Today’s blog post is a brief one, and zeroes in on a certain piece of mixing & mastering advice that roams throughout audio communities across the internet, to the extent some call it ‘common sense’ — effectively something so apparent it does not get questioned.
It is the advice to ‘Just turn it up on the DJ mixer’, which appears either as an answer to a producer’s question ‘Why is my tune not as loud as the released tracks I am using as a reference?’; or alternatively, ‘Just turn it up on the DJ mixer’ is often used as an encouragement to keep your electronic music productions as dynamic as possible, avoiding the ear-fatiguing, wall-of-sound, ‘squashed dynamics’ aesthetics. An encouragement to finally initiate peace talks in the never-ending loudness wars.
But you know what?
I am going to step up and call this strategy, for the most part, a rather lazy cop-out. With a loud disclaimer that it is indeed a highly context-dependent cop-out, and that keeping a production very dynamic may of course be desired, depending on the particular (sub-)genre your tune co-exists in.
With that said, if you, like a lot of the producers whose music I work on, produce club music that’s designed to be played within a DJ mix, it makes a lot of sense to compare your finished product sandwiched between other people’s songs — as is, with no on-the-fly tweaks on the DJ mix . Of course a great tune with less-than-ideal sonics trumps a boring exercise in sonic excellence, but why not aim to have the proverbial cake and eat it too — a great tune that also sounds the best — which, in this case, is not a contradiction, but a win-win situation that can be achieved.
If you are aiming to co-exist with your tune in a DJ mix full of songs within a particular sonic niche (or sign your tune to labels that release songs within that niche), and the sonic aesthetics of that niche are based on minute technicalities, which a certain level of loudness is commonly a part of, then finishing your tune and not addressing its dynamics and loudness indeed means you decided to ignore the rules of the game, and, for better or worse, cannot expect to have other DJs or tastemakers embrace it with open arms.
If your tune is overly dynamic and spiky in comparison, with a high peak-to-average-power ratio, boosting the gain on the DJ mix may not be enough. You may likely run out of headroom and start distorting long before the song starts to appear loud-enough; and chances are, it will never be loud enough, and will just sound too different to fit into the ‘musical discourse’ of the other commercially released songs you play before and after it in the DJ set.
This post doesn’t aim to discuss the particular strategies on how to boost the loudness of your tunes in a controlled, elegant way (more on that in future posts), but to simply dispel the notion that if your tune is good enough, ‘turning it up on the mix’ will fix its sonic deficiencies in the loudness department. It may— but if the genre you’re working in is all about controlling the dynamics, it won’t, and it also probably means the tune actually isn’t ‘good enough’ yet — rather, it probably means one of the genre’s core principles had been neglected, and we need to go back to the drawing board on the mixing/mastering front.