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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! And this isn’t just producer bias, there are actually studies to back this up.
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.
So how can a producer make a mix louder without clipping or distortion?
There are a wide range of plugins that are specifically made to solve this problem but you can also try using limiter or compression tools. You can also EQ the bass frequencies or EQ boost specific frequencies to balance the sound out. You can also try improving the mix by focusing on soft distortion.
That’s the quick answer but we’re going to take a much closer look all your options and the specific tools you can consider- many of which are completely free.
There’s a Limit To Loudness
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 backward, 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, overdrive or clip.
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!
7 Tips to Being Louder Without Clipping
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.)
I know, that’s probably not the super secret answer you were looking for but I’ve been producing music for more than 20 years and I promise you that sometimes it really is that easy.
2. Automate the Volume (And Consider A Plugin)
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 (you can see it here). 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 and can help balance out the dynamic range. You can see what I’m talking about in this tutorial (also when a tutorial is less than 5 minutes long you know it’s a good sign):
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 audio 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 (especially within genres like punk or metal), but the distortion from a limiter does NOT. In other words, this is not the same kind of distortion you’d expect to get a from a pedal.
Limiter no 6 is an amazing free VST that many professional producers use, myself included. You can download it here and the video below does a great explaining how to use it:
4. Use Compression
A limiter is actually just a type of compressor. Compression is one of the subtlest production tools but also one of the most difficult to master. It’s also 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.
You can see it in action in the video below along with a nice before and after compression so you can see how it actually tames loud vocals:
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 for learning the basics of compression.
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 use 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 and you can see it here:
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 and you can learn more about why this curve is critical here.
Remember when I mentioned that some kinds of distortion sound good?
There are two kinds of distortion in music- soft clipping (or analog) 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 and you can check it out here. It has a handy limiting feature to make sure you don’t clip (and get digital distortion!)
You can see a quick demo of this handy free plugin here:
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.
Panning is a critical part of any mix, especially when it comes to vocals, but it’s often overlooked when it comes to managing loudness….well, perceived loudness at least.
With careful panning, you can help quiet instruments or vocals sound louder and prevent different sounds from overpowering the other. Because we’re not actually pushing the decibels, we’re going to be safe in terms of clipping but still “lift up” the parts of the track that’s lagging.
9. Harmonic Saturation
Saturation is a bit of a more advanced producing technique but when used correctly it can make a mix sound louder without actually increasing the volume at all. That’s makes especially useful after you’ve tried some of the techniques I’ve already mentioned.
So what is harmonic saturation?
Just like it sounds, when you add saturation to a sound you’re adding other frequencies below and above the core frequencies- similar to the effect of an octave pedal. Again, this won’t actually make the mix louder but it can make the mix feel louder (and fuller) to the listener.
This video does a great job showing you exactly how this technique works:
All of these tips and tricks are great, but if you record loud in the first place you can avoid having to use them.
Sure, it’s fun to put on your producer hat and make the magic happen but I also love doing less but still ending up with a mix that sounds loud and clean. From my experience, vocals are usually the problem so setting a vocalist up the right way can save you ton of time.
Start with a pop filter so that vocalists can belt out the b and p sounds without having to worry about clipping. If you’re a bit of a ninja, you can also adjust the gain while the vocalist is performing so you can compensate for louder sections of the song. That can be tricky to pull off but if you’ve been working with a vocalist across several songs you might be surprised at how intuitively you can pull this off.
The Loudness Wars
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.
You can also see a graphical representation of this here:
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!
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.
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.