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?