Mastering Tips: Compression and Volume Control for Orchestral Music

Solutions applied to pop music are not feasible for orchestral works. More precisely, they are feasible, but not everyone uses them because they are largely unnecessary. The much bigger task falls on the mixing engineer, who, if they have done their job well, will require only minimal intervention in the mastering process. Among other things, it is not advisable to maximize the volume too much because there are very large differences in volume in orchestral music. Extremely quiet parts are followed by loud, highly dynamic parts. The essence of this is to create mood and restore sound fidelity. Increasing the volume with a maximizer limits the appearance of proper dynamics in the signal. In addition, every instrument was recorded with a microphone mixed with a certain amount of background noise. If we increase the volume, we also increase the noise. If we work on a film, we need to know that the music is a background element, so maximizing the signal is not necessary, and in addition, all tracks in films are typically not pushed to the limit. If the music needs to be loud, the film mixing engineer can handle it with simple volume automation, as there is enough room to do this without compression.

Increasing the sense of space is almost unnecessary in this type of material, as the mixing engineer should perform this process. Minimal EQ application is allowed if necessary.

The situation changes, for example, if we are talking about a film score where electronic sounds are mixed with the sound of classical instruments. Here, greater compression is allowed. The most contrary to traditional thinking is over-compression of orchestral works. Many would object if I said that you can do it without hesitation! They would consider my statement unprofessional because it goes against the generally accepted workflow. However, if the sound engineer really knows what they are doing, this concept should not cause any problems. Beginners and intermediates cannot accept this concept because they do not yet perceive the proper limit, but professionals can apply it. Who usually works at such a limit? Let's see:

What you see here is a classic orchestral composition by Hans Zimmer, which was mixed in his own studio called Remote Control. The lower blue bar represents the final mastered material, while the bars above it represent some of the stem tracks. On the left side of the image, the RMS value is clearly visible, which remains around -4 during the loud parts. Hans Zimmer is the most sought-after and Oscar-winning composer of our time, and while people may love or hate him for his success, it cannot be denied that he knows what he's doing. He is surrounded by skilled professionals, so it is unlikely that the high level of compression is due to a lack of expertise. However, this phenomenon is common in his music, and over the last 10 years, he or his collaborators have regularly used significant maximization in his music.

Of course, applying this level of compression to most classical music is unnecessary, but it may be worth considering in a film score where electronic instruments mix with traditional ones. By the way, I recommend importing the 5.1 audio tracks of Blade Runner II into an audio editor if you have access to them. You'll be surprised at how much louder it is compared to any other film mix. Therefore, even film mixing has begun to move towards greater amplitude. The loudness war is dying down in the electronic music industry, but it is by no means disappearing everywhere and under all circumstances. Based on the development of software and hardware over the past decade, it is likely that the effects of increasing volume can be more easily controlled with today's tools, so not everyone will give up on it. Unfortunately, movie theaters often have excessively loud sound, and viewers may even suffer hearing damage. So if you're working on a film, it's better to convince the director not to ruin people's hearing.

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