You want your final recording to sound its best, and you want it to sound great alongside your favourite recordings. Is your producer, or mastering engineer, asking you how “loud” you want your song to be? What does that even mean?
We have recently gone through a period of time marked by a term called “The Loudness Wars”. You’ve probably heard people talk about these loudness wars. They’re talking about the evolution of a practice in song mastering, whereby mastering engineers were instructed to make a song sound as loud as possible next to other tracks. With the invention of the compact disc, mastering engineers were not working under the same physical limitations which accompanied vinyl records, and were able to “pump up the volume” using audio compression techniques. This approach was able to make a song seem more energetic and exciting, compared to another song. For the listener, though, this often meant having to manually change the volume on a playback device to compensate for a song which appears to be either too loud or too quiet. If you listen to CD’s produced in different decades, you will no doubt notice this phenomenon.
Today’s technology, in both music playback devices and radio and streaming services, has changed to favour a consistent listening experience for the music listener. Whether you’re listening to music stored on your modern device, or listening to your favourite online streaming service, the playback system is automatically adjusting the volume for you, based on a measurement of how “loud” each song is.
To keep this explanation simple, the end result is this – a song mastered using a “louder is better” approach will actually sound QUIETER and less exciting when played back through modern devices.
There are ways to see how each playback system is responding to your master. One great analyzer is available at www.loudnesspenalty.com, thanks to the folks at Meter Plugs and mastering engineers Chris Graham and Ian Shepherd. Try this loudness analyzer, and it will report by how much each playback engine will adjust the volume of your master.
The bottom line – be sure that you understand the approach employed by your producer and/or mastering engineer, and ask that they keep current playback technology in mind when mastering your record.