Maximizing and normalizing too much and your sound

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Exploring Maximizing and Normalizing

Dynamics control is tweaking variable loudness levels. Two of the most common types of dynamics controls are normalizing and maximizing. A normalizing algorithm scans an audio file and finds the highest sample level. It raises every sample by the percent the sample needs to raised in order to hit 0 db Full Scale. Normalizing is used when the lowest levels in an audio file are too low. It is also used when transferring samples from a computer to a device such as a sampler, which adds a great deal of dynamic headroom.

Normalizing allows you to set the volume context of your album, with carefully adjusted volume balances among the tracks. Normalizing too much however, works only if you have the headroom for it. In real life, an occasional peak from a plucked string or snare drum can defeat normalizing. The ear judges loudness by RMS levels. If those occasional peaks have little effect on the overall RMS level, they’ll likely have little effect on peak loudness.

Maximizing is increasing the overall RMS level of a file without clipping it. With the added headroom, the track can be normalized, allowing all peaks to be raised. Maximizing depends on the quality of the compression and some software gives you lots of control over the process. The Waves L1 Ultramaximizer plug-in has a proprietary look-ahead technique that anticipates upcoming amplitude peaks in the file and trims them down before it’s time for them to go into the DAC.

While maximizing can be good, it is possible to get carried away. And our ears can fool us: because of the way our brain processes sound, when the same material is played at different volume levels, the louder one often sounds more present (at least in the short term). Maximizing raises a file’s RMS level, but it does so at the expense of dynamic range. Too much maximizing can result in music with little dynamic range and a distorted sound.

Contrary to occasional appearances, however, maximizers do not perform miracles, and their results come at a price. Normalizing too much and maximizing inevitably exacerbate that Achilles heel of digital audio, quantization error. Ideally, maximization is a last step procedure, particularly if it involves noise shaping. It’s meant to be a final coat of polish, not something that gets done over and over. Effective normalizing and maximizing are subtle, fine arts that are learned over time.

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