How To Make a Mix Louder Without Clipping

How To Make Your Music Louder People Dancing Concert Rave Party

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There’s a good reason that producers want to know how to make a mix louder without clipping or distortion. A widely-known “secret” in the music industry is that people like loud music better. When faced with identical recordings, the only difference being overall loudness, the average person says they prefer the louder one- even though they usually don’t realize that that is why! So musicians and producers collectively have competed to achieve louder and louder sound, since the very beginning of music.

From hollow-bodied acoustic instruments with sound holes, to massive pipe organs that can shake the walls of churches. From the invention of speakers and amplifiers, to Spinal Tap’s hilarious claim to fame as “one of England’s loudest bands.” While it is possible to go too far, the general idea that louder is better needs no explanation. While the digital revolution has made it a lot easier to make loud music, you still have to do it right or you risk clipping and distortion – dead giveaways of an amateur producer.

There’s a Limit

So why can’t you just increase loudness infinitely? Why is there a point where quality starts to suffer? It has to do with the way that volume is measured in music production. In the real world, volume measurement is quite simple. A whisper is about 30 decibels (dB), normal conversation is 60 dB, a rock concert can be 110 dB, etc.

However, when producing music, the scale is backwards, from negative infinity decibels to a maximum of zero. This zero represents the maximum volume that speakers or headphones can play music before they start to distort or overdrive.

So here lies the challenge: To increase loudness without hitting that maximum. And further, to increase overall loudness while still maintaining dynamics, the shifts in volume and energy that make music interesting in the first place!

Seven Tips to Being Louder

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The good news is that there are some easy methods you can implement to get louder sound without causing clipping or distortion. Here are 7 tactics that I suggest using:

1. Turn it Up

The simplest answer is sometimes the right one, so don’t over-complicate it if you don’t have to. But keep an eye on the volume meter in your DAW. The volume should never cross 0.0 dB. Make sure the loudest part of the track does not hit 0.0 and you will be fine. (You can see the loudest part visually- it’s the widest part of the waveform.)

Sound Wave Waveform Aual Audio Sonic Ear

2. Automate the Volume

Depending on what you are working on, a track might be much louder at certain times than others. Volume automation is one of the most basic skills to learn as a producer, but one of the most valuable. If you have increased the volume of a track to the maximum before clipping, but some parts of the track are still too quiet, you can automate the volume to be more even. Lower the volume of the loudest parts, raise the volume of the quietest parts, or both. If you want to get fancy, Waves sells an excellent plugin called vocal-rider. It can be used on other kinds of tracks, besides just vocals though. Once you set the parameters, it does all the work for you.

Note: In general, you should do “gain-staging” before any other kind of processing to a track. That is, make sure all the different instruments’ levels are balanced, roughly how they should be in the final track. That can also include automating the volume of instruments- increasing the volume of an instrument when it’s playing an important part, and lowering it when it’s supposed to fade into the background.

3. Use a Limiter

A limiter is a versatile tool that ensures a track never goes over 0.0 db. It automatically lowers the volume of any stray peaks in the waveform that cross over, allowing you to easily raise the overall volume without checking the track carefully. However, they are not magic- if you raise the volume too much without using any other method to increase loudness, a track can sound unpleasantly distorted. Trust your ears, and listen to the track as loud as you can stand briefly- that’s a great way to hear harshness that you might otherwise miss. Some kinds of distortion sound really beautiful, but the distortion from a limiter does NOT. Limiter no 6 is an amazing free VST that many professional producers use, myself included.

4. Use Compression

VU-Meter

A limiter is actually just a type of compressor. Compression is one of the subtlest production tools, and most difficult to master, but it’s unbelievably powerful, and it’s crucial to learn for any producer! Poorly used compression is one of the most basic giveaways that an inexperienced producer worked on something. The basic concept of compression is quite simple- it automatically reduces the volume of the loudest moments in a track, allowing you to raise the overall volume.

But the devil is in the details- there are so many nuances to the way compression is applied. For new producers, I highly recommend getting a VST based on the classic LA-2A compressor. I use Waves CLA-2A which is one of the cheapest when it’s on sale. It only has two knobs- gain reduction, and output volume. Yet it’s extremely powerful and has its own beautiful sound that seems to magically make nearly anything sound better. This compressor is an excellent starting point to learning the basics.

5. Use EQ to Cut Bass Frequencies

If compressors are one of the most powerful tools for producers, equalizers are the other. A talented producer can use just EQ and compression to turn raw instrument tracks into a professional-sounding song. Low-frequency (bass) sound waves are far more powerful than mid or high-frequency ones. That’s why you can feel bass frequencies in your body in a loud club or concert, and why they travel through walls. As a result, bass frequencies can “eat your volume.” Lowering the bass of a track can give you far more headroom- that is, much more space to raise the volume before clipping. But use care, because it will change the feeling of the track as well. As with all these tips, trust your ears, and listen to the results on as many kinds of speakers as you can to check your work. That’s how producers get better!

6. Use EQ to Boost Certain Frequencies

Each range of the frequency spectrum has its own character and feeling. Raising certain ranges can change the perceived loudness of a track. First, try raising the frequencies around 8k-10k Hz. This can make a track sound “brighter” and make details easier to hear. You can also raise the volume of frequencies around 2000-2500 Hz. The human ear is very sensitive to this range, because we use it to understand speech. Increasing this range can add a lot of “presence” and make something sound more “in-your-face.”

But be careful; since we are sensitive to this range, it can be fatiguing over long periods as well. Again, I recommend listening back to the track loud. You should be able to feel if this range is getting too harsh. Don’t forget to check out the fletcher-munson curve! This is a very valuable resource that many new producers don’t know about. It shows how the human ear is sensitive to different frequencies.

7. Distortion

Struder A800 MKIII 24 track tape machine

Remember when I mentioned that some kinds of distortion sound good? There are two kinds of distortion in music- soft clipping (or analogue) and hard clipping (digital.) Hard clipping is one of the most unpleasant sounds, in my personal opinion. But soft clipping can actually be very musical. In technical terms, it actually adds overtones to music- it can sound musical because it is literally adding more music!

There are several ways to achieve soft clipping. One of the simplest is with a VST. Variety of Sound has an excellent free plugin called Ferric TDS that emulates the type of distortion you get when you record too loud onto tape. It has a handy limiting feature to make sure you don’t clip (and get digital distortion!) Once the limiter is activated, you can push your input signal as hard as you choose to add distortion. Of course, distortion has its own very specific feeling. So it will sound fantastic in some contexts and awful in others. That said, sometimes adding just a small amount can raise the volume without noticeably changing the timber.

So there you have it! With these tips, you should have a great starting point to making louder music! But be careful to find that magical balance before you sacrifice quality or musicality. After all, what is worse, to make no music or to make bad music? And never be afraid to try out professional mixing and mastering services as part of your learning process to becoming a better producer! You’d be surprised how affordable it can be, or what a difference it can make.

What Are You Listening On

How can you even tell if your music is clipping or distorted because you have made it too loud? Remember that when you make music, you can only make music that’s as good as your speakers or headphones. You could have issues if you are monitoring on low-quality equipment, or equipment that “colors” your sound. Read here for my personal list of recommendations of headphones and monitor speakers for fresh producers.

A Final Note: The Loudness Wars

Loudness Wars Visual Example

I recommend anyone who is interested in the history of music production to familiarize themselves with the loudness wars!

It turns out that in general, if people are presented with the same song, except that one is louder- they will say they prefer the louder one. And of course, we humans are ego-driven too, we humans are ego-driven too, so musicians and producers collectively started to compete to release louder and louder music.

The so-called “Loudness Wars” were a defining feature of music production in the 1990s and peaked in the early 00s. Even big-budget music studios and the world’s top producers gradually sacrificed sound quality for brute loudness. Go back and listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Californication” with this in mind. It’s widely considered one of the worst offenders. If you are listening for it, you can actually hear unpleasant distortion in the high frequencies throughout the album.

Collectively, musicians came to their senses around this time; they realized that things had gone too far. The pendulum swung the opposite way, as it tends to. Lorde’s “Royals,” which was a smash hit in 2013, is a perfect example. The mix could hardly be more minimal. Hits from Taylor Swift’s album “1989” such as “Shake it Off” and “Blank Space” also reveal this backlash against loudness. Compared to pop hits from a few years before, their instrumentation is sparse, and there is plenty of contrast in volume between the verses and choruses.

Overall, though, mixes are still louder than almost any point in the past. We don’t push volume to the breaking point anymore, but we still understand the value of loudness to capture attention and make our listeners really feel the music!