"I like the sound of my master, but can you make it louder?"

This is a question I get asked quite frequently by clients about their masters. The short answer to the question is usually, "yes, I can make it louder for you." But the long answer tends to begin with, "but I would recommend against it, and here's why..." Having recited it and typed up that long answer enough times now, I figured it would be more efficient to just put it on a page here on my site. What follows is my sermon on resisting the urge to be loud just because everybody else's record is loud.

There's an ever-growing tendency with CD & digital releases to push the volume of songs as far as they can be pushed - some call it the "Loudness Wars" and you have likely heard that term.

What are the benefits of going louder? Well, your album will be as loud as every other loud album... and that's about it, really. There's certainly something to be said for having a record that's in the same volume ballpark of other releases so that it sounds comparable when played back-to-back with another artist on the radio, a listener's iPod, etc. But is that worth the downsides of going louder?

To achieve higher perceived volume without distorting a song, you have to compress it. As you compress a track harder, you're trading off dynamics for volume. Reduced dynamics means that you'll have less of a difference between the soft and loud parts of songs. A big kick from a verse into a chorus won't feel so big anymore, as the verse and chorus start to sound closer and closer together in volume.

You may also begin to feel a shift in relative instrument levels if you are pushing for greater volume. Instruments that tend to have a lot of punch (take a kick or snare drum, for example) will often start to feel buried at higher volumes. The result of this is that, somewhat ironically, a louder master may sound less powerful than a slightly quieter one, due to squashing the punch out of the wave peaks. And at very high volume, we can also start to introduce unwanted side effects like distortion, harshness, listener fatigue, and so forth.

In my experience, it's possible to push a master to 90-95% of the perceived loudness of any other record without running into any of these major issues. I don't personally feel that chasing that last 5-10% is worth the quality trade-off. A listener is always free to turn up one extra volume notch if they like, but they can never recover the clarity and depth you've lost from a track once you push the volume there for them.

All that being said, if a big, commercial-level volume is important to you and thatís what you ultimately want to do, thatís fine Ė I can push it there for you. In the end, itís your call because itís your record and getting the sound you want is my goal. I just wouldn't feel like I was doing my job without tossing in my two cents first!