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levels on an album when you have loud songs and ballads
Old 26th May 2019
levels on an album when you have loud songs and ballads

Hi all

My mastering process is fairly simple, mostly because I don't pretend to be a mastering engineer. Basically, it is something I will do if a client wants me to do it and doesn't want to spend extra to send it out.

So, I load up all the final mixes in a single project in Cubase. I adjust the tops and tails, order the songs so they sound good together (flow, etc.) and make EQ changes to ensure a general consistency from one track to the next in terms of frequency representation.

For each track, I'll usually just do some fairly mild compression with the SSL stereo compressor (about -4db), add some make-up gain, send that into a tape saturation plugin for a bit more tape-style compression (either Waves Kraemer Master Tape or Steinberg Magneto II), and then finish each track off with either an L2 or an L1.

My final step is to load the final master recordings into Hofa CD and DDP creator and use that to insert metadata, add gaps, etc.

It usually works out alright.

I'm struggling a bit with one client. I have recorded their album and it sounds good. It has some straight-up rockers and some fairly delicate ballads.

If I compress the ballads too much and push their levels, they make the rock songs sound small and weak. Makes sense.

So, I sent an evaluation package to the client and he says that he likes the "punchiness" and presence of the ballads better when they are louder - not that they are really punchy, but whatever.

Here are my options as I see them:
1. Do dynamics processing and EQ so that the client likes the sound in Cubase. Adjust the relative levels between the songs in HOFA CD/DDP creator. (this is what I'm leaning towards, except that compressing these ballads more than they currently are seems heavy-handed to me)

Down side - the ballads will still be quite compressed and will lack dynamic range, and will not provide enough contrast between them and the rock songs.

2. Do dynamics processing and EQ **and lighten the dynamics processing and stuff** all in Cubase to have good relative levels between the songs already, so I don't have to do it in HOFA. (this is where I am now)

Downside - the client fears that if any of the songs are played individually - either by radio or the end listener - that they won't seem "loud enough and punchy and present enough" - particularly when those things are not an issue with the louder songs.

I realize that with option 1, I will have ballads that won't have that much dynamic range and will peak at, say, -4db. Whereas with option 2, the peaks will still get upwards to -1db or whatever, but with more dynamic range, will feel to the listener to be sitting at their "average" level of about -4db.

Just not sure which way to go.

Old 26th May 2019
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SmoothTone's Avatar

Sometimes we have to do things that are against our better judgement. If the client understands the pros and cons but still wants a particular sound, I wouldn't worry about where the peaks end up. I'd go with option 1 but keep a copy of the original session/files in case they change their mind.
Old 26th May 2019
Lives for gear
One of the most difficult mastering tasks is to set the final album or assembly levels of ballads vs. rockers (or however you want to label the flat-out vs. softer songs in a genre). I’ve been doing mastering off and on for five decades, and I still have no reliable, repeatable method. That question is where I most often spend time checking song-to-song transition levels by switching between mains, Avantones, car systems, headphones and cheap earbuds, and listening at levels between “I can just barely hear everything” to “I can barely stand to listen very long at this level”. And still there are compilations I’ve done that I would like to get a do-over on.
There have been almost zero complaints or suggestions from clients in that regard, but it definitely isn’t something I can feel comfortable about. I don’t have any shortcuts to offer.
Old 27th May 2019
In situations like this I find it helpful to match the level of the verse vocals between these types of songs. Regardless of how they are processed, if the vocals sound like they are the same across the tracks it seems to work better.

I'd give the client the sound he/she wants and adjust the levels without regard for those technical concerns.

Another option you have is to give them two sets of masters to quell their fears about releasing the songs individually.
Old 29th May 2019
Thanks, all, for the suggestions. I've taken them all to heart.

I am giving the client what he is asking for, but trying as much as possible to balance that with not bashing the daylights out of the softer tracks - using the top of the lead vocal as a guide for consistency between tracks.

With less re-leveling to do in HOFA, I figure the better off I will be. I want to avoid the risk of having a very compressed and otherwise "loud" track being simply turned down in HOFA, which I fear would result in the song *sounding* loud, but not actually *being* loud. That would be disorienting.

It's good to know that my question - which felt kind of like a "noob" question - is one that even experienced people struggle with.

I will mention to the client that there can be two mastered versions - the album version and the single version - if he so chooses.

Thanks again;
Old 3 weeks ago
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chrismeraz's Avatar

I'm struggling with the same question. My approach currently is to master the loud songs to around -14LUFS and -1dBTP for online streaming. Then the quiet songs get mastered so the lead vocal feels about the same volume as it was on the loud songs.

The quiet songs will end up at -16 or -17LUFS, but any radio or streaming service will turn them up anyway, and that will sound better than having the loud ones turned down.

If mastering for CD, I then take the same files as above and turn them up 1dB so they peak just under 0dBTP.

I'd love to get opinions from more experienced mastering engineers. Anybody?
Old 3 weeks ago
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SmoothTone's Avatar

Originally Posted by chrismeraz View Post
Then the quiet songs get mastered so the lead vocal feels about the same volume as it was on the loud songs.
That's not a bad approach. At the end of the day, just make it so it feels right to the listener.

The quiet songs will end up at -16 or -17LUFS, but any radio or streaming service will turn them up anyway, and that will sound better than having the loud ones turned down.
Not necessarily, there are a number of variables at play. Some services employ limiting to get the level up, and radio certainly does, so that will change the sound more than a simple gain change. Others don't apply limiting and will only raise the level as far as the highest peak will allow.
Some services have album mode, so the level of songs on an album are kept relative to each other. Then of course, there's the different loudness normalisation targets across different services and even within a single service depending on user settings.

This info shows the range of standards we are dealing with:

And good discussion about the pros and cons here:

Targeting Mastering Loudness for Streaming (LUFS, Spotify, YouTube)-Why NOT to do it.
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