Chris McCormack spreekt over de kwaliteit van een techno mix

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Techno Has Reached It's Limits
The Negative Effect Of Software Limiting In Techno Music

Chris McCormack takes us through the wonderful world of limiting and explains just why we should be a little more careful next time we pull out the old L2 Maximizer

Out of all the genres of music I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to master, (everything from full classical orchestrations to nursery rhymes via hard industrial noise bands), the one genre that often has me banging my head against the proverbial brick wall is techno. The reason? Producers using limiters to increase the volume of their tracks, at the expense of the dynamic impact of the music.

I spent many years involved in writing, producing and trying to understand what made techno, well ďtechnoĒ, and if I learnt just one thing, it was how important the dynamics of the mix were. In particular, the groove, the feel and the impact of the bass and kick. Without dynamics, these elements would have no meaning. The fact is that probably 70% of all the techno I get sent here now is processed or even worse, smashed through a limiter before it ever reaches my studio for mastering. I find this is mainly from producers who are new or up and coming (though not exclusively limited to this by any means)

In the studio with the clients tracks, I press play, the meters light up, become glued to zero db and stay there for 5 minutes. I sigh. The waveform looks like a continuous block. Musically thereís no colour, no dynamic, no interest. The weight and impact of a kick that should be driving the track is lost. Itís tiring on the ears, it sounds unpleasant and in the end all the tracks that are subject this kind of heavy processing start to sound the same. People get bored and move on. This seems counter productive to me. I end up having to go back to the client asking if they have a version without the limiters on. Invariably they donít. I pass on the opportunity to master it because there is nothing I can do with it other than drop the level right down and try and salvage some kind of sound QUALITY back into the track. The sales of the record and the advantage that loud music is supposedly meant to create is slowly but surely turning people off, and whilst itís by no means a major reason for musicís (and particularly technoís) decline in sales, itís certainly not helping. In sheer musical enjoyment terms, itís thee major non artistically related culprit above all others that is hurting the value of music.

I believe itís not the producerís intention to do this (well some producers ARE just obsessed with sounding the loudest). What I do believe is that poor monitoring choices and room acoustics, plus a lack of grounding in the traditional ways of building and making good mixes means producers simply donít hear whatís happening to both the bottom end in their tracks and the level of distortion that is being created as they continue to push the slider on their L2 up and up. In a good monitoring environment, this is all painfully apparent. The kick drum tucks up into the belly of the mix. Thereís no wallop(!), it sounds ďcomputeryĒ and lifeless. And itís not just the bass either, there are other issues which are just as important, like how reverb suddenly stops sounding like reverb and starts becoming part of the sounds in the track, the natural space that it is employed to create, its very reason for existing, is eroded. The rhythmical tightness of a 16 step sequence starts to blur into a train of sound, rides become one continuous fatiguing noise. It doesnít have to be like this!

Back in the early nineties, a well mastered album set at a good level could be averaging -12 to -14 db rms, and still peaking at zero db. What this effectively meant was the main body of the music (the rms level, and our perceived loudness of the track ) would be sitting at -12db, with 12db of headroom available for kicks and snares, drops and builds to provide the dynamic impact, colour and interest. Limiters would be used only to catch the occasional peaks in the music, not acting constantly across the mixes. Stuff sounded great. When a kick used to drop in a club ďback in the dayĒ, it really DROPPED, you couldnít help but dance and smile at the sheer physical weight impacting on your body when a good mix was reproduced over a great sounding system. When my rib cage was vibrating in sync to a 909 at 6 am and I was lost in the natural space inside the track, I knew it couldnít be any better. I could almost reach out and touch it, hear every nuance of the kicks sound and feel its weight. The reverbs provided a total sense of excitement and space, they made the back bone of what made a ďdarkĒ or a ďlightĒ track,. The great productions stood out a MILE, the atmosphere and anticipation and the sheer punch of the drop, immense. The artistís skill and vision awesomely apparent and intact. Pure art.

Slowly the rms levels have been coming up and up since the first software limiters were introduced, (regularly to -5db rms or so on some techno mixes that arrive here) meaning there is now nowhere for the kick drum to go, except head first into a brickwall limiter, barely louder than the body of the track. Imagine driving a car into a solid wall at 30mph, it doesnít look like a car anymore, itís just a mess. If you regularly place an L2 on the end of your mix and heavily limit your tracks for volume and you canít hear this, maybe now is the time to stop and think about your mixes, your monitoring and room and most importantly ask yourself what are your goals in music.

Every track has ďloudness potentialĒ. This is defined by many things but a great sounding mix in the first place is the most important. Some tracks are naturally loud, some are not. Some can be brought up to a good and competitive level in mastering without destroying them, others just sound awful when asked to go beyond their natural limits. The truth is, just putting a limiter across a sub standard mix so itís showing 2, 3 or 4 and who knows maybe even more decibels of limiting *constantly* across the mix is a recipe for disaster, so Iíll say it again: A good sounding (and loud) master starts with a great mix. This is something I believe some producers should really try and learn more about before reaching for the limiter. In todayís music market where volume seems to be everything, bad mixes are now a major problem, and its made worse by the fact that many producers (who make tracks crammed full of good ideas and dripping with potential) donít know how the actual dynamics and the mix play such an important role in making these ideas into a fully formed reality, and donít seem able to define the point at which the mix actually starts to sound worse through too much limiting. The ďbiteĒ at the beginning of a kick, unhindered by limiting is a massively important part of techno when done right. Itís also a ďtimerĒ, in that it grounds the whole track around a solid metronome and allows the rhythmic elements in the track to sound , well rhythmical, and more importantly, believable. Regularly I donít hear this anymore. The kick sounds more like a sinewave, a shapeless blob lurking in the shadows of the ensuing flattened chaos.

Volume is business, dynamics are art.≠

But who is brave enough to sacrifice a little volume for something they would be proud to listen back to in a years time in the face of such overbearing pressure to volumise? Who wants to have their track sat amongst 3 million others on a digital download site sounding, *shock horror* a whole decibel quieter than the one next to it? Have we reached saturation point? In some cases I think we have gone right past it.

If you want a loud vinyl cut, doing it with a heavily limited bad mix is not the way. If anything, it just causes more problems and results in distortion, and therefore ironically, a quieter cut. Loud vinyl cuts come from great engineers and great sounding and balanced mixes, where careful limiting can play an important role in assisting the process.

In terms of radio play, heavily limited tracks can play havoc with the broadcast limiters, resulting in a terrible sound that becomes unlistenable. They donít sound louder!

Those artists that make the kind of music that isnít concerned primarily with being the loudest on the block, and are careful about processing, make the kind of techno that is great to listen to again and again.

Maybe now is the time to stop worrying about volume above all else and consider the art of the mix again. We are after all, supposed to be first and foremost ďartistsĒ, arenít we?

heeeeel interessant, en ook erg herkenbaar! ik maak me ook schuldig aan het zo veel mogelijk tegen die 0db aandrukken :bloos: en dat het de power en druk van je kick molt is gewoon een feit! ik merk het ook bij mijn eigen tracks. Psychologisch iets die overkill aan limiting. Het lijkt idd een soort wedstrijd waar vooral veel jongere producers aan meedoen.