So, I know the title sounds like an oxymoron, but I deliberately titled it that way, because it is kind of counter-intuitive.
In this thread, the discussion on my mix lead to both @ncls and @Lophophora asking about getting punchy, loud mixes without the need for excessive limiting on the final master buss (and the associated negative artefacts associated with heavy limiting and/or compression).
To give a short answer, I said this:
To which Phil and Jean-Marc replied:
So rather than sidetrack that thread, I thought I would start a new post. Here is my answer:
BTW, I’m pretty sure some won’t like my answer…because this method is very “non-purist”… but here goes anyway…
It’s very simple actually. It’s all about peak control at a track level. Especially with transient-rich sources (eg. drums, piano, clean guitars, acoustic guitars) you simply need to find a way to reduce the peak level of the transients with a method that doesn’t soften them (if your goal is to retain transient punch, that is).
This is why old blokes go on about how great analogue is. Analogue equipment does this for you automatically, even when you’re not trying to do it. Tape (for example) is not capable of capturing drum fast transients - it basically destroys them. So when you slam drums into tape, the transients saturate and distort so much, it basically acts as a clipper/limiter. Of course if you slam it too hard into tape, you will get audible distortion, and sometimes that is desirable with drums, because the impact is so fast and noisy, it isn’t perceived as distortion, but rather “fatness”, “warmth”, “punch” or whatever other buzzword applies.
The “problem” with modern digital capture is that it retains complete fidelity of transient information, meaning that in any purely digital capture, the peak to RMS ratio will be very high. This, of course is not really a “problem”, but it becomes such if you expect to treat the audio in the same way as analogue capture and get the same results.
It stands to reason, that if your peak to RMS ratio remains high across 30, 40 or more individual tracks in your project, once all those transients sum together at your mix buss, you’ll have one very “spikey” mix… and if you then slam that into a poor limiter - matter how great and transparent that limiter is - your mix will be distorting long before it even gets close to hitting even modest LUFs levels, like say -15.
So basically, it comes down to this: If you tightly control the transients all the way through your mixing chain - from the track level, to the group level, the buss level, and finally the mix buss, your mix should be pretty much hitting -16 to -12LUFs (sometimes even louder!) even before you do any final limiting.
“…and how do you do that?” Well this is the part of the answer you’re probably not going to like, because it flies in the face of “accepted internet wisdom”…
The “authentic” (and hence probably more “acceptable”) way to do it is to use analogue modelling summing plugins, transformer emulation, tape simulation plugins and the like to simulate what happens in an analogue recording and mixing chain - multiple layers of analogue “sponge” to soak up all those pesky transients.
The problem with using this method strictly, is that you run into the same problem that old analogue guys used to complain about: The transients become “soft” and the mix loses “punch” and immediacy… And of course, the problem with trying to be “authentic” is that nothing is actually “authentic” and it is all digital emulation anyway.
So how do you do it while retaining apparent transient “punch”? In the most “transparent” way we have access to: Clippers and Limiters… yes, that’s right… clippers and limiters at a track, group, buss and master buss level - All the way through the chain.
Before you recoil in horror at this heresy remember, we’re talking about only limiting or clipping 1, 2, maybe 3dB at the most at each stage… and because you’re using it on transient rich sources, it is only touching those very brief individual transients, not the “body” of the sound… Think about it, if you can “buy” 1-2 dB of headroom across multiple tracks and busses in your mix, that translates to a whole heap of peaks that aren’t multiplying on each downbeat when they are summed together across your entire mix at the mixbuss stage.
So that’s it. If you don’t believe it could work, try this: Grab a mix project that is nice and rich in transients, and try just a limiter on each track where the transients need taming. Use it first in the chain, just to limit by maybe 1 or 2 dB at the most. Don’t be terrified of using multiple limiters on your mix - it’s not illegal, and the mix police won’t arrest you. You don’t have to use super-fancy ones that use tonnes of CP-U - just the bog-standard limiter that comes with your DAW will be fine and probably won’t chew up any computing power.
If you do it right, you’ll actually find things much easier to mix, and by the time you get to the final stage of the mix, you’ll be hitting much higher LUFs levels than usual, and your mix will be punchy and immediate.
Once you get confidence in using that method, incorporate clippers into your workflow, so you can use either hard or soft clipping to suit the source material much better.
If you’re at a loss for material to practice on, here is a choice of 3 multitrack projects from my last album: