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Optimizing Dynamics in Mastering Your Home Recordings

The style of your music and the arrangements that you use determine how you optimize the dynamics of your music. For example, classical music has a much broader dynamic range than rock music, and the infamous “wall of sound” type of arrangement has a narrower dynamic range than a song with sparse verses and thicker choruses.

You have two main tools to use when you work on the dynamics during mastering — a compressor and a limiter — and each has its purpose. For the most part, if you’re trying to add punch or smoothness to your music, a compressor does the job nicely.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to squeeze a little more volume out of a song and you don’t want to change the song’s sound quality, a limiter is your best choice.

Here are suggestions that can help you use compression and limiting most effectively during mastering:

  • Use a mild compression ratio (between 1.1:1 and 2:1) to keep from overcompressing your music.

  • Apply only 1–2dB of compression or limiting at one time. If you need more than that, chain more than one compressor together and use these small amounts on each. If you compress or limit more than 1 or 2dB at a time, you end up with artifacts (audible changes to your music caused by the compressor or limiter).

  • Work with your attack and release times. An attack that’s too short takes the punch out of your music by cutting off the initial transients. Likewise, a release time that’s too long doesn’t recover quickly enough, and the dynamics of the vocals disappear. In contrast, if the release time is too short, you hear distortion.

  • Set the threshold so that your compressor’s meters dance (bounce) to the rhythm of the music. Only the loudest notes (snare drum or lead vocal accents, for example) should trigger the meters and then only by 1 or 2 dB.

  • Use a multiband compressor to bring out individual instruments in the mix. For example, if the bass drum seems to be getting lost, you can apply mild compression to the lower frequencies (around 80 to 100 Hz). This brings the instrument forward in the mix slightly.

  • When you’re not sure that what you’re doing sounds better, don’t use the processor. Any dynamics processing is going to affect the quality of your song’s sound to some extent. If adding this processing doesn’t improve the overall sound, you’re better off not using it.

A song without a significant difference between its softest and loudest notes quickly becomes tiring to listen to. Always keep the difference between the average level and the peak level greater than 6dB. In fact, try to have a peak-to-average ratio of 18 to 24dB if you can. Your music will have a lot more life in it and sound much more interesting.

When you’re testing your compression or limiter settings (you do this by comparing the processed and unprocessed versions), be sure to have the volume of both versions exactly the same. Any difference in volume defeats the purpose of side-by-side comparison because people almost always prefer the louder version, regardless of whether it sounds better.

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