Why are my mixes so quiet?
Q: Why do my mixes sound so quiet next to commercial recordings of the same genre? I carefully mixed as hot as possible without clipping, but my mixes still seem way too quiet.
A: Adjusting the overall volume of a track (or of each track in a collection) is one of the main concerns of "Mastering".
Good engineers generally separate "mixing" from "mastering".
Of course, you want to record each track with as high a signal as possible without clipping. But this doesn't affect the overall loudness, it affects the clarity of the end result.
Compression is the main tool for the job, but in general you want to distinguish the use of compression during mixing (to get the sound you want on each track) from master compression at the end (to get the overall dynamics you want).
If you're not familiar with compression, the first step is to start using it in your mixes. See Compression for more on that.
What Mastering Is
"Mastering" is really any processing you do after you've mixed down to a single track. Your stereo mix is solid, and you're no longer tweaking individual tracks, but adjusting the overall color and dynamics. In the industry, this is usually done by different engineers, since the tools and techniqes are different, and also because it helps to have a new set of ears.
Mastering concerns the overall sound: the dynamics, loudness, tone, sparkle, and ambience. Of course, what can be done is subject to the mix: we don't create a light, airy master from a dense headbanging mix. But we can enhance the mood set by the mix.
Mastering also concerns making a set of tracks fit together well in a mix. It's most challenging when taking cuts from different sources, like a "best of" album, retrospective, or movie soundtrack, simply because the tracks might already be very different. Most often, though, we're doing it for a set of songs to fit on CD or EP, and usually songs we've recorded and mixed as a group. There's more on mastering collections below.
And finally, mastering also includes any steps that are necessary for preparing the tracks for the final media, including sample-rate conversion, dithering, and bit-width conversion.
The main tools for mastering are:
Can I do it myself?
We home-brew guys often do our own mastering, and there's no reason you can't too. However, note that it's an acquired skill, and you might want to consider getting a pro mastering house to do it for you. If music were my business, I certainly would! As a hobbyist, second-rate is good enough, and with the tools available today, second rate can be pretty darn good! First you should be pretty confident of your mixing skills. If you're doing a collection, mix the whole lot first. By the time you're happy with (or sick of) your mixes, you should be ready to do a little mastering, starting with the issue that probably got you here in the first place (increasing loudness).
Most engineers create a stereo mix, import it into a different program, and do mastering there on the stereo mix. You can also do it in your DAW, and without even creating a mix file by using using effects on the master channel. I use my DAW, but I generally don't do it using master channel FX, because this can lead to confusion.
... put here: option: A) mix to 32-bit (16-bit for GB) & import into same song project file, B) mix to 32-bit (16-bit for GB) and import into "collection" song project file C) master channel FX (avoid this)
The most obvious result of mastering is increasing the loudness of the track. Most likely, that's what lead you here in the first place. For this purpose, we generally use "multiband compression", which applies compression to separate frequency bands separately.
However, you probably should start out using simple compression, until you have a good handle on what it does and how to use it.
add here: PeakCompressor (PC only)
A multiband compressor is really a set of crossovers like the ones in speakers, to separate out different frequency bands, with each frequency band sent to a separate compressor. This allows you to increase the overall volume more. But more importantly, it can help bring out detail in bands that would otherwise be very quiet after normal compression, due to peaks in different bands. Adjusting a multiband compressor to get the dynamics you want for your song is a big topic in itself. Search audio forums for threads that discuss the controls and what they do.
add here: link to discussion on GB's controls link to discussion on Endorphin (PC only)Have fun. You've just stepped into a big new world!
Most commercial music today (especially in heavy metal, garage punk, and other "hard-edged" styles) is way overcompressed because, at first reaction, louder seems better. A couple cautions about that: