(v6.3 11 December 2021 © Jeffrey de Gans)
Even though more and more people realize that making music loud for the sake of loudness is not always the way to go, every now and then I have to explain 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.
UPDATE: even though most information written below is still quite accurate in 2023, it needs some updates on the streaming services parts. I will try to update this page within the next months. Meanwhile I have a pretty accurate and interesting blog about loudness normalization which you can read here.
A common misconception is that if you make your music louder than the 'competiton', you will sell more music. But WILL you actually sell more or will you have more streams when it’s louder?
It's good to understand what loudness actually is. What's really important to understand is, how we perceive something as loud is something else then what we see as loud on a meter. We perceive something as being louder when the differences between the louder section (chorus) and less loud sections (verses) are bigger. The chorus will have more impact when the dynamic range is a bit bigger. A really good example is the music from Billie Eilish, the dynamic range in her music is pretty big and so it's perceived as being louder.
So your music needs to be less loud? It depends... some music simply needs to be pushed louder. It's true that Loudness compromises sound-quality but sometimes that degradation might be exactly what you are looking for, it's part of the sound. It's music, not science. But will you 'win'?
Things have changed in recent years and we are all listening to streaming services like Spotify, Apple music, Deezer, Tidal, YouTube etc. They all have one thing in common; Loudness Normalization. Basically this means that, all music will play back at the same perceived loudness.
'It doesn’t matter how loud your master is, it will be turned down until it reaches the appropriate perceived level'. But... is this really true..? No it's not..
In 2021 the majority uses 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 (1st quarter 2021: 165 million paying 365 million active users) and is using -14LUFS integrated (average measurement from beginning till end). YouTube, Tidal and Deezer are also at -14LUFS, Apple music is at -16LUFS but this is not an official LUFS value and they don't have normalization on by default :/.
In practice, this means that all music, is played back at approx -14LUFS (or -16LUFS) perceived loudness. So a really loud -6LUFS master will be turned down in level by 8dB.
Hooray! The end of the loudness war! … Or not? There is more to it and there are a lot of misconceptions.
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 compression, clipping, phase-rotation and limiting and pushing those processors doesn’t help. Radio-stations use processors like the Orban Optimod. This is a take out from a white paper from the people behind those processors.
“Hypercompressed material does not sound louder on the air. It sounds more distorted, making the radio sound broken in extreme cases. It sounds small, busy, and flat. It does not feel good to the listener when turned up, so he or she hears it as background music. Hypercompression, when combined with “major-market” levels of broadcast processing, sucks the drama and life from music. In more extreme cases, it sounds overtly distorted and is likely to cause tune-outs by adults, particularly women. ”
A common misconception is that music in clubs sounds better and louder when it’s mastered really loud. The difference in levels between softer passages (breaks) and louder parts (the drop) will make the actual perceived loudness. If the breaks are just as loud as the drop, the drop will have way less impact. Also fading down the break just before the drop is teasing and will not have as much impact as real dynamics.
Besides that, there is something technical involved as well. 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 those square waves that easy and so it will sound less loud and distorted. 😉
As a DJ with over 30 years of experience, I know what loudness your tracks should be to work best in a club.
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 passages. But also, some music simply has more impact when it's pushed louder, it's part of the sound. Also, not all streaming services have loudness normalization on by default (yet) or people might have switched it off by theirselves (most likely without even knowing it).
My job as a mastering-engineer is to make it sound great and not blindly focus on the numbers. If a master sounds great at -13LUFS, fine. If a masters sounds brilliant at -6LUFS or even louder, great! It’s not about numbers, it’s about music. Sure those louder masters might be turned down more to get to the right level, but then it still sounds great.
One of the questions that I hear quite often is; How can I make my music to appear louder on streaming services because this and that track sound louder then my track? In this blog I will tell you how the loudness normalization system works and how you can 'beat the system'.
There is a website (and a plugin) to check how much your music will be turned down on streaming services. Might be worth checking out. loudnesspenalty.com
Dan Worral made a series of YouTube movies for FabFilter about loudness. I think it's more then worth it to watch this!
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
'Dynamics in music is just 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.'
By default, all masters I offer are optimized masters with streaming services in mind. The main focus is great sound, not loudness or numbers. But I do know all about the technical stuff and I will always keep that 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 me to, but in the end great sounding music, with the right amount of dynamics will always win. It’s up to you..
With kind regards,