The Loudness Wars Are Over... Or Are They?
Most of us have heard of the "Loudness Wars" and about how detrimental they have been to music for the last twenty years. I, myself, have read many of Ian Shepherd's and Bob Katz's articles that break down the slow and steady opting for destructive yet loud processing instead of dynamic and engaging music. Many of these articles, and other articles by many other personalities, describe the effect of hyper compression to be lifeless and dull, although loud. And they're right..kind of.
I have been mastering music for a very long time. I got my start when I was playing for a local band and we had just finished our debut record. I was very excited because the record sounded great at the studios and the mixes were fantastic in our cars and home systems, it just wasn't loud or commercially viable yet. So we booked a mastering session with a pretty well known studio in town, jumped in the car and high tailed it to the facility.
This place was nice! I mean REAL nice! There were multiple cutting rooms, a massive drum room, a very nice console (to be unnamed as to keep privacy for the studio) in the control room, and a beautiful mastering room with another super high quality mastering rig set up right in the middle of it. I was blown away when we got the full tour. Needless to say, when we got home and tried the masters out on our home systems and cars, we were not very happy with them at all. So I fired up my copy of reason, yes...Reason from Propellerheads, and immediately "re-mastered" our debut record with stock Reason rack units. This is the very incident that got me into mastering music in the first place!
Now in my years of mastering, two things have remained true since the very first day I started mastering for other people... Every project needs it's very own custom mastering process and different projects call for drastically different mastering styles.
Most recorded or performed music sounds much better when lightly compressed with more dynamics and ranging amplitude. Sometimes I find myself not even using a brick wall limiter on certain projects like folk or singer/songwriter style tunes. I just EQ and compress, along with some parallel processing, and gain to just under full scale peaks. This usually makes the recording sound completely natural and real, all while completely preserving the ever crucial dynamics. With today's sound leveling technology in Spotify's and Apple's streaming services, it makes no sense to push tracks like these that hard since they will be automatically leveled on playback anyway.
Now don't get me wrong. Hyper compression is hyper compression. If something is overtly processed with a brick wall limiter, it sounds bad...period. However,there are some songs that require more pressure and loudness. Most of the time EDM, Pop, and Hip Hop music will be in this category. These types of songs are usually mixed in a way that can withstand quite a bit of brick wall limiting. Usually, the producer will use tactics like side-chain bass compression and ducking along with parallel processing and light master channel compression (glue) before sending it on to the mastering engineer. I highly recommend NOT using master processing unless you know exactly what your tools are doing and how to correctly apply them to the master channel.
So which is better, louder or more dynamic?... Essentially mastering, just like music, recording, mixing, and even videos / marketing, is a niche specific process and should be tailored to the art and artist in a way that enhances the product and makes the listening environment react as designed. When I am mastering, my goal is to get the song as loud as I possibly can while simultaneously creating bigger and more open space across the whole recording. I want my cake and I like to eat it too, I guess.