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Old 03-30-2024, 09:17 AM   #1
JohnnyMusic
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Default How to get loud masters without pumping and distortion?

Hello All,

I've been recording and mixing in reaper for several years now and am starting to pay more attention to the mastering process. I work entirely in the box.

What I'm running into is distortion and pumping of masters (presumably from making the limiters work too hard)

I don't actually want super loud masters. I'm fine with something like integrated -11 lufs for a track. But even at that level, I end up with some distortion and pumping (for example in the last chorus with the most RMS, when the vocals come in, the whole mix gets sucked down and loses punch, then comes back up when the vocals are absent).

For comparison, I have reference tracks that are at -8 LUFS and I can't hear any pumping, and distortion is there but not terrible.

I've researched how to get mixes loud and the best I am come with is that you need to do some dynamics control at every stage of the mix (individual tracks, busses, etc) so that the mix is already loud and you need to do very little compression, limiting, or clipping on the master bus to get the lufs level you want and it prevents the pumping I desribed above.
(I've tried to do some of this but maybe I'm not being aggressive enough with it).

Is this how getting a loud mix without pumping is achieved? In the days of adat tapes and CDs, how did they get them so loud without pumping?

Again, I don't necessarily want my mixes at -8 lufs, integrated, but I want to know how that's achieved with the most transparency, so I can skillfully use dynamics to get the results that I want.

Thanks in advance for any advice you have, I look forward to your comments.

John
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Old 03-30-2024, 10:24 AM   #2
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Try a clipper on transient-heavy stuff like Snare or Drumbus during mixing.
I routinely can get away with clipping 3-4dB off a snare without it sounding bad.
Then another clipper on the master before going into limiting. Small amounts go a long way.
Also - do you have a mixbus compressor to mix into as you go? Can‘t live without it.

Best,
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Old 03-30-2024, 10:40 AM   #3
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Thanks for your thoughts Frank.

Regarding the bus compressor,

I haven't mixed into one because I don't quite understand how it works.

It seems like as the mix progresses, the way the bus compressor is reacting would change.

Do you adjust it periodically as you work on the mix?

Do you put it on right away or after the mix is taking shape?

Any thoughts on the rationale of why you do this and how you do this would be appreciated.

Thanks again!
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Old 03-30-2024, 10:51 AM   #4
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Pumping usually comes from compression. Usually limiters are "instant" so you don't have that side effect.

...I'm not an expert but I've always assumed it takes skill & experience to "win" the loudness war without too much other damage.

A tape saturation effect may help. Analog tape "soft clips" as it saturates and it has NAB EQ that boost the highs when recording with complementary playback EQ. The playback EQ further softens the distortion harmonics.

...If you don't know this all of the popular streaming services use loudness normalization so you can't be louder than everybody else. Over-compression & over-limiting just kills the dynamic contrast, IMO making music boring.

You can still be quieter than everybody else on streaming because they won't boost into clipping.

For my digital files I use ReplayGain for loudness matching. I don't play CDs that much but it's not that important with CDs because you can adjust the volume when the CD starts and all of the songs are all about the same loudness, or with "appropriate" differences as intended. quieter.

Quote:
best I am come with is that you need to do some dynamics control at every stage of the mix (individual tracks, busses, etc) so that the mix is already loud and you need to do very little compression, limiting, or clipping on the master bus to get the lufs level you want
That should help, but you'll still need compression and/or limiting on the master. You can't predict how the peaks will line-up or how loud they will be before mixing.

I think the "standard professional practice" is for the mixing engineer to mix for the "best sound". That usually includes compression & limiting, but it's not done for loudness.

Then the mastering engineer takes care of the loudness target.

...Actually, it starts with the arrangement & performance which may, or may not, be played dynamically.

Last edited by DVDdoug; 03-30-2024 at 11:01 AM.
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Old 03-30-2024, 10:59 AM   #5
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Typical volume war CDs (or whatever format that mayhem is written to) usually get a big treble boost. Sometimes low end attenuation or compression too. And often they are still pumping with the kick drum! They're all brutally distorted and tinny with this. That's the extreme -8 LUFS and louder examples.

There are shades of grey and all but the short answer is you can't and either has anyone else been able to! They don't seem to care or notice either as long as it's loud. It's like an 8 bit world and ear buds and soundbars are the height of audiophile-ness.

My caveman approach if I have a mix hitting the limiter stupidly even though I have it at the level I believe it should be sitting at. Assess the damage after and now maybe I can spot the elements I had too hot or some low mid masking crap getting in the way. Now I'll go back to the mix and hopefully finish it.
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Old 03-30-2024, 11:08 AM   #6
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Composition, eq, compression distortion and limiting individual instruments, frequency ducking. And composition.
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Old 03-30-2024, 11:19 AM   #7
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Composition, eq, compression distortion and limiting individual instruments, frequency ducking. And composition.
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Old 03-30-2024, 11:30 AM   #8
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This is all great input. Thank you!

By the way, the music is standard indie/alt rock and pop. Drums, bass, guitar, vocals, keys.

I am aware of the normalization with streaming and I am not trying to get crazy loud masters. My goal is right at or just above the standards.

The composition point is a good one, I think, but one of the mixes I referenced is pretty dense with instruments (maybe mixed well to limit RMS?)

The weird thing is, I seem to get some pumping even with limiters and clippers only on the master.

Overall, it sounds like the game is good composition, controlling dynamics at different stages skillfully and transparently, etc.

Serr, I get there are definitely compromises to getting louder, but the sound I'm getting even at -12, I am not happy with, thus this overall question.

Thanks again and I'd appreciate any other advice or thoughts.
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Old 03-30-2024, 12:01 PM   #9
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It's been said thousands of times but loudness starts at the mix (and a proper mix starts with proper arrangements).
All the little bits count.
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Old 03-30-2024, 12:09 PM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JohnnyMusic View Post

Thanks again and I'd appreciate any other advice or thoughts.
You don't have to go crazy and limit/clip everything individually to get a loud mix/master even though sometimes some elements need it.

One thing I would encourage you to do, which might help you get better at this is to put a clipper followed by a limiter on your master. You can also have your usual EQ/compressor on the master before the clipper if you want, this is personnal.

Then mix through the clipper/limiter chain at the desired level, -10dB LUFS for example.
Inevitably you will get distortion and undesired effects, when that happens it time to go fishing, see which element of the mix causes it, then try maybe removing some offending frequencies from that instrument, maybe its just too loud, maybe its got too much useless low end or too much midrange?
Figure it out one element at a time.
Doing it like that will make you learn a lot and you won't have any bad surprises at mastering, you can bypass your clipper/limiter before rendering to have a clean mix.
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Old 03-30-2024, 12:58 PM   #11
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For me it's a combination of EQ, compression, clipping and limiting, but based on tens of thousands of hours of doing that on hundreds of different people's mixes. So it all comes down to experience, basically. Send me a track you're having trouble with and I'd be happy to get it louder transparently, and let you know exactly what I did.
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Old 03-30-2024, 01:00 PM   #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JohnnyMusic View Post
The weird thing is, I seem to get some pumping even with limiters and clippers only on the master.
That's not weird. That's genuinely what would be expected from limiting on the master bus!

There's the part you wanted to turn up and that's all good but then a bunch of murky mids and lows comes along with it and things get weird. Try listening for what gets in the way and too forward and then go after those issues in the mix.
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Old 03-30-2024, 01:13 PM   #13
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Thanks for those additional suggestions.

I will keep them in mind as I mix (and master).

Someone said limiters generally won't cause pumping, so that's why I said it seemed weird. Because I am hearing pumping with only limiters on the master bus. No compressors.

Thank again, I appreciate all the help!
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Old 03-30-2024, 03:56 PM   #14
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JohnnyMusic View Post
Thanks for your thoughts Frank.

Regarding the bus compressor,

I haven't mixed into one because I don't quite understand how it works.

It seems like as the mix progresses, the way the bus compressor is reacting would change.

Do you adjust it periodically as you work on the mix?

Do you put it on right away or after the mix is taking shape?

Any thoughts on the rationale of why you do this and how you do this would be appreciated.

Thanks again!
The way I use it (Dramastic obsidian, but any SSL-like comp will do) it‘s usually doing 2-3dB of GR with slow attack (10-20ms), auto-release and 2:1 ratio. If I adjust anything, it‘s the release (auto or fastest. Usually like auto best.)
I keep it on there from the start and mix into it. Any moment it gets squashed too much I‘ll turn down all my busses a bit. But after a while you‘ll have an established threshold that works for your usual gain staging.
Mixing without the comp on feels unfinished to me. You‘ll also need a lot less compression on the individual tracks because the master comp kinda puts a „rubber-band“ around the mix that defines it‘s limits (much like a frame does to a painting, in my mind).

I usually only do the clipping/limiting for client mixes so it gets a bit of a push. I never master my own mixes, they go to the same mastering engineer since 10 years. Always good to have a fresh set of ears

Best,
Frank
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Old 03-30-2024, 06:01 PM   #15
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IMO the only way to get clean mixes without pumping or distortion is to embrace the media. You're never going to have a "clean" mix at 8lufs where you can hear an acoustic bass drum with its full impulse response. In fact, I would go so far as to say these kinds of recordings never existed.
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Old 03-30-2024, 09:02 PM   #16
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Thanks for the detail about mixing into a compressor, Frank.

Smooth operator, I'm not sure what you mean by "embrace the media" but rest of what you said makes sense. I'm not really aiming for -8 mixes, but I figure that knowing how it's done will be instructive for how to keep things as transparent as possible even in a more dynamic mix, if that makes sense. Thanks for your reply!
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Old 03-31-2024, 12:38 AM   #17
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and then there's Mr. Bill who I've seen push a mix to -3 LUFS hahaha insane yeah, probably unnecessary yet he still has great sounding mixes imo...

https://youtu.be/6xJoyAofIVQ

That tells me it really is all in good arrangement and mixing process, carefully choosing sounds in their own place within the spectrum.

He also has said he often clips his tracks (like literally going into the red) because according to him it works like a clipper, sometimes better. I don't know about that but man, if he says that and his mixes sound that way then he probably knows a thing or two about modern digital mixing, I on the other hand don't so take this with a grain of salt. There are many ways to achieve that but EQ and compression seems like the biggest ones.
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Old 03-31-2024, 02:24 AM   #18
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If you want your masters loud, you have to pay particular attention to bass. Bass carries much more energy than higher frequencies and it is what sends limiters crazy. Generally, this means letting the bass guitar do the heavy lifting and blend high-passed guitars so you can't tell where one begins and the other ends. With the bass you'll want to take a lot of low mids out to make room for the guitars.

Basically you don't want full-frequency sounds or too much overlap of in frequencies critical to each part. Don't forget that this begins in the writing and arrangement and can only be helped in the mix. Don't give yourself a a mix that requires agonising compromises, fix those issues by giving yourself an arrangement where each element can slot together without having to carve out huge chunks of parts.

There are two ways of making extra space for parts in a mix with EQ: you can make cuts where they overlap, or you can boost one or two frequency areas where the character of the part lives and compensate with the fader.

As for mixing into a master bus compressor; I think it only makes sense once you have mixed enough music that you consistently hit very similar levels without thinking about it. You have a set monitoring level that you've settled into and your initial rough balance naturally ends up at a familiar average level. Once you've got that, you don't have to adjust your mix bus compressor as you go along, you can mix into it for the effect you want.
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Old 03-31-2024, 02:28 AM   #19
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... having said that, these days I prefer hitting around -15dB integrated LUFS. After channel, bus and master bus compression (usually only 1-2 dB gain reduction on the mix bus), I only have occasional peaks limited and never use an additional compressor at the mastering stage.
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Old 03-31-2024, 06:04 PM   #20
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JohnnyMusic View Post
I've researched how to get mixes loud and the best I am come with is that you need to do some dynamics control at every stage of the mix (individual tracks, busses, etc) so that the mix is already loud and you need to do very little compression, limiting, or clipping on the master bus to get the lufs level you want and it prevents the pumping I desribed above.
(I've tried to do some of this but maybe I'm not being aggressive enough with it)
Individual track and bus dynamics plugins are definitely an important ingredient in being able to put the mix exactly where you like it into the master plugins. And it takes arriving at the combinations for that to work as desired. If I'm going for a radio friendly pop or rock mix, I (very generally, not as a rule) have busses for every layer of instruments, with compression and limiting in use and always using parallel comp/limiting, where you let a certain amount of dry signal come through, using either a dry/wet mix parameter on the plugin or Reaper's own, in the little knob in the upper right. Same on most of the tracks. Then sometimes the busses get bussed, so it becomes just five or six stereo busses hitting the master, and each of these can get subtle or not subtle dynamics, and again, instead of backing off the thresholds or ratios I'll often dial back the effected to 50-70%. I do have the attacks and releases go from slower to faster down the chain, but not so much the low ratios to higher ratios as I used to before I go so into parallel processing. I'll have a hair more dry coming through an earlier plugin rather than always having a low ratio on it.

As far as eq contributing to getting more in, I'm a fan of Roger Nichols' strategy of passing out the freqs of each instrument that don't actually contribute to its sound. That'll buy you a few quarter dbs


It makes for more to keep track of, but it puts each category in it's own pocket before layering into another category, and it makes it all sit nice at the end. I have plugins on the master in place (from a mix template) but keep them off until it's pretty much in shape. Then the master gets a little comp and a little brick wall maximizing limiter (I like toneboosters' Barricade here).


If this will go to a mastering person I always give them a version with the master plugins off. If not, I'll give the artist the mix with it on to use as they want, but I'll keep a version with master plugs off.
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Old 03-31-2024, 06:09 PM   #21
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Yes, that all makes sense Judders, interesting info tonalstates.

Again, I'm not going for super loud, but I figure knowing how it's done gives me an important mixing skill, and then I can decide home much I want to limit dynamics as an artistic choice. I like the punch of a mix that isn't too squashed. Somewhere in the middle.

I'm learning that managing the bass is a big part of it. My mixes started out super bass heavy cuz it sounds so good on my studio monitors (along with a kick).

Now I'm referencing and then also trying to get the bass really even so it stays present without being excessive.
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Old 03-31-2024, 06:16 PM   #22
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Default A pitfall I want to give a heads up on

I wanna share something that threw me off while testing my mixes and master on different systems, for others learning like me.

I was listening to a mix on a computer with earbuds and was hearing all this crazy pumping and volume swells.

I thought I had poorly adjusted compressors or limiters somewhere causing it.

I eventually figured out that my pc switched on MaxxBass audio enhancement and that was causing it, (must have some heavy compression built into it).

I started trying all kinds of things to fix it (and messing up my mix in the process) and it wasn't working and driving me nuts until I figured it out. I shoulda figured it out but I thought that I was hearing it on the earbuds because I could hear a lot of detail with them.

Word to the wise!

Last edited by JohnnyMusic; 03-31-2024 at 06:23 PM.
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Old 03-31-2024, 06:27 PM   #23
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Thanks for sharing your process VDUBREEZE.

It seems like letting dry through at every stage would let peaks through, but I assume that it is still less peaky than if the whole signal went through.

Do you find it retains more punch that way and how loud does it let you get a mix?
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Old 03-31-2024, 07:54 PM   #24
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Quote:
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It seems like letting dry through at every stage would let peaks through, but I assume that it is still less peaky than if the whole signal went through.

The peaks will be just as loud as they were with no compression, but the rest of the material will be louder in relation to the peaks. Peaks, especially drum transients, will still likely need to be clipped to get "loud".
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Old 03-31-2024, 08:20 PM   #25
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dug dog:
I may have not stated what I meant clearly.

I was referring to the dry unaffected signal portion of a signal vs. the signal with compression or limiting during the parallel compression VDUBreeze was referring to, not letting a peak through a compressor with a longer attack, etc.
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Old 04-02-2024, 04:21 AM   #26
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Just bear in mind that radio broadcast and streaming services log the integrated LUFS of your track and then attenuate it to their policy level. This means that any destructive processes used to exceed that level will be to the detriment of your track, because it will be volume normalised anyway.

For these outlets, crunching your track will just reduce dynamic range and quality, it will not increase the delivered volume...

>
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Old 04-02-2024, 04:44 AM   #27
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What's worth a try is to put ReaLimit on all your pre-master send busses, eg drums, bass, etc. NOT to make any adjustment, but because it clearly, in ReaLtime, shows any recurring peaks or spikes that you may want to EQ/compress out; you can see the peak change as you adjust your signal, whether on a time selection or the whole track. Set ReaLimit to null: don't be tempted to adjust the actual level (too much), it's just to visualise how peak smoothing can let you raise your master mix level.

Obv, there are other scope plugins, but I find ReaLimit easiest to use, and it takes out the guesswork.
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Old 04-02-2024, 05:21 AM   #28
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Quote:
Originally Posted by JohnnyMusic View Post
Again, I'm not going for super loud, but I figure knowing how it's done gives me an important mixing skill, and then I can decide home much I want to limit dynamics as an artistic choice. I like the punch of a mix that isn't too squashed. Somewhere in the middle.
I think you're right that it's a good idea. I think going for extremes works well as a learning process, because you can then dial it back at will and make more informed decisions.
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Old 04-02-2024, 03:55 PM   #29
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I don't pay any particular attention to achieving loud mixes or masters, and find it's usually possible to get a master to about -11 LUFS with very little detriment to the sound when comparing the mix and master at equal loudness levels.

Things that possibly help achieve this are light buss compression. I usually have a "Brauer" type setup for this with three busses. In general, one for bass, drums, low stuff. Another for midrange rhythmic instruments like guitars, pianos. And another for high frequency content like shakers, triangles, pads, backing vocals. Solos often go to that one too. Vocals are compressed separately.

A big benefit to this is that something like a loud guitar peak can get compressed without also driving down the bass and drums.

I think LCR mixing also helps toward louder masters. A good song arrangement helps too.

Other than those, that are not directly connected to loudness really, I don't think about loudness. By the time I get to mastering usually only a limiter is required to get to about -11 LUFS.

Cheers,
Jennifer
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Old 04-02-2024, 07:29 PM   #30
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Thanks for your comments. It's great hearing how people approach and think about loudness.

Jennifer, that sounds reasonable. Without doing much buss compression or limiting, I was also finding I could get around -11 without too much degradation.

But pushing much beyond that, I was getting distortion that I considered excessive and unpleasant.
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Old 04-02-2024, 11:40 PM   #31
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While for my music I like my own (complex) master effect chain design better, Ozone Elements offers a really easy way to get very nice "loud" results for different genres using just a single plugin.
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Old 04-03-2024, 12:48 AM   #32
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It's best to state LUFS I, LUFS S or LUFS M when discussing LUFS, or we could all be talking about completely different things. There's a massive difference between a track that hits -6 LUFS M in places vs. a track that is -6 LUFS I.
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Old 04-03-2024, 04:04 AM   #33
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Using the stock oscilloscope changed the game for me. I also mix with a limiter on the masterbus so there are no surprises.

I have the oscilloscope set up so that -10 is at the top line so anything exceeding that I consider clipping and then I boost +10 into the limiter. It's an arbitrary number but the thinking is without the limiter on I leave enough headroom if it's to be professionally mastered.

As mentioned clipping drums is a good starting point for achieving a competitive loudness. If you're working purely ITB certain saturators can clip in a more enhancing way than technical digital clipper. This just comes from looking at the oscilloscope and going through your plugins.
I've found TUPE, True Iron (with proper gain staging), Cassieopia, TB Reelbuss 4 and more to be good at clipping drums whilst adding nice 'analog' enhancements.
Parallel clipping also works really well, something like airwindows Dirt that annihilates peaks and then using the dry/wet slider to bring in the amount of peaks you want.

But the oscilloscope is your friend and it will direct you towards technical problems that you need to address. The art is knowing your tools well enough to address these technical problems whilst enhancing the sound.
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Old 04-03-2024, 04:51 PM   #34
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1) Mixs you tracks with good compression/ limiting/ clipping on the individual tracks.

2) EQ/Cut frequencies on instruments that overlap each other.

3) Do subtle limiting at the end. If you are limiting more than a couple DB at the end of your master then you probrobably did not do step 1 or 2 correctly.
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Old 04-03-2024, 07:22 PM   #35
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Hermetech, I've generally been referring to LUFS integrated, which works well as a general measure since the music I am working is not overly dynamic from section to section, but I also check LUFS short term in the loudest parts of the song.

Super helpful comments everyone, thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts!
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Old 04-04-2024, 12:08 AM   #36
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Cutting frequencies has been mentioned a bunch, but I'd just like to mention the opposite approach again.

I saw this in Mixing With Mike's YouTube review of the Lindell API console plugin, and he called it one or two point EQ. The proportional Q of the API lends itself well to it, but you can do it with any EQ. It's not often I see a YouTube tip that changes how I work these days, but this one did.

Instead of cutting frequencies to reduce frequency masking between elements, you choose one or two EQ points to boost on each element that exaggerate their character, then compensate with the fader.

This ends up the same as cutting, except you have more drastic cuts when compensated with the fader. What I like about this technique is the psychological effect of it compared to cutting; I don't feel like I'm neutering a part and taking character away, I'm just adding more of what made that sound cool in the first place.

In practice, I use both cutting and boosting, but I thought I'd expand on this a bit more, as it goes against the received internet lore of "cutting is better than boosting". Sometimes boosting narrow frequency bands and bringing the fader down is a better method of finding a place for elements in a dense mix.
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Old 04-04-2024, 09:05 PM   #37
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Originally Posted by Judders View Post

Instead of cutting frequencies to reduce frequency masking between elements, you choose one or two EQ points to boost on each element that exaggerate their character, then compensate with the fader.
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I've never heard of this, thanks for sharing!
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Old 04-04-2024, 09:32 PM   #38
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The important thing is, as you mention, if one is wanting to accomplish the most control over loudness and put the LUFS level where they want it, is to start thinking with that approach from the beginning, and applying it at each or most stages. Whatever the strategy or technique is, the way professional mixers achieve it is to put plugins on each track, create busses and put something on the stereo bus. You can go subtle or not subtle, but if the master is getting tracks that have already been nudged dynamically into shape, you can choose to have just subtle compression and limiting on the master and still accomplish it. Or, naturally, you can have the master bus dynamics hit the track for color and effect. But if the individual tracks don't get this treatment, relying on busses and the master bus to do this will mean that you won't have much choice in how they're set. They can't be subtle and transparent and achieve the dynamic control desired. They'll have to be hit harder. But if you do go from the ground floor up and apply small amounts at each or most stages, you have a much wider range of how you can hit the master bus with it. You can still hit it subtly and have the dynamic control, or use the master bus to smash it for effect, or anything in between, and get the LUFS level you want.
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Old 04-04-2024, 10:13 PM   #39
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Originally Posted by vdubreeze View Post
But if you do go from the ground floor up and apply small amounts at each or most stages, you have a much wider range of how you can hit the master bus with it. You can still hit it subtly and have the dynamic control, or use the master bus to smash it for effect, or anything in between, and get the LUFS level you want.
I mentioned earlier how I don't necessarily want loud, but I want to know how it's done well so I can decide for myself just how much limiting, compression, and clipping to do based on the end result I am trying to achieve.

This helps clarify and refines what I was trying to get at by asking this question. Thanks for summing it up here.
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Old 04-05-2024, 02:45 AM   #40
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There are a few good tips posted here. But as you probably can tell, every poster has their own view, perspective and experience. They all tell the same thing, but in different words and terminology, which kind of makes it NOT so much easier if you’re new to compressors and limiters and/or mastering.

My advice (for what it’s worth):

Now I am not sure how many years “several years” would be in your case, but if it’s less than ten years, I’d strongly recommend that you do the “boring stuff” right away. And by that I mean that you take a good amount of time to read and learn about how, when and why compressors/limiters work in a given way. Manuals are great, but often not sufficient enough. YouTube tutorials are great. Although, many of them are just “expert”-wannabes who will mislead you due to poor research. Among the best and most valuable tutorials are the ones by Dan Worrall.

A big mistake would be to only rely on workflow tips that you get from forums. These workflows are specific to one song, one producer, one tool, and would most like not be applicable to your song(s). You will still need to tweak and listen. And if you’re not sure what either control/button/function does, when and why, the you’ll be tweaking and listening till hell freezes over. Well, maybe you’ll “get there”, but you’ll still never know why. So when you get to the next song, you will need to tweak and listen again. And then again …

And then again ...

...
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