The simple explanation is that loudness is created in our brains rather than through any actual technical characteristics of the material. Loudness is, in effect, how loud we perceive the music rather than how technically loud the material is. It is determined through the frequency content of the material, where the energy sits in relation to our brain’s “frequency curve”, the balance of the mix, the dynamics of the material and the development of these throughout the song. Loudness is, in many ways, also a measure of how good a mix is. A mix with high loudness tends to present the material in a very effective way, which is why it is so enjoyable and desirable.
The big pitfall in this regard is that it is generally assumed that high loudness can be achieved through high technical levels. We demand absurdly high levels in mastering, hoping to compete with the songs we are referencing, when in reality what we want is higher loudness. In the process, we introduce undesirable distortion, compromise both micro and macro dynamics, negatively impact depth and width, and generally speaking, reduce the enjoyability of the music.
Now when we get to the real world, the listener actually seeks a consistent experience of loudness, such that a sequence of songs will appear to them to be played back at the same volume. They either compensate for any perceived difference in volume between songs through the volume button on their playback device, or playback volume is adjusted automatically by the device itself. In effect, any differences in technical level, or loudness, between songs become almost irrelevant. What does remain however, is the compromise in audio quality that occurred when we tried to to push the levels during the mastering process. In a way, what we tried to achieve has turned up on its head. Instead of gaining high loudness, we got stuck with bad audio quality. The track that was carefully mixed for high loudness, however, and conservatively mastered to maintain all the finesse in the music, now sounds clean, full, deep, impact-full, in one word: enjoyable.
So what can we learn from this?
First and foremost, there is no point in pushing the technical levels for loudness sake during any part of the production process. In almost any scenario this will introduce compromises that do not benefit the listening experience in any way. Watch Ian Sheperd’s video
on the automatic mastering service “Landr” for a great example of what compromised audio sounds like.
Second, we should strive for high loudness, not high levels, when our aim is to make high impact music. Again, Ian Shepard gives a simple example
on how to manipulate loudness, rather than levels.
Third, as the final loudness of the music is not linked to the technical levels, we can start thinking about how to use the levels in our DAW constructively. This is what gain staging
is all about.
There is one final very interesting aspect to all of this. And that is that as listeners, we are actually intuitively very good at judging if we achieved high loudness or not. If we are listening to “healthy” loudness, we tend to reach for the volume knob with the desire to turn it up. In fact, you’ll want to turn it louder and louder. And if the material was treated right, your heart will thank you for it with a jump of joy. If however, you listen to a song and wish to turn it up, but always end up thinking: “That was painful, let’s turn it down again”, you are most likely listening to a very compromised kind of loudness. So next time you are enjoying a good listening session, pay attention to what you do with the volume knob. It might just tell you more about the music than you think.