain staging (with numbers in dbfs), rough examples, ANYTHING.

With respect, the fact you ask for numbers demonstrates your inexperience. It just doesn’t work like that.

You have been on this for 2 years, you say. I have to be straight with you and say that 2 years is absolutely nothing. I’ve been making music for 25 years (well, it will be 25 years this year) and I still feel like I know nothing. Every day, every track, I am reminded that there are an infinite variety of problems to be solved, in order to make audio – a song – sound its best. No technique always works. It depends. The question is when to do what.

In summary, the only things that always work are;

– Pick the right sounds.
– Make good processing choices; do as little processing as you can, but as much as you have to ( = monitoring)
– Don’t tie your mastering engineer’s hands by baking the cake.

I really want to improve myself and this loudness war issue is really getting me distracted from making sounds, melodies, arrangements, music.

This is the most important part of this entire email. This is totally backwards. Again, you’re putting the cart before the horse. Throw all this stuff away, start again. Engineering is ONLY (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!) there to serve the music and never, ever the other way around. And this is the key point;

Make music. Express yourself. Have fun. Enjoy it. Spend less time ‘producing’ and more time making music. And you might well find that in time, the loudness issue takes care of itself.

I know all this is probably way off from what you were asking, but it’s how I see it. There are no formulas. There are no magic numbers. There are no magic techniques. There are no magic plugins. There is only doing the right thing, based on 1) experience and 2) monitoring. Put your efforts into the right things. Make f#cking cool music that makes your heart sing and makes people dance like idiots. Do it in a listening environment that naturally makes you make good choices. All the rest comes from there.

  1. #1 by bobmaccsblog on January 19, 2015 - 9:18 am

    And as a follow-up, I just got this a few minutes after publishing this entry;

    ‘your suggestion on monitoring is super gold! My mixes have improved a lot and i’m feeling a lot better. Creativity flows nice, insomnia problems disappered, and most of all THINGS sounds FAAAT!’

    It’s probably not the first time my witterings have cured insomnia. But anyway, how nice is that? 🙂

  2. #2 by JJ Soderling on January 19, 2015 - 2:31 pm

    Great post Bob!

  3. #3 by neil s on March 7, 2015 - 11:18 pm

    you cant polish a turd! START WITH the best posible samples/sounds. no need to process if if its not called for. less is more.

  4. #4 by Hackenslash on May 28, 2015 - 10:27 pm

    Hi Macc!

    Cracking good post. The original e-mail is all-too-common these days, I’m afraid.

  5. #5 by Elliot Davies on May 31, 2015 - 3:30 pm

    This is incredible. Sage advice that producers need to absorb.

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