Balancing the mix for a full album's worth of tracks
February 14, 2005 2:10 PM   Subscribe

I'm mixing an album and I want all tracks to have the same apparent loudness. [that noise comes from inside]

I've recorded 13 songs, ranging in style from reasonably high-octane punkish rock songs (drums, bass, electric + acoustic guitars, vocals) to solo singer-songwriter material (just vocals and acoustic guitar).

I'm reasonably acquainted with desktop audio, basic mixing practices etc. I've also recorded and mixed songs on a PC before, but never a full album.

Now the mixes need to be mastered (mainly compression and some EQ) , and I want them to have the same overall subjective volume. Tastes in compression vary, but I find myself leaning towards the "the louder the better" camp - within the limits of reason, of course.

How do I go about this? Is there a cut-and-dried method, or is it just trial and error? I understand that the subjective evaluation of tonality and volume is the main governing factor, but is there also perhaps a technical tool that could help, perhaps in the form of a tool that could measure the overall RMS of a given track?

All suggestions will be greatly appreciated.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane to Media & Arts (14 answers total)
This is called normalization. Most audio programs have this sort of function. Even players like iTunes and (I think) WinAMP have it.
posted by xmutex at 2:23 PM on February 14, 2005

Har-Bal is brilliant.
posted by plexiwatt at 2:24 PM on February 14, 2005

Well, what you really need is professional mastering. Mastering is a fine art and there is no "right" answer to how it is done. Some engineers use a lot of EQ and compression, others just do very small adjustments to frequency and volume. But I guess the closest you can get is trial and error using for example T-Racks, or just use a SoundForge-type sound editor and set the volume/loudness of each track to the same RMS-level. And don't do your mastering with headphones.
posted by noius at 2:31 PM on February 14, 2005

#1: I'll second noius' recommendation: professional mastering is worth WAY more than what you pay for it; please look into it.

#2: Read A Recording Engineer's Plea for Dynamic Range for an overview of the issue.

#3: Read The Death of Dynamic Range. This will definitely give you lots to think about.
posted by Aquaman at 3:02 PM on February 14, 2005 [1 favorite]

if the audio consists of already masterred (most all commercially released music is), then i suggest manually adjusting the gain and not using mastering software on them. t-racks is cool--and i have used it for normalization--but it is not the ideal solution for loudness.

i've seen and worked with a dozen of apps that attempt to normalize loudness, but have never found one that works perfectly. imo, there is no silver bullet when it comes to loudness normalization. rms-normalization will likely get you close but you will still hear a difference.

my solution, which is a pain if you are having to do many files: make a playlist and listen to the first song for a few seconds about a minute in and then two minutes in, then skip to the next song and do the same thing. decide which is louder and order the playlist by song loudness (if it's not obvious which is louder, then your job is done) . this will likely take a few iterations of the list. adjust gain manually to bring up the quiet ones and bring down the loud ones. recompare in playlist as before.
posted by mdpc98 at 3:04 PM on February 14, 2005

Creating a cohensive percieved volume across all tracks on an album is precisely what mastering engineers do. If you are at all interested in having the CD pressed (as opposed to burning a short run of 100-250), you'll want a proper CD master created to send off to the duplication house regardless.

If it's a home project and not destined for release, spending the money for professional mastering probably doesn't make sense.
posted by stet at 3:21 PM on February 14, 2005

Replay gain, album mode. This will do normalization and make the track all sound the same "loudness", but I know nothing about real audio mastering except that clipping SUCKS.

Foobar2000 does it.

Winamp's Forums points to the winamp plugins.

MP3Gain does pretty much the same thing and is lossless.
posted by easyasy3k at 3:22 PM on February 14, 2005

hey, my bad... i read 'mixing an album' as 'making a mix album'. t-racks is good for mastering.
posted by mdpc98 at 3:41 PM on February 14, 2005

(Is nobody actually reading the question?)

If this is just a personal project, you have a bunch of leeway with regard to mastering. Mastering practices have, in fact, gone more and more towards the louder end of things over the last decade or so, but if you're not going to go for radio airplay I personally wouldn't bother trying to match the loudness of mainstream CDs.

Just go with what sounds good, really. I'm no expert so I don't have any particular advice to give you, unfortunately...
posted by neckro23 at 5:16 PM on February 14, 2005

I want my own tracks to be as f'in loud as everything else on my iPod. Though it's not always the same. Venetian Snares Infolepsy is impossibly loud compared absolutely everything else I have on my iPod. All his other tracks are done so masterfully but Infolepsy is so hard to listen to, especially on a random playlist.
posted by Napierzaza at 6:01 PM on February 14, 2005

My favourite automated normalisation tool is normalize. I suspect it's unix-only though, so you'll have to install cygwin if you want to use it under windows.
posted by fvw at 11:28 PM on February 14, 2005

Normalisation is not what gnfti is looking for. All normalisation does is find the peak volume of an audio file and raise that to 0dB, bringing everything up below it. While it retains the dynamic structure of the track, it won't give widely different styles of track the same perceived level. Some normalisation procedures will work on RMS, rather than peak level, and this will get closer to what you're looking for, but I third (fourth?) the answer that, unless you've got great ears yourself, and want to put in the time, you should get the album professionally mastered. A mastering engineer will have the time and the experience to know how to compress each track so that the perceived volume is pretty much equal through the tracks, while retain dynamic range and structure in each individual track. It's worth the cost, if you want to make a commercial product.
posted by benzo8 at 2:53 AM on February 15, 2005

Thanks benzo8! I was about to type the same thing. GFI, I would send the album out for mastering. Just check the engineer's client list and ask to listen to some samples to make sure they are familiar with the type of material you are producing. Most specialize to some degree.
posted by turtlegirl at 9:35 AM on February 15, 2005

Thanks everyone! I've found a tool that will measure RMS, so that might be a technical guide. Also, mdpc98 thanks for your playlist idea, I hadn't though of that: most of the time I had been listening to mixes up 'til now, I put them in the order I had already dreamt up for the final cut, to check if the sequence / arc sounded ok, and kind of stuck with that.

Hiring a pro probably won't be worth it: I plan on starting with only a 100 piece run, so for now it's out of my budget.

Aquaman: I was already aware of the Loudness Wars, but I hadn't yet come across the articles you linked. A good read, thanks.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 10:38 AM on February 17, 2005

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