Ask the Engineer: Randy Merrill on “How Loud Is Too Loud?”

Today’s “Ask the Engineer” question goes to mastering engineer Randy Merrill.

Randy Merrill joined Scott Hull Mastering in early 2006 as Scott’s production engineer. Shortly thereafter he started building his own mastering clientele, and today he’s a staff engineer at Masterdisk. Randy’s approach is to be as attuned to his clients’ aesthetic and practical goals as possible. He goes the extra mile to make sure the finished product reflects how you want your music to sound. Randy’s credits include Bruce Hornsby, Bill McHenry, Tom Wopat, 3 Cohens, Perez Hilton, Darcy James Argue, Paul Jacobs (Naxos) and Chantal Claret.

Photo of Randy Merrill and Tom Wopat
Tom Wopat and Randy Merrill
Q: How loud is too loud?

A: We’ve been hearing about the “loudness wars” for a long time now, but one point people don’t make is that “loud” can be done badly, and it can be done well. I’m not somebody who’s going to say that everything today is too loud. There are some great sounding albums that are loud, dense, exciting, and punchy.

The first thing to keep in mind, when you’re talking about loudness and mastering, is that the client ultimately sets the target. When I’m mastering, I’m serving the client’s vision for their project. That said, just because a client wants a loud album doesn’t mean it can’t still sound great. It can.

The first thing you need if you’re going to make something loud AND sound good is the skill to do so. That, plus effort, experience, and the ability to scrutinize your work in a finely tuned environment.

There are entirely different ways to get things loud. There are good ways and not so good ways, and are often dependent on the qualities of the actual mixes. Every approach has its caveats. I may do it differently from project to project depending on a lot of factors, like how the mixes come in; what the music is like; what kind of intensity the music needs.

But to really answer your question, it’s too loud when the music is fatiguing and unpleasant to listen to. In this case, it’s either too loud or it was done badly.

If a client wants a very uncompressed, dynamic recording then that’s the direction we go, of course. I have clients in classical, jazz, and even singer-songwriter stuff where that’s the right approach. But if my client wants their project louder, then its a matter of finding a balance. On different resolution playback systems loudness can sound either good or bad. If it sounds good on an iPod dock it doesn’t mean it’s going to sound good on an expensive hi-fi system. And the opposite can be the case too: it may sound great on the hi-fi but it doesn’t sound as impressive or alive through the dock. So you have to find a balance; the music has to sound good however it’s played.

So even if you want a loud record, you can still have a great sounding record. You and your mastering engineer will find the right balance.