DIY Mastering Part 4: Limiting and Loudness


Many people producing music in a home studio find it frustrating that their finished tracks usually sound less loud than Loudness War driven commercial productions. After all, louder tracks will sound more transparent and powerful compared to softer tracks, right? Well, yes and no.

It is indeed true that a track sounds relatively more transparent and powerful when you turn up the volume control on an audio installation – at least the few minutes before your brain has gradually normalized your perception of the track’s tonal balance. However, using a brickwall limiter during mastering to optimize your track’s loudness is nothing like just turning up the playback volume. Brickwall limiter plug-ins chop off the peaks in your track, creating headroom in order to turn up the track as a whole. Although most brickwall limiter plug-ins go about this in a very intelligent way, you will quickly hear the destructive nature of this process when you try to match the loudness of commercial productions: distortion, erratic volume changes and reduced dynamics. It ain’t pretty.

The Loudness War (WIKI) – a period where many music labels tried to release the loudest possible tracks – has had one’s day. Over the past decade many objections have been raised against the Loudness War, and many online music services like Spotify and iTunes have implemented equal loudness functionality that will automatically play different tracks at the same perceived loudness. The consequence of playing a loud, commercially mastered track at the same perceived loudness as more conservatively mastered track, is that the degrading effects of the brickwall limiting process suddenly become obvious, making commercially mastered tracks sound distorted, erratic and lifeless. Therefore, think carefully about the way you want to release your music, and find a suitable compromise between the loudness of your track and the degrading effects of the brickwall limiter you are using.