Have you ever wondered how Travis Scott (@travisscott) and Mike Dean (@therealmikedean) get ridiculously loud tracks? Yes of course they clip here and there (and everywhere in between), but there’s more to it than that. There’s certainly an art to tracks that clearly clip, but still remain listenable.
It all comes down to what’s called dynamics, or the difference between loud and quiet sounds in the mix. Ideally, you don’t want a track to be at maximum loudness for an extended period of time, but you DO want your track to be consistent, and have depth. There are a few key concepts to keep in mind when considering dynamics:
- Long Term Perceived Loudness
Transients are sounds that are very quick, like a snare, hi-hat or kick drum. More specifically, transients are the BEGINNING of these sounds. The first initial 5ms that reach our ears. A track that is relatively dynamic, and not crushed by a limiter/compressor is thought to have clear, crisp transients. This is the first step to achieving stupidly loud tracks: make your transients nice and clear. If they’re not punch enough, consider using a transient shaper to really dial in the snap of your individual drum tracks.
To further make the drums stick out of a track, consider using a transient shaper to DECREASE the punch of the sample or melody line. This will accentuate the difference between static and dynamic elements of the composition.
Compression is what makes a track sound THICK. When applied properly, it can add loudness and fullness to a mix, as well as color, or texture to sounds. This is especially useful in parallel. By having one heavily compressed (-8db gain reduction) and one dry track, we are able to maintain the transients of the sounds, and ensure the presence of the sound in the mix. Different compressors add color by bringing up the softer parts of a sound in a unique way. One thing I keep in mind when I’m looking for “loud and punchy” is using a long enough attack time to let the transient parts of the drums cut through. if the compressor is enabled too quick, it will squash the attack of the drums, leaving a lackluster final product.
Just how a compressor eliminates the dynamic range of a sound vertically, saturation makes the wave form thicker horizontally by bringing out harmonic overtones or changing the shape of the wave. Saturation is a GREAT way to make something sound more full, and typically louder, even if you gain match the input and output of the saturator. This is useful for making things sound loud, even if they aren’t that loud! If a synth element is distorting and crunching a little as if it would through a maxed out speaker system, it tricks the ear into thinking it’s louder than it actually is.
We can take this concept and apply it to a variety of elements of the mix. Need your kick to be more upfront in the mix? Maybe dial in some hard curve saturation at a 20% wet/dry. Does your snare need more body? Saturation is a great way to get crazy snare sounds (use Fabfilter Saturn if you want the ultimate snare saturator).
To seriously ABUSE the power of compression and saturation, I love to set up a send track in Ableton that has WAVES CLA-76 (-8db gain reduction) -> Ableton Saturator (hard or medium curve) -> Manny M Distortion (just a touch of lowpassed distortion). I end up running the main elements of the track (drums, bass, melody, sometimes vocals) through the send, and blending it in with the normal mixbus signal as it goes to the master bus. Just look at how this process brings this simple horn hit to life visually!
THE MASTER BUS
Anyway, after getting my mix where I want it, I start messing around with the master chain. I don’t mix into anything on the master bus, I think it’s misleading, and can make it less apparent when you’re making bad decisions.
I like to feed into my master bus at around -8db, and I usually start off with the Slate FG Grey compressor. I turn the wet/dry to about 30%, and have a pumping 2-6db of gain reduction, which is then restored in a little makeup gain. I use a medium attack to let transients remain in tact, and auto release because I like how it sounds.
After light parallel compression, I like to saturate the master bus with a medium or hard curve saturation setting at 10-20% wet/dry. I find this to bring some added loudness which is nice, but also an increased depth. Kicks sound more punchy, everything has just a bit more life.
From here on out it’s limiting. I love to use the FG-X from Slate to get the transients dialed in, and get the RMS sitting at a clean level. I BARELY use compression with the FG-X, it seems to add a weird shift in dynamics sometimes.
After the FG-X, I’ll often add a clipper, like KClip to give an extra smack to kick drums, and extra fizz to snares, and more excitement to the entire track. I only soft-clip 2db with the “Crisp” setting.
One of the most important things about your final master is the perceived loudness over time, measured in LUFS. Lots of people advise that you master your tracks to -14LUFS, and I’m going to tell you right now, that is WEAK. YouTube and Spotify might “turn you down”, but you still get an edge in loudness at the end of the day. Trust me. I’ve experimented a lot. -14LUFS might be good for classical music, or something of the like, but Drake’s “More Life” album sits at -9LUFS consistently. Travis Scott’s “Birds in the Trap Sing McKnight” album reaches -4LUFS in some places (which in my opinion is too much). I’ve found a good middle-ground between “too loud” and “not powerful enough” to be between -7LUFS and -9LUFS. Nav’s tracks from his last couple of albums sit at around -8LUFS consistently, often times pushing up to -7LUFS.
Keep in mind I’m coming at this from a heavy hip-hop perspective, and am a proponent of the loudness war. I love it. I think the more creative we get with pushing the limits of audio engineering and tricking the human ear, the better off music will be. There’s a couple final steps I put on my mastering process, and it involves more limiting!
I love the Ozone Maximizer for its ability to add colorful gain, so I use this to push my signal to about -9LUFS, using IRC IV and leaving .5db of headroom for the final step:
The Vintage Limiter from Ozone! Turn on that True Peak button, use -.3db of headroom, hop over to Analog mode, and pull the slider down until you have a consistent -8LUFS. Then adjust the Character knob to ensure that vocal “ess” sounds aren’t distorted, and the snare is clear.
That’s it! Bounce in 48k/24bit, and listen to it on a bunch of different speakers! This method of creating loud tracks has served me well, especially when making beats for hip-hop artists. They want something punchy and competitive, and I found the above steps to be a homerun process almost every time.
I’d love to hear your opinion on the outlined method above! Shoot me a DM on Instagram, or drop a comment on my latest post!