don’t fear the volume knob

The volume wars. Everyone hates it, yet everyone engages in it. Usually as an engineer/mixer/producer you have to do it. It’s kill or be killed. I had this conversation multiple times with every music making person I know. It goes like this: I love dynamic music. Everybody loves dynamic music. I love warm, even dark, mixes. Everybody does. I love space and ambience. So does everyone else. But when push comes to shove you have to compress and blast every mix into distortion or it won’t be accepted. I’m fortunate to do lots of records that are the exception to that rule, but the rule persists. Let’s assume that we can’t change the rule and set out some working methods that will lessen the negative impact of the volume wars:

1. When you’re recording digitally do not record too hot. Don’t be seduced by the desire to see large waveforms on your screen. It’s a trap. Try to peak no higher then -3 or even lower is ok.

2. If you are working with material that was recorded too hot, put a trim plugin in the first slot and knock it down 10db before it hits the plugin. Plugins like mellow level and you often gain up a bit when EQing and compressing.

3. Keep all faders to the master below 0 and do not overload the master. If you need more volume in the room, turn up the control room master volume.

Here’s a good workflow method (via Christian Castagno from back in the GoodandEvil days): make a group and call it “trim” or whatever you like. Include all tracks sending to master fader. Remember that if you are bussing groups to aux such as drums or vocals, include the bus in this group, not the channels feeding it. Whenever the master starts to get hot, pull this group down and turn up the control room volume knob! The master need never peak above -3.

4. Do whatever you have to do on the master channel to deal with the reality of life. If you must EQ it sizzling bright and limit into oblivion in order to please whoever you have to please, do it. Then, before you send it to mastering, take all that crap off and send a mix that is not over compressed and peaks at or below -3.

5. Actually do master properly if at all possible. This is a really important art that is steadily being devalued. Real mastering is really good for your music.

6. Try to teach the world how to listen to unmastered mixes. If you are lucky enough to be working with A&R or clients or bandmates or friends who can understand that they should not judge the mix based on how loud it is compared to Katy Perry, then enjoy that process and don’t blast the master fader. Do it in mastering if you must.