Mastering the loudness of your dance competition music

Most of the time, when you are editing modern music for your dance routines, it’s already as loud as it can get. Make your edits, and you are done.

But for some type of music, especially ballads, lyrical songs, movie soundtrack songs, or older Broadway showtunes, soft passages sound too soft when played over dance competition sound systems.

What your music needs in this case is a process known as mastering.

Mastering is a delicate art, and even though the tools for mastering are now within reach of casual music editors, it takes a trained ear to use the tools effectively and deliver a result that sounds natural and smooth. Amateurs often use too much compression and limiting when trying to make music sound louder, but mastering engineers employ other techniques to avoid making the music sound squashed.

I highly recommend that you do not simply turn up the volume in your music editing software. This results in digital clipping distortion – an awful crackly noise, which I have occasionally heard in music played at dance competitions.

If you’ve got your dance routine music ready to go, but find that there are parts of the music that are too soft when played on competition sound systems, I can master the audio for you, to bring it to a place where it sounds great and is at the proper level for competition. And I will be happy to do this for you for only $39. This entire process can be handled online. Email me, and I will set up a private folder for you to upload your competition mix. Then I will master it and send it back to you via the online folder.

If you are in doubt as to whether or not your music needs mastering, send me the file and I will listen to it for you at no obligation whatsoever. If it could benefit from mastering, I will let you know, and if it is already as loud as it can reasonably go, then I will let you know that too.

I do not advocate that your music ever gets pushed to a loud extreme… an ugly process that has developed in the digital age known as the Loudness Wars. However, music designed to be played over dance competition and recital sound systems should be at an adequate level so that the music is not drowned out by the audience, acrobatic landings, nor tap shoes.

The losers of the loudness wars

It’s been somewhat of a gradual process, but the average volume pressed on CDs has gotten louder and louder over the past 20 years. The casual listener might think this is a good thing, but it actually is not. Because people perceive something to “sound better” when played at a higher volume than the same thing played softly, commercial and other interests have driven what is called the “Loudness Wars“, i.e. the attempt to create CDs that are just a little bit louder than other CDs.

However, there is an upper ceiling to the volume of the music that is recorded to CD. Beyond this maximum level is distortion or noise. So mastering and mixing engineers employ the techniques of compression and limiting to get the perceived volume louder. But there IS a downside to compression, and that is the squishing or flattening of the music. Untrained ears can’t readily identify compression, but if you ever get the chance to go to a recording studio, or even experiment with a compressor on your home computer (through good speakers of course), you can learn to hear the effect of compression on music (a little bit or a severe amount). Listening to severely compressed music for more than a few minutes is also fatiguing on the ears. Our brains “expect” to hear sounds with dynamics.

Loudness and compression “works” for electronic styles of dance music and some other types of modern electronic music. Quality of sound is not the main concern, just a thumping bass and maximum volume.

When creating remixes for dance competition, you naturally want your songs and remixes to be as loud as all of the others. It feels awkward to have your song come onto the sound system at a volume much lower than the song before and the song after.

But you CAN take the loudness war too far in the dance competition world. My girlfriend chose a modern version of the jazz standard  “It Don’t Mean A Thing” for one of her soloists this season. The version she chose is by the Charlotte Swing Band. While this is a fantastic and exciting Big Band version of the song, this recording has been squashed to within an inch of its life in the attempt to get it as loud as possible on the CD.

Just last month, I witnessed something notable at a regional dance competition. I watched as the sound engineer reached for his volume control and TURN DOWN THE MAINS to the house sound system when this song started playing. He had not done so for any other song prior to it that day that I was aware of. Amazing to have witnessed the sound engineer do that since overall, the SPL (sound pressure level) to the house at the competition was quite high (loud) for the room.

Witnessing the sound engineer turn down the volume for this song has really stuck with me. While you want your songs to sound loud, there is a point at which trying to get it still louder will come back to bite you as it did here. I actually have since remixed this song for future competitions to bring the volume slightly lower than originally printed in the iTunes version. I also rolled off some of the very low end and some of the very high end, to try to bring it back to a more “normal” level. However, I can’t uncompress what has already been compressed. The compression level is so severe, it sounds as if it was being played through a television set. With a lot of brass, this severe compression gives the music a quality of something like what you would hear the Tonight Show band playing. Perhaps that’s what the mix and mastering engineers were going for.

Add me to the list of mix engineers who would like to see a return to lower volumes printed onto CDs (such as the K-meter system) so that the volume resides in the LISTENER’s control. If you want a song louder, don’t demand a louder CD, turn up the volume knob on YOUR system.

If you’ve got a song for dance competition that was recorded years and years ago, and you want to get it up to today’s normal loudness level, I can do that for you with professional results. Feel free to contact me for more information about that.

Here’s a great guide posted on YouTube that explains this phenomenon so that you can both hear and see what’s going on:

Clipping distortion

Most of the music at the Headliners Competition in Lowell this weekend so far has sounded really great. However, one song had quite a bit of distortion throughout the entire song. Perhaps it wasn’t enough for the judges to lower the dancer’s marks, but it was still very noticeable and distracting. This distortion sounded like a buzzing coming through the speakers. It was most likely a phenomenon known as clipping distortion.

For folks who are new to audio editing, you might be tempted to “turn it up” once you discover that you can make the song louder in your mixing/editing software than it was originally. This is almost always a BIG MISTAKE. Why? Because there is an upper limit to the volume possible to record in a computer audio file (an mp3, aiff, wav, aac, etc), or on a CD. If you try to make your song go louder than this upper limit, you are simply introducing noise and crackly distortion into your song.

Without getting too far into the technicalities of this maximum level, let’s just say that 90% of the time, raising the volume will result in nasty sounding distortion. The judges have a long enough day as it is without assaulting their ears with this noise.

Older recordings that sound soft or any music which has soft passages CAN be made to sound louder through expertly applied mastering techniques such as upward compression and judicious use of peak limiting, but this is best handled by an audio professional. Too much peak limiting (a form of compression) can result in a squashed sound, leaving your track lifeless, dull and weak; which is exactly the opposite of your intended result of creating a cranked and pounding track.

Bottom line: DO NOT INCREASE THE VOLUME of your songs and tracks when editing them on a computer, unless you are okay with a crackly distorted sound for your music. In most cases, your songs are already as loud as they can go without further professional enhancement. Once you create clipping distortion in an audio file, there is NO WAY to remove it. The only way to get rid of it is to trash the distorted version and go back to the original version.

If you’re using a song that needs its volume goosed up a bit, feel free to email me and I can likely make the track sound louder without causing any clipping distortion. This is especially true if the song is an older song, or even a modern song with passages that are too soft when played over a typical sound system that dancers perform with.

For more on the dangers of trying to get your audio tracks louder, check out: The Losers of the Loudness Wars

If you are looking to get your track louder without suffering clipping distortion, check out my mastering services.