Something that I’m a big sinner of, and I suspect many other producers, is that we tend to rely a lot on the compressor/limiter plug-ins in the master track, and let it just limit and clip long peaks of loud material. See picture here. This is an example where the limiter did it’s job and tried to clip a loud peak, but for a very long time. What happens is that the resulting output, let’s say in 16-bit mode, has all sixteen bits set for a longer time period for that sound wave.
There are two things that will happen with the result (if not more). First, depending on the digital to audio converter, it might cause all kind of strange artifacts when dealing with such long full pulses of digital info. Secondly, the loudspeakers won’t move. Those dealing with dance music will know this, it means that the kick will not pump in and out, less air will move, as sound is really pushing air molecules around. The end result is actually less energy, and duller dynamic sound.
So what to do? First, after you finished your track, take a graphical look at the output to notice if this is happening, accepting the facts is really the first and most important step — based on that you could go in and fix it.
What I use now from time to time is the X-Ism free plug-in from Solid State Logic. It’s really a very clever plug-in (even if it takes CPU cycles), it shows if the bits for the 24-bit recording are all used, resulting in this huge bloat of sound. Then I key in the values in the master plug-in section until there are blinking lights, and I could see that there are gaps here and there.
What I also do nowadays is to control the level going into the master plugins, I could use plug-ins such as the really badly named Utility plug-in from Ableton Live, but I’m using the FreeG plug-in from Sonalksis, as it shows RMS values which are more interesting than peak values, even with numbers. This way I restrict the signal going into the master-ing plug-ins very quickly instead of decreasing the individual track levels. The plug-ins then will again raise the levels so I compete within the realms of the loudness wars, but I could avoid the nasty blobs of full bytes going into the DACs and ultimately the loudspeakers.
Now, I’m going through a lot of netlabel material, and usually this is the biggest problem I see when including material for my next podcast, the track is good, but the signal has such blobs everywhere, resulting in a very loud/dull sound.
You could read more about this issue and problems with the documents that are part of the X-Ism download.