(v4.3 21-02-2020 © Jeffrey de Gans)
Even though more and more people realize that squashing music is not the way to go, I still have to explain to some people about the consequences of overly loud masters. That is why I decided to make this page about loudness in music. I hope you find it useful.
There is/was(?) a thing called ‘loudness war’. In short this means that artists and labels want to sound as loud as possible to ‘stand out from the rest’. According to label/A&R managers, artists etc, you will sell more music if you make it louder. But WILL you actually sell more or have more streams when it’s louder? One pretty good example of a great selling record NOT participating in the loudness war is Daft Punk – RAM.
There is a big difference between sounding too loud and sounding great. Loudness ALWAYS compromises sound-quality. Without some dynamics your music will sound flat and lifeless. It might also sound a bit strange, but music with a bit of dynamics will sound LOUDER than heavily compressed/limited/clipped/squashed music.
Dynamics in music is a bit like life; Life has ups and downs and you don’t really enjoy the ups, when you don’t have downs every now and then.
A common misconception is that a loud ‘Radio Ready’ master will sound better and louder on the radio. The opposite is true. Radio uses large amounts of (multiband) compression, clipping and limiting and pushing those processors doesn’t help. Radio-stations use processors like the Orban Optimod. This is a take out from the manual of one of those processors:
“There is a myth in the record industry that applying “radio style” processing to CDs in mastering will cause them to be louder on air or will reduce the audible effects of on-air processing. In fact the opposite is true: these CDs will not be louder on air, but they will be audibly distorted and unpleasant to listen to, lacking punch & clarity. We hope that the record industry will come to its senses when it hears the consequences of these practices on air”
Another misconception is that music in clubs sounds better and louder when it’s squashed, the opposite is true. Amplifiers have a peak and RMS value. Peak values are always higher then RMS (average) values. With no dynamic range it will ‘not make use’ of those peaks and amplifiers can’t even play back square waves (digital clipping).
In case you are not convinced yet and you still want your master to be (too) loud, please consider this; Each song has its own loudness potential. The final loudness of a master is not only determined by the mastering process but is a matter of arrangement, production, recording and mix quality. A simple arrangement with just a few, but well-chosen sounds will always have more loudness potential than a big arrangement with a lot going on simultaneously.
I know when your song has reached its limit. Pushing things beyond that limit will gradually deteriorate the sound quality causing audible distortion and squashed dynamics
More and more people realize that going too loud doesn’t make you win the war (unless you want to win the distortion war), because there is nothing to win here.
Things have changed in the last couple of years and nowadays people are listening to streaming services like Spotify, Apple music, Deezer, Tidal, YouTube etc. and they all have one thing in common; Loudness Normalization. Basically this means that, all music will play back at the same perceived loudness.
So wait a minute.. It doesn’t help to make my master that loud? Basically, No.. it doesn’t matter how loud your master will be, it will simply be turned down until it reaches the appropriate perceived level.
In 2020 most people use a streaming service to listen to their favorite music and all of those services use loudness normalization (even though not all of them have it on by default, depending on the situation). Spotify is leading the market in the EU (June 2019: 100 million paying customers, 217 million free accounts) and is using a level of -14LUFS ** integrated (average measurement from beginning till end), YouTube is at -14LUFS, Apple music at -16LUFS etc.
** Spotify is using replaygain, which is not 100% a LUFS value, so levels might differ a bit. Spotify announced that they will move to LUFS/K-weighting.
In practice, this means that all music, is played back at approx -14LUFS perceived loudness. So a really loud -5LUFS master will be turned down in level by 9dB.
Hooray! The end of the loudness war! … Or not?
There is one (I think pretty serious) problem with the ** Spotify normalization, there are 3 settings which is cool, but.. The ‘Quiet’ setting is normalizing to -23LUFS so that for instance a playlist with really dynamic music next to louder music will still sound pretty equal in level. The ‘Normal’ setting is at -14LUFS and leaves music which is less loud alone, they will simply play back less loud. Then there is the ‘Loud’ (might reduce dynamics)’ setting, which is normalizing at -11LUFS, and that is where thing can go wrong. In this case, it will normalize the music to -11LUFS, but less loud music will be internally limited (!) to get to -11LUFS. So your precious, dynamic master will be squashed with the Spotify limiter. This is one of the reasons why I prefer to make masters for streaming that come close to -11LUFS or louder to prevent this. But as said before, it’s not about the numbers, it’s about how it sounds.
** Spotify is using replaygain, which is not 100% a LUFS value, so levels might differ a bit. Spotify announced that they will move to LUFS/K-weighting .
Now I hear you think, ‘I don’t want my music to be too dynamic because i’m afraid it will not be loud enough’ and I agree with that! In fact you want pop, rock, dance etc to be not TOO dynamic for various reasons. For example, when listening to music on your headphones in the train or when you drive your car on a highway, you don’t want the background noise to mask the softer breaks and things. But also, it’s sometimes ‘part of the sound’ to use compression and limiting. And that’s cool, but, You don’t have to focus on loudness, you just need to focus on the sound. Just make it sound great!
There is a website (and a plugin) to check how much your music will be turned down on streaming services. Personally I don’t like the fact that it’s called a ‘penalty’, but still worth checking out. loudnesspenalty.com
Besides regular masters, I offer optimized masters with streaming services in mind. The main focus is sound, not loudness, but I also keep the technical stuff (ISP/true peak after conversion to lossy format) in mind. In practice this master will sound better and a lot of times even louder(!) then a master not made with streaming services in mind.
I know how to make things really LOUD if you want it to, but in the end good sounding music, with the right amount of dynamics will always win. It’s up to you..
With kind regards,
Jeffrey de Gans | Da Goose Mastering