For this tip to make sense, I need to be upfront about two personal biases.
Personal bias #1: Drums should sound percussive. I can’t remember the last time I used compression on drums (although limiting or saturation is helpful to shave off extreme peaks).
Personal bias #2: I avoid using bus processors. The mix has to sound great without any bus processors, so the mastering process can take the mix to the next level.
Why I have these biases would take up a whole other tip. Besides, if your music sounds great with bus processors and compressed drums, then by all means—keep using bus processors, and compress your drums!
But There’s a Problem: “Super Peaks”
As a result of my biases, I send mixes with a wide dynamic range to the Mastering page, because that’s where I can control the precise amount of dynamic range processing in context with other related pieces of music. But, not restricting dynamics means that from time to time, there are “super peaks”—for example, if the kick, snare, cymbal, keyboard stabs, and a guitar power chord all hit at the same time (fig. 1).
These super peaks go way higher than most peaks, so if you normalize, the super peaks prevent any significant peak level increase. Using limiting or compression on the track works, but alters the percussive character. Of course, the beauty of the Song/Mastering page synergy is that you can tweak the mix in the Song page, and the Mastering page will reflect the results. However, with super peaks that combine multiple instrument sounds occurring simultaneously, tracking down which tracks to reduce, and by how much, gets complicated—especially if you have to deal with a dozen or so super peaks.
The Gain Envelope is the perfect tool for dealing with super peaks. You can bring down the peak and the area immediately adjacent to it, without neutering the percussive waveform (fig. 2). The Gain Envelope just lowers the peak’s level a bit—it doesn’t flatten the peak.
Although the Mastering page doesn’t have Gain Envelopes, there’s still a way to apply that Song page advantage to the Mastering page. Usually, audio goes from the Song page to the Mastering page. In this case, we’ll do the reverse.
Mission accomplished! Both files in fig. 4 were normalized, but compare the file on the right—it’s more consistent and louder, yet the dynamics remain intact. It was necessary to change only the levels of ten super-peaks by about -3 dB. I also brought up the level in the beginning section, to make a stronger entrance after the end of the previous song. The end result was about a +2.0 LUFS increase.
So there you have it: you can win the loudness wars—but with a bloodless coup that doesn’t squash your audio.