Techno Has Reached Its Limits
Written by Chris McCormack

Out of all the genres of music I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to master, (everything from full classical orchestrations to nursery rhymes via hard industrial noise bands), the one genre that often has me banging my head against the proverbial brick wall is techno. The reason? Producers using limiters to increase the volume of their tracks, at the expense of the dynamic impact of the music. I spent many years involved in writing, producing and trying to understand what made techno, well ‘techno’, and if I learnt just one thing, it was how important the dynamics of the mix were. In particular, the groove, the feel and the impact of the bass and kick. Without dynamics, these elements would have no meaning. The fact is that probably 70% of all the techno I get sent here now is processed or even worse, smashed through a limiter before it ever reaches my studio for mastering. I find this is mainly from producers who are new or up and coming (though not exclusively limited to this by any means)

In the studio with the clients tracks, I press play, the meters light up, become glued to zero db and stay there for 5 minutes. I sigh. The waveform looks like a continuous block. Musically there’s no colour, no dynamic, no interest. The weight and impact of a kick that should be driving the track is lost. It’s tiring on the ears, it sounds unpleasant and in the end all the tracks that are subject this kind of heavy processing start to sound the same. People get bored and move on. This seems counter productive to me. I end up having to go back to the client asking if they have a version without the limiters on. Invariably they don’t. I pass on the opportunity to master it because there is nothing I can do with it other than drop the level right down and try and salvage some kind of sound QUALITY back into the track. The sales of the record and the advantage that loud music is supposedly meant to create is slowly but surely turning people off, and whilst it’s by no means a major reason for music’s (and particularly techno’s) decline in sales, it’s certainly not helping. In sheer musical enjoyment terms, it’s thee major non artistically related culprit above all others that is hurting the value of music.

I believe it’s not the producer’s intention to do this (well some producers ARE just obsessed with sounding the loudest). What I do believe is that poor monitoring choices and room acoustics, plus a lack of grounding in the traditional ways of building and making good mixes means producers simply don’t hear what’s happening to both the bottom end in their tracks and the level of distortion that is being created as they continue to push the slider on their L2 up and up. In a good monitoring environment, this is all painfully apparent. The kick drum tucks up into the belly of the mix. There’s no wallop(!), it sounds ‘computery’ and lifeless. And it’s not just the bass either, there are other issues which are just as important, like how reverb suddenly stops sounding like reverb and starts becoming part of the sounds in the track, the natural space that it is employed to create, its very reason for existing, is eroded. The rhythmical tightness of a 16 step sequence starts to blur into a train of sound, rides become one continuous fatiguing noise. It doesn’t have to be like this!

Back in the early nineties, a well mastered album set at a good level could be averaging -12 to -14 db rms, and still peaking at zero db. What this effectively meant was the main body of the music (the rms level, and our perceived loudness of the track ) would be sitting at -12db, with 12db of headroom available for kicks and snares, drops and builds to provide the dynamic impact, colour and interest. Limiters would be used only to catch the occasional peaks in the music, not acting constantly across the mixes. Stuff sounded great. When a kick used to drop in a club ‘back in the day’, it really DROPPED, you couldn’t help but dance and smile at the sheer physical weight impacting on your body when a good mix was reproduced over a great sounding system. When my rib cage was vibrating in sync to a 909 at 6 am and I was lost in the natural space inside the track, I knew it couldn’t be any better. I could almost reach out and touch it, hear every nuance of the kicks sound and feel its weight. The reverbs provided a total sense of excitement and space, they made the back bone of what made a ‘dark’ or a ‘light’ track,. The great productions stood out a MILE, the atmosphere and anticipation and the sheer punch of the drop, immense. The artist’s skill and vision awesomely apparent and intact. Pure art.

Slowly the rms levels have been coming up and up since the first software limiters were introduced, (regularly to -5db rms or so on some techno mixes that arrive here) meaning there is now nowhere for the kick drum to go, except head first into a brickwall limiter, barely louder than the body of the track. Imagine driving a car into a solid wall at 30mph, it doesn’t look like a car anymore, it’s just a mess. If you regularly place an L2 on the end of your mix and heavily limit your tracks for volume and you can’t hear this, maybe now is the time to stop and think about your mixes, your monitoring and room and most importantly ask yourself what are your goals in music.

Every track has ‘loudness potential’. This is defined by many things, but a great sounding mix in the first place is the most important. Some tracks are naturally loud, some are not. Some can be brought up to a good and competitive level in mastering without destroying them, others just sound awful when asked to go beyond their natural limits. The truth is, just putting a limiter across a sub standard mix so it’s showing 2, 3 or 4 and who knows maybe even more decibels of limiting *constantly* across the mix is a recipe for disaster, so I’ll say it again: A good sounding (and loud) master starts with a great mix. This is something I believe some producers should really try and learn more about before reaching for the limiter. In today’s music market where volume seems to be everything, bad mixes are now a major problem, and its made worse by the fact that many producers (who make tracks crammed full of good ideas and dripping with potential) don’t know how the actual dynamics and the mix play such an important role in making these ideas into a fully formed reality, and don’t seem able to define the point at which the mix actually starts to sound worse through too much limiting. The ‘bite’ at the beginning of a kick, unhindered by limiting is a massively important part of techno when done right. It’s also a ‘timer’, in that it grounds the whole track around a solid metronome and allows the rhythmic elements in the track to sound , well rhythmical, and more importantly, believable. Regularly I don’t hear this anymore. The kick sounds more like a sinewave, a shapeless blob lurking in the shadows of the ensuing flattened chaos.

Volume is business, dynamics are art.

But who is brave enough to sacrifice a little volume for something they would be proud to listen back to in a years time in the face of such overbearing pressure to volumise? Who wants to have their track sat amongst 3 million others on a digital download site sounding, *shock horror* a whole decibel quieter than the one next to it? Have we reached saturation point? In some cases I think we have gone right past it.

If you want a loud vinyl cut, doing it with a heavily limited bad mix is not the way. If anything, it just causes more problems and results in distortion, and therefore ironically, a quieter cut. Loud vinyl cuts come from great engineers and great sounding and balanced mixes, where careful limiting can play an important role in assisting the process. In terms of radio play, heavily limited tracks can play havoc with the broadcast limiters, resulting in a terrible sound that becomes unlistenable. They don’t sound louder!

Those artists that make the kind of music that isn’t concerned primarily with being the loudest on the block, and are careful about processing, make the kind of techno that is great to listen to again and again. Maybe now is the time to stop worrying about volume above all else and consider the art of the mix again. We are after all, supposed to be first and foremost ‘artists’, aren’t we?

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