Ok, let's do a quick test.
Listen carefully (headphones highly recommended) to these two mixes of the same track, and try to decide which one you like better.
The difference will be subtle, so pay attention to the details:
Close your eyes.
Notice the subtle differences.
Which one is the best mix?
Now, if you're like the vast majority of people (actually, pretty much everyone) you probably think that mix 1 is slightly better. Just a bit more "open", more "punchy", more vibrant. Just better. Not by much, as they are quite similar, but mix 1 is the clear winner.
So, what's the secret?
It's not some fancy equalization or compression technique.
It's not some sophisticated saturation.
It's not some magic analog touch.
It's not some secret magic audio-powder.
Actually, the two mixes are identical.
Yes, absolutely identical.
The only difference is that mix 1 is just a little bit louder (higher volume) than mix 2.
Just 1 db (one decibel) of difference!!
It's small enough that we don't really realize that it's just a matter of volume, and yet what we perceive is a difference in "quality", in "pleasantness", so to speak.
To our human ears, louder doesn't just sound louder, it sounds "BETTER"
If we increased the difference to 2 or 3 decibels, or more, the effect would be even more obvious.
We just "like" loud music better. It sounds "better" to our ears, not just louder.
Even the best ears are fooled by this.
It's just human nature, it's human psychology and physiology.
All mixing engineers know this phenomenon very well. This is actually the cause of the so called "loudness war" - in other words, the silly race towards louder and louder music. Which, eventually, has lead to lower quality of music, because in order to achieve crazy loudness, engineers end up over-compressing their mixes. And that, in the end, decreases the quality of music itself. An over-compressed track (and I'm talking CRAZY amounts of compression here ...) will sound louder but also squashed, dull, lifeless, just flat.
Everybody sounds loud, so everybody loses, and no one wins.
That's the loudness war.
Thankfully, after decades of mixing silliness, this is about to end.
New international loudness standards are now being implemented by all major platforms so that we should go back to reasonable loudness.
Which means that you are much better off NOT uploading extremely loud music (and videos). Because you have everything to lose and nothing to gain. For example, when you upload a very loud video to YouTube, its loudness will be automatically decreased to the new standard, which is much lower. Which means that you will lose all the benefits of loudness but you still have the damage of over-compression: dullness, lifelessness etc.
Not good for your video, right?
So, it is much better to upload audio that is NOT overcompressed, at reasonable loudness.
By the way, this is happening not only for YouTube, but also for iTunes and all other major platforms. Finally !!!!
So, we have two key points here:
1) Nowadays it MAKES NO SENSE to overcompress tracks to achieve high loudness.
2) You CANNOT objectively compare two pieces of music without adjusting their volumes so that they are at the same level, or at least very, very close.
Now, mixing engineers already know all this (but you would be surprised by how many engineers know this, and still don't take precautions while making their mixing decisions).
But what if you're a music consumer?
What if you're a videographer looking for some good quality production music for your video? How does all this affect you?
QUALITY, NOT LOUDNESS
So, let's say you are a videographer interested in licensing music for your video.
The simple lesson of the loudness deception phenomenon is:
be careful about licensing music tracks that sound too loud.
They may seem to sound "better" at first, but they are NOT better.
In fact, chances are that they are actually worse, because if they are very loud, they probably are over-compressed. And when you upload your video to YouTube, all that loudness will be LOST, because of the automatic adjustement made by the platform. So, your video not only will NOT be louder than others, but it will actually sound WORSE, it will sound squashed, over-compressed, lifeless.
When you choose stock music for your video, look for quality, not loudness.
- natural, realistic sounding instruments (especially in acoustic or orchestral tracks)
- real, quality musicianship (look for tracks recorded by real, good musicians, not just a bunch of loops on top of each other)
- balanced arrangement (not too bright, not too dark)
- a mix with a nice "impact" of drums and percussions (especially for rock, pop, edm ... but not too much, otherswise your viewers will jump on the chair and will stop watching!)
- a flexible structure of the arrangement (with quiet sections and more busy sections)
- availablity of different edits (short edits, instrumentals, etc.)
- overall pleasantness of the song (try to look for "songs" that you like as such, look for tracks that have some personality in musical terms, not just anonymous, boring "tracks" that you heard already a 100 times in countless videos)
SOLUTIONS FOR MUSIC PRODUCERS
Now, if you like to produce your own music, there's tools to help you avoid the loudness deception.
First, there's some plugins that will automatically compensate for any difference in loudness that their own processing may create.
For example, let's say that you need to equalize a track.
If you boost by 3 db your lows, and by 2db your highs, your track will definitely sound louder. But does it actually sound better? Are these boosts actually good for your mix? Or are you just being fooled by the increased loudness? Wouldn't it be nice to have an eq that automatically will adjust the overall loudness of your track to compensate exactly your equalization boosts and cuts? Well, there are some that do exactly that.
Here's a few examples.
Here's a favourite of ours, Tokyo Dawn SLICK EQ (Gentleman edition).
This is a truly fantastic eq which, among many things, will give you the option to automatically compensate the output so that your loudness remains constant. You see that little "A" button at the bottom right of the image? That's it. And that makes a world of difference in improving the quality of your equalization decisions.
You can find this fantastic equalizer right here.
Loudness is not just a problem related to equalization. Any audio processing that may alter loudness (indeed, pretty much ALL audio processing ..) will potentially create a problem of loudness deception. Compression is, of course, a very good example.
Again, there are some compressors that feature some form of auto-gain, that is, an automatic compensation for the change in average volume generated by the compressor itself. Here's another favourite of ours:
This is ToneBooster's BARRICADE, an awesome compressor / limiter. The "auto-makeup" function (bottom of the image) will turn on the automatic volume compensation. Very, very useful. Crucial, for good mixing decisions.
You can find this great tool right here.
There are several others, of course.
This is not an exhaustive list.
The general advice is: try to use plugins that have some form of auto-gain compensation. They will help you significantly in making better mixing decisions!
HOW ABOUT ENTIRE EFFECT CHAINS?
You might ask:
- what if I have to / want to use plugins without auto-gain compensation?
- what if I want to compensate for more than one plugin at a time, or even entire effect chains?
Well, you're in luck, because there are excellent tools that may help you with that as well.
There's a few plugins whose only purpose is to compensate loudness changes generated by other plugins, or even entire chains of plugins.
Here's a couple of examples:
The first one is AB_LM, from TBProAudio, which can be found here.
Another one is Hornet CLMS, from Hornet Plugins, which can be found here.
Both work really well. With these, you can actually compensate in real time the loudness changes introduced by entire effect chains. That is really an incredibly valuable feature. This way you can assess objectively what's going on with your mix, without being fooled by loudness.
Without these, you either have to either compensate manually (which is very very difficult, almost impossible to do well, and very time consuming) or don't compensate at all (which will lead to bad mixing decisions).
AB-LM has more features, but CLMS is much cheaper and much more simple to use.
Both are great options.
FINAL WORDS OF WISDOM
DON'T BE FOOLED BY LOUDNESS !!!
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