Guest Article: The Emotional Content Of Recorded Music

Today we have an incredible guest post for you guys coming from one of our subscribers- Keith Stark. Keith wrote in to us in response to a blog post that we published earlier this year and after some discussion on the subject, we decided to have Keith write an article for the blog!

We really hope you guys enjoy! Keith will be available for discussions, questions, and concerns related to the topic so please leave any responses you have in the comments section below this article.

About Keith: 

Keith is a digital audio engineer, mixer, and producer currently based in the San Francisco Bay Area, afterspending 20 years working in Los Angeles and Bakersfield.  Beginning with radio and TV commercial audioin the central valley, he evolved to engineer and mix indie documentary film scores in the LA market. These films won awards ranging from an Emmy (“Made in LA”)to the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at SXSW in the post-loudness-wars streaming audio production environment. He hopes to inspire others to shake off the chains of compression  and limiting, to reinstate dynamics to its rightful place as a tool to enhance the emotional richness in music.

 The Emotional Content of Recorded Music

Much of the emotional content of recorded music comes from its dynamics.  In an attempt to re-invigorate recorded music, the industry is in the midst of an evolution from a peak-normalized production environment, brought on by the inventions of the automobile CD player and the Waves L1 brickwall limiter in the early 1990s, to a loudness-normalized production brought on by the recent rise to dominance of the streaming music services and by the passage of the CALM Act.  

There is no longer any reason to produce music with a DR (Dynamic Range) of 3 or 4 @ -2 LKFS when Apple Music reduces all tracks to -16 LKFS, Spotify reduces all tracks to -13 LKFS, YouTube reduces all tracks to -13 LKFS, and terrestrial radio reduces all tracks to -23 LKFS to conform to the CALM Act.  In case you didn’t get the memo, The Loudness Wars are over – emotion and sanity have triumphed! 

Those of us who value the beauty of recorded music are still at the mercy of the MP3 codec, which was optimized by Karlheinz Brandenberg of the Fraunhaufer Institute in the early 1990s and is the primary format in which the world receives its music.  The MP3 codec was optimized to “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega which had a DR of 10 @ -20 LKFS.  If you want your music to sound best when imprisoned in the MP3 format, it is best not to overdrive the codec. In addition, all of the software used to record and mix commercial music are +4 dBu digital systems, which means that 0 = -18 dbFS, which is halfway down on most of the meters.  Therefore, in order to avoid adding distortion and un-musical compression, mixing and mastering levels should be kept between -18 dbFS and -30 dbFS. This approach will produce a track which will be right where it will sound the best as an MP3!

 There are a few inexpensive tools for tracking and mixing music that I have discovered recently which encourage the production of great-sounding tracks that maximize the musicality of working within this present paradigm.  Harrison Consoles Mixbus 3.6 DAW ($79) has the heart and sound of a console in a DAW form. The tracks get along well when summed in this DAW, rather than struggling against each other.  In addition, Mixbus has a subroutine which optimizes the polarity of all tracks selected, something that would take forever to do manually. The resulting track possesses a solidity and focus that is very compelling – it sounds like  real music! What’s more, it is the only DAW that I have come across where you can specify a loudness value and max true peak for your export, which is why I have once again selected -20 LKFS with -3 dbTP.  Beyond -3 dbTP, the sound acquires a harsh, sand-papery quality.  All of these strategies and tools produce tracks at about the same loudness. Mixbus provides 8 busses to balance groups and effects, while applying the most subtle tape saturation that I have encountered.

 – Valhalla Vintage Verb is the best-sounding software reverb that I have heard, and it is only $50! I use it on five busses in most pop tracks.

 – Finally, the Tokyo Dawn Slick EQ Mastering Edition is the crown jewel.  It has a learn function which analyzes the frequency content of your track and matches it to any reference track you select. Most times, I use “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk which won the Best-Engineered Non-Classical Grammy in 2014. It had a DR of 8, so it was considerably more dynamic than most charting music these days.  Daft Punk spent over a million dollars recording, mixing, and mastering this project, and the public loved Random Access Memories, so to able to have my tracks carry that contour is a wonder, especially at only $54.  This plugin also allows you to make everything below a selected frequency (I use 100 Hz) mono. You can also widen the stereo image as well!

If you love what real music does to your soul, you don’t have to spend a fortune or countless hours fruitlessly trying to get tracks to blend. Simply use these new tools and get started making music sound as it should be. To be clear, I have no financial ties to any of the companies mentioned, and I have no endorsements.  I’m just a guy who believes that the emotion encoded in music can and should be released to work it’s magic in the world.  

Happy mixing!

Keith Stark

Impact Audio Productions


Production Credits:

Mix Samples:



  1. Interesting and well-researched comments. I assume when you say “between -18 and -30 dBFS” you mean “average” level, not peak…. ?

  2. “-20 LKFS with -3 dbTP”

    Huh. I thought I was being pretty conservative, and was excited when Tassy recommended almost exactly what I had been doing for a while!

    Now Keith Stark says I am still finishing a bit “hot”……

    Which is good. Just feel like there’s a constantly moving target still…….

  3. Mixbus user since day 1, TDR user (all the free & pay for) forever it seems, and love them both.

    Valhalla and myself have never got along, in ANY of it’s flavors, but I will revisit them at a soon-to-be future date.

    Thanks for the article!

  4. Keith,

    Great article. Thanks for sharing. Learned a lot.

    I was wondering if I could ask you a little bit about the practicality of what you’re talking about above?

    For example:

    Do you write and edit things in a particular DAW like logic or digital performer and then export it into the Harrison mix bus?

    Do you add some of these plug-ins into the Harrison mix bus?

    Do you sometimes use Harrison for a particular type of project and some of these other plug-ins in your other DAW for other types of projects? If so, what kind of projects determine which stuff you use above?

    I guess I was just trying to determine if you were more doing a survey type article where you talked about all the things that are out there that would accomplish what you’re talking about or whether you use all these things in the majority of your mixes.

    Does that make sense?

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