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Does Mastering Make Music Louder? Yes, but...

I know what you’re thinking, this seems like a straightforward and short answer - Yes!

Right? Mastering can and does make music louder but that’s actually not the entire point of mastering. 

Did you know the title ‘mastering engineer’ is actually an abbreviation of ‘disc mastering engineer’. Back when vinyl was the only medium, massive amounts of time, energy and research went into the very best way to prepare music for cutting onto a record and was done by actual engineers. People who cut and welded metal and used physics and maths to build and alter machinery to ensure the best sounding music. No plugins and laptops back then, it was hard graft. How did they do it all without the aid of Youtube? We’ll never know.

What am I getting at here?.. Well the point is that the entire aim of mastering was to get the best sound possible for the intended medium (in this case vinyl). It wasn’t about just getting maximum volume. Although getting the volume above the noise floor of vinyl was an important factor, other things like dynamic control and frequency balance were equally as important.


Then with each new medium came new mastering considerations. Engineers loved the inherent compression that came with pushing things hard to tape. People went a bit wild with the loudness that CDs could handle (arguably people went too far in the grunge & rock heyday of the 90s but it was the sound of the time). Minidisc never really took off (I should research that more). And now of course with Streaming and music production being more accessible than it’s ever been mastering has changed again - all because of the format. 

The important thing for me to hammer home here is that the real art of mastering is taking your song and ensuring it’s fit for playback on which medium it’s heading to. Most of the time, this will involve making it louder (in a well crafted way) but there’s always instances where the volume of the mix may already be loud enough so it’s more about balancing the frequency content. I’ve mastered some projects for electronic artists and DJs where the mix has come in really hot, way over 0dB and I’ve dropped the volume, re-processed it and the master has come out quieter than the mix.


I’ve also mastered world music and jazz projects that didn’t need lots of extra volume, but needed some very careful compression to glue the sound together without killing transient information.

So while most of the time mastering does indeed make music louder, especially for CD & Streaming, it’s not the only aim. For some genres like classical & jazz, mastering is more about preserving the intricacies of the recording by gently controlling and sculpting the sound and avoiding heavy limiting which is often used as the main ‘loudness’ tool. For louder pop & rock genres we don’t want a gentle, delicate sound, we want it to be loud and in your face. It’s all about knowing what the song needs and equally importantly, what the format requires.

The Loudness War: A Double-Edged Sword

Now, let’s have a look at the infamous "Loudness War." In recent decades, there has been a trend in the music industry to produce increasingly louder recordings. The reasoning? Louder songs tend to grab listeners' attention more effectively, especially in scenarios where music is played in a shuffle or playlist. Think about a Spotify playlist, you don’t want your song to sound dull and quiet compared to everyone else. Unless that’s your vibe, I’m not judging.

However, this relentless pursuit of loudness often comes at the cost of dynamic range and overall sound quality. When pushed too far, excessive loudness can introduce distortion and a generally fatiguing listening experience, leaving your listeners feeling aurally assaulted rather than entertained.

Mastering engineers play a crucial role in striking the right balance between loudness and dynamics, ensuring your music is as loud as possible without compromising its sonic integrity or introducing unwanted distortion. Sometimes I even master 2 versions for artists and labels that are concerned with maximum loudness, 1 which sounds the best to me and another which is pushed a little further than I’d like for some extra volume. And in those cases people often say, ‘Yeah yours does sound better but I think we’re going to go for the louder one.’

When Loudness Fails: The Importance of Dynamics

While loudness can undoubtedly make a song more attention-grabbing, there are instances where it can hinder the listening experience. Consider a delicate acoustic ballad or a lush orchestral piece – cranking up the loudness to extreme levels would likely strip these compositions of their nuanced dynamics and emotional depth.

Renowned mastering engineer Bob Katz, known for his work with artists like Stevie Wonder and Coldplay, emphasises the importance of preserving dynamic range in music. He argues that excessive loudness can rob recordings of their natural ebb and flow, resulting in a fatiguing and unnatural listening experience. If you haven’t heard of him before and you’re an aspiring audio engineer you should absolutely grab a copy of his book ‘Mastering: The Art and The Science’ it’s currently in its 3rd edition and it’s one I revisit regularly and goad anyone who visits my studio into buying. I’ve actually bought all 3 editions over the years (the latest has some important updates on the streaming world) so I usually end up lending my copies out to the many students who visit my studio from the Music College next door.

Real-World Example: The Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Californication"

This album came out at a time of peak CD loudness, so when I was listening as a teenager I didn’t really care or pay attention to the absolute crushed dynamics of this album, it was one of many albums at the time that were really loud. There was loads of rock and guitar stuff coming out and loud CDs were just the norm. It’s an interesting case study to look back on now though, especially with many years of careful and considered listening under my belt.

The Red Hot Chili Peppers' album "Californication" was initially mastered by Vlado Meller for its original 1999 release. However, many audiophiles and critics felt that Meller's mastering was too loud and distorted, sacrificing dynamic range in the pursuit of increased loudness.

Years later, in 2012, the album was remastered by Chris Bellman at Bernie Grundman Mastering studios specifically for a vinyl reissue. Bellman's remastering aimed to optimise the album's sound for the vinyl format while addressing the issues with the initial mastering. I think this mastered from some tapes that included different mixes or takes of songs as well so the finished vinyl version contained remastered versions of songs but also new, previously unheard versions too.

Bellman's 2012 vinyl remaster was widely praised for its superior sonic quality, enhancing warmth and low-end frequencies while restoring dynamic range and nuances that were lost in the overly loud 1999 mastering. The vinyl remaster was celebrated for its analog character and significantly improved listening experience. It’s pretty widely accepted as the best version of the album.

While some fans still preferred the brighter, more in-your-face sound of the original 1999 mastering, the consensus among audiophiles and critics was that Bellman's 2012 vinyl remaster provided a more balanced and faithful representation of the album's intended sound.

There had also been some leaked MP3s of alternate mixes or masters floating around on the internet for a few years prior to this which people preferred due to the fact that they weren’t as aggressively mastered. I’ve found a couple of contradicting stories about these so please feel free to correct me on this if you have some good intel on this! (I’ve read about these being alternate masters and also read that these were just unmastered alternate mixes.)

There are lots of cases of albums around this time being mastered overly hot and being fatiguing to listen to with audible distortion and it proves the point that loudness, while important, shouldn’t be the only goal at the mastering process. Mastering should make your music louder IF it still sounds good, and IF it works for the intended playback medium.

The Vinyl Resurgence: Mastering for a Different Medium

As vinyl records continue to make a triumphant comeback, mastering engineers face a unique set of challenges when preparing music for this beloved analog format. Unlike digital formats, which can handle extremely loud and compressed audio, vinyl has physical limitations that necessitate a more restrained approach to loudness.

Excessive loudness on vinyl can lead to inner-groove distortion, loss of dynamic range, and even physical damage to the record itself. As such, mastering for vinyl often involves carefully managing loudness levels while preserving the audio's dynamic range and transients, ensuring the warm, analog character that vinyl enthusiasts crave is maintained.

Just a couple of weeks ago I had a call from a pressing plant because an artist had submitted loud CD masters (not done by me) to be cut onto vinyl and the cutting engineer couldn’t get a decent sounding cut without distortion. I was called to do an emergency re-master so that the job could be completed. It’s one of many examples of the masters not being fit for the medium. The CD masters sounded great for CD but the loudness was far too much for vinyl.

Wrappin’ it up

So there we have it, I hope that my long explanation of what essentially was a Yes or No question has been interesting and thought provoking. And I’m going to try and sum it all up for you. 

Does Mastering make music louder? Loudness plays a key role but true mastering lies in striking the perfect balance between volume, dynamics, and overall sonic quality so that your music sounds its best on its intended format.

How’s that?

As always, I hope that’s been interesting and helpful for you. Give me a shout with any questions or if there’s any topics or specific areas of mastering or vinyl cutting you’d like to learn about. And if you’d like to chat about mastering your music for any format, get in touch anytime and let’s talk about how we can absolutely crush it and make it louder than everyone else… just kidding ;)

Click the link to go to my contact page -

Speak soon!


P.s. if you like all things analogue, mastering & vinyl related please go over and follow my Youtube & social media accounts where I regularly make videos about mastering and cutting records!


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