If you’re just starting out with recording, this is a question that you ask a lot. You’re working on a song and it’s sounding awesome in your studio. After burning a CD, you take it to your car, and you can hardly hear it. So you drive around the neighborhood, banging your head against your steering wheel because you can’t figure out why it’s so quiet.

You go back to your studio and turn everything up as loud as it will go, but now all the tracks are clipping. So you decide to give up and go watch TV.

This is a really common question I get from readers here on HSC. The problem is that the music you listen to on CD’s and on the radio has been mastered. Mastering entails all sorts of things, but, in very general terms, it’s simply taking a finished mix and making it as loud as possible without harming the sound of the mix.

If you listen to your un-mastered mix next to a mastered mix, the mastered mix will most likely be louder. So how can you get your mixes louder without a mastering engineer? Here’s how I make sure my mixes are loud enough to at least hear them in the car.

Use a limiter

Now I have to be careful when I give advice like this. A limiter is simply a compressor to the extreme. It has a threshold, and nothing can go above that threshold. How this can help you is by lowering the threshold of the limiter on your master fader until it increases the volume up to the loudest point. In other words, it increases the volume just shy of clipping your master fader, and then the limiter kicks in.

This can be dangerous because, if you apply too much limiting and there is too much gain reduction happening, it can sound really bad. Here’s what I do. When I want to listen to a mix in the car or send it to a client, and I want it to sound good and be loud enough, I’ll put a limiter on the master fader. I’ll bring the threshold down until the mix is nice and loud, but there’s no gain reduction happening.

That means the limiter isn’t really turning anything down or really limiting anything, it’s simply turning the mix up as loud as it will go without clipping.

Make key decisions in your studio, not in your car

A limiter can be a great way to just get the mix loud enough, but the decisions that you make on your mixes should be done in your studio. Yes, you should check your mixes in your car and anywhere else, but ultimately the major mix decisions need to happen in your studio, without the limiter.

The main reason for this is, if you are using a limiter to make your mix loud enough to put in your car, chances are it’s doing something to the audio that’s not helping your mix. Listening to your mix in your studio without the limiter present is the best way to make sure you’re hearing things accurately and making the best decisions.

Are your mixes too quiet in the car?

[Photo Credit]

  • Pete Reidy

    I’m mastering at -3db but the recording seems to quiet,when I record at a higher level it’s louder but it’s distorting and cliping,I can’t seem to find a solution of making it sound louder without it clipping,when I use a compressor it sounds dull. I’m using wavelab 6. Have you got a solution.?
    Pete.

    • There’s just a lot that could be going on there. Are you using compression and limiting? are you actually limiting the tracks at all? Is there any gain reduction happening?
      It could be that your gain-staging it off. You could be clipping before it ever reaches your compressor or limiter.

      • Pete Reidy

        Hi agai I must admit that I don’t know too much about headroom and limiting except that a limiter can make your tracks sound louder. I do all my recording on a Roland 1880 then record the whole mix to wavelab via my computer,the vsts in wavelab 6 are limited,they have as soft compresser which I’ve tried but it dosent seem to do anything, but I’ve just found a loudness normaliser, will this help?

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  • Gregg Jackman

    I accidentally came across this article.
    Limiting is clearly a useful tool, but the understanding of how it works seems vague by the writer, especially the strange concept that it must show no gain reduction.(Therefore it isn’t doing anything useful). Dealing with transients in the digital domain requires understanding. Analogue tape used to deal with all this for you as a useful biproduct of it’s failings, and therefore mixes didn’t suffer lack of apparent level. I don’t understand the strange concept in this article that you should always go back to taking the bus limiter off to check your mix in the studio. This is nonsense. The mix should be checked with everything in place that is going to be inflicted on it. ?????? otherwise it might as well be a bicycle. It simply isn’t the mix.
    I have come to understand over the years that transient response is the most important aspect of a recording, since frequeny response is so variable. (One speaker system sounds unrecognisable compared to another)
    The “adsr” of a sound is much more important than how much top, mid or bottom it has. Understanding compression/limiting and soft clipping is almost everything in digital recording. While it is true that people use plug-ins without a clear understanding of what they are doing, a little experimenting with a fast limiter on the master bus(especially one with a “look ahead” control) and possibly a soft clipper to follow will allow you to look like you know what you’re doing even if you don’t understand it.
    I hope this clears things up.
    Regards
    Gregg Jackman. (Grammy Award winning somewhat mature engineer lol)

    • Gregg, great to have you here on the site.

      I think you might have missed the point of the article. I don’t recommend actually mixing through a limiter. I save that for mastering. However, I will use a limiter to simply increase the overall loudness of the mix, so I (or the client) can hear things at an adequate level in the car. I don’t want this use of the limiter to do any actual gain reduction, other than catching the occasional peak. You wrote “Therefore it isn’t doing anything useful,” but that’s not accurate. You can use a limiter to strictly add gain to your signal, to get it up closer to clipping without actually clipping. That’s what I’m referring to here. It barely affects the sound of the mix, other than making it louder, because it’s not really limting anything, it’s just turning it up. I use it almost like one would use the “normalize” function. Just bring everything up as loud as it’ll go without clipping.

      I save the slightly more aggressive limiting for the actual mastering process, and I use multi-band compression for most of the gain reduction that happens.

      I personally don’t like the idea of mixing with a limiter.

    • Pete Reidy

      Hi Gregg thanks for your knowledge. I’ve used the loudness normaliser on wavelab 6 which has brought up the level, do you or any of your readers know if this loudness normaliser is the same as a limiter.? or doing the same job as a limiter.? Thanks once again for being a great help. Pete Reidy

      • Hmm…You’ll have to look up in the manual I think. Normalizing by definition is just turning the signal up as loud as possible without clipping, meaning no limiting is happening at all. I would GUESS there’s some limiting going on with the normaliser, but I just don’t know.

  • 2 things:

    1. Most unmastered mixes aren’t loud enough, even if you crank the car stereo all the way up, especially if you’re driving down a noisy interstate.

    2. Clients will automatically think your mix doesn’t sound “as good” as other music they listen to, if it’s at a dramatically lower volume. You can try to explain it to them, but I’d rather not waste time and just throw a limiter on there to get it to a level they’re comfortable with.

  • I don’t really see the problem tbh. Why would my mixes need to be loud? When I do my raw mixes they are maybe 5dB quieter than after I “master” them, so I just turn my stereo up to compensate.
    I accept that if you’re doing the mixes for a client you might not want to worry them by sending them something uber-quiet, but otherwise using limiting for a preliminary mix seems like a waste of time.

    • My RAW mixes are much quieter than my masters, because I leave plenty of headroom. Mixing at really high levels runs the risk of wasting a LOT of time battling clipping on your master fader. I mix at much lower levels, then throw a quick limiter on there to get it to a listen-able level in the car.

      • Ok, so maybe I’m lucky to have a car stereo that goes up way louder than I need it; even raw mixes with no limiting and 3dB of headroom are loud as hell with the volume around 75%.
        Excuse the double post btw, when my rather sarcastic first comment didn’t appear for a while I put up a slightly more thoughtful one, then saw they’d both been put up… oops.

        • The thing to keep in mind is what your CLIENT will think. If your mix is much quieter than the other music they listen to, they might start having doubts about your abilities (even though they’re unfounded).

  • Anonymous

    Not sure I quite understand what you’re saying. A limiter would have a threshold above which everything is cut off, and a gain control for adjusting the overall level, accounting for the loss in volume from any clipping.

    To get the song as loud as possible, you can’t just lower the limiter threshold, you have to bring up the master (or limiter gain, it’s the same effect). To get the appearance of volume, you’d have to bring up the overall level, then bring down the limiter to avoid (hard) clipping any peaks. Do this too much and the song will have no dynamics and will sound distorted even though the limiter is doing the clipping. Too little and you’d need to reduce the overall level to avoid clipping.

    So how do you find the compromise?

    • Ben

      My limiter has a a gain “knob” and a threshold “knob”.  I crank it up until the mix becomes dull and then back it off a couple more db.  I can also see how much is being limited (the peaks of the waveform will turn red when they get outside the maximum of the range). If I see that happening a lot I know I’m overdoing it.

  • Ben

    This is always the last thing I do – throw on Boost11 (in Sonar) and make sure I’m not clipping when I burn a CD.  I try to get it so that I only have the occasional peak getting lopped off, not constant limiting.  Constant limiting sounds awful and lifeless.

  • Thanks! This will be handy for me since I am a newbie. Now that I have this information, I will have to use it. I know most people like to listen to music in their cars (including me). Now I have some tips to make my mixes sound better to those of us that enjoy the occasional air drumming on the steering wheel.
    -Rash

  • Joe

     i use an l2 and knock off about 3-6 db any higher and it starts sounding over compressed

    • I don’t like the sound of almost ANY gain reduction on the L2. Just the occasional peak here and there.

  • I always check my  mixes with a limiter on the 2buss, just to be sure that no noises, strange freqs, too much reverb or wrong balances  are affecting them.

  • Troydering

    Listening to my mixes in my truck always confirms how messed up my listening environment in my home “studio” is. I’m slowly learning to compensate.

  • I can tell I have issues with midrange after listening in the car.  I am cutting too much low mid during the mix and it sounds fine in the monitors.  Take it to the car and it reveals alot.  Loudness I find depends alot on what time of music I am working on.  With hip hop mixes I find I focus too much on the lowend, making my mixing sound wolly and boomy.  Hopefully with more tweaking and listening I can get a better handle on how to make my mix translate across multiple systems.

  • Frank Adrian

    I confess. I do use a limiter when I send out mixes for others to listen to. And, I’ll even let it do minor gain reduction. I slap a Waves L-2 across the master bus and let it limit sporadically up to about 1/2 dB. It allows one to get a “master-ish” mix without stomping the mix too much and without going through the work of actually doing good mastering.

    I’ll also occasionally take a listen to the mix through this processing, too. If you have a lazy mastering engineer who does the equivalent of slapping a Waves L-2 across the master bus and lets the limiting go to town, you might want to check that the mix still sounds OK with your minor dose of  limiting. It won’t proof you against really bad mastering, but often times bad mastering will increase the amount of sibilance and perceived reverb and you might want to compensate a bit.