Production Advice http://productionadvice.co.uk make your music sound great Fri, 17 May 2019 07:58:13 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Is Billie Eilish too loud ? (Here come the Loudness Police) http://productionadvice.co.uk/billie-eilish-loudness/ Thu, 16 May 2019 15:27:13 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9737 I was recently tagged in a heated Facebook debate about whether the heavy distortion in Billie Eilish’s song “xanny” was deliberate artistic intent, or due to excessive compression & limiting in the mastering. I got curious and decided to investigate – it turned out to be an interesting example. You can find out what I […]

Is Billie Eilish too loud ? (Here come the Loudness Police) is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice Subscribe to the newsletter for great content from the archives, special offers and a free interview - for more information, click here

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I was recently tagged in a heated Facebook debate about whether the heavy distortion in Billie Eilish’s song “xanny” was deliberate artistic intent, or due to excessive compression & limiting in the mastering.

I got curious and decided to investigate – it turned out to be an interesting example. You can find out what I discovered in the video above.

You can hear the song for yourself on Spotify, YouTube or Apple Music.

To experiment with the Loudness Penalty of your own music for free, click here.

One point I feel I could have made more clearly in the video, with hindsight – a simple way to make the streaming encodes of this album sound better might have been to simply reduce the level prior to encoding, even if nothing else was changed. The codec wouldn’t have to work as hard, and the extra playback clipping I demonstrate in the video could be avoided. More about this topic in this post.

It was too much detail to put in the video, but of course there are actually multiple effects being used on Billie’s vocal in the song – especially some kind of auto-pan or amplitude modulation throwing the voice between the speakers. It gives the impression that the voice is being modulated by the excessive bass – maybe it is ! But then there’s even more distortion, some of which sounds like clipping – listen @ 2:33, for example. It’s so extreme it basically has to be a production decision, though.

I think it’s also worth saying clearly that even though “xanny” isn’t turned down too much by the streaming services, other songs on the album are – for example “Bad Guy” is turned down 6 dB by TIDAL, which feels like a missed opportunity, to me…

And finally, as I say in the video, I love this album ! Even though it’s a little loud and distorted for my taste, on balance I’m really relieved that the dynamic contrasts I demonstrate in the video have been kept, and that it wasn’t pushed any further. Kudos.

Is Billie Eilish too loud ? (Here come the Loudness Police) is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice Subscribe to the newsletter for great content from the archives, special offers and a free interview - for more information, click here

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Loudness Penalty Plugin – FAQ http://productionadvice.co.uk/loudness-penalty-faq/ Thu, 11 Apr 2019 15:49:18 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9732   The video above is a great, creative introduction by the popular “Snake Oil” YouTube channel, to my new plugin Loudness Penalty. It offers an excellent, entertaining overview of what the plugin does, and why you might want to use it. Meanwhile you can watch my video walking you through how I use the plugin […]

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The video above is a great, creative introduction by the popular “Snake Oil” YouTube channel, to my new plugin Loudness Penalty. It offers an excellent, entertaining overview of what the plugin does, and why you might want to use it. Meanwhile you can watch my video walking you through how I use the plugin myself here.

There have been a few common questions about there plugin that lots of people have been asking though, so I thought I’d collect some of them here. So, here we go !

Loudness Penalty – FAQ

Do I have to measure the whole song ?

Yes – streaming services calculate the level changes by measuring the whole song, so we need to as well, if we want accurate results. You can do this faster than realtime if you like, using applications like iZotope RX or Pro Tools Audiosuite.

Can’t I just use an LUFS meter ?

Yes, but TIDAL is the only streaming service using LUFS at the moment, so while LUFS estimates can get you in the right ballpark, in our experience they can be wrong by as much as 3 dB. The values reported by Loudness Penalty are typically within half a dB of the actual results, often within 0.1 dB

What does “Auto Gain” do ?

The Auto Gain function smoothly adjusts the Preview level to automatically follow the latest result for the currently selected streaming service, once per second.

For example if you’ve selected Spotify and the reported penalty changes rapidly, you’ll hear the Preview level adjust to reflect this. You should always disable this function once you have an overall value for a song, and want to compare the way it sounds with reference material.

It’s not really a “penalty”, is it ?

That’s a great question 🙂

It’s true that if you’re happy with the way your song sounds in comparison to similar reference material after normalisation, it doesn’t really matter if it’s turned down by a few dB or not. And in fact personally I’m quite comfortable with a “penalty” of 0 to -2 on YouTube, for loud songs. So in that case No, it’s only a “penalty” in theory.

However whenever I see score of -3, -4 or lower, personally I can’t help wondering how things might sound with less limiting, and a less aggressive reduction as a result. And in fact in my opinion and experience, a few dB less peak limiting almost always sounds just as good, if not better.

But if you try the same experiment and find you prefer the sound of your music with more limiting and a more aggressive penalty, then of course that’s the sound you should go for ! We certainly don’t ever suggest people should master towards LUFS “targets” – quite the opposite. You can read more about this subject here, and suggestions for a method we do recommend for achieving optional loudness and dynamics here.

So the honest answer is, we deliberately chose the name to be a little provocative and thought-provoking. We could have gone with Loudness Adjustment, Loudness Offset or Loudness Preview, but they just weren’t as “hooky”!

We have the best intentions, though. Our hope is that the name will make people curious about this issue, and encourage them to find out more and try their own experiments – and make it quick and easy.

Ultimately it’s what sounds best that should be the deciding factor, not the numbers. That’s why the Preview function is so important – Loudness Penalty is a tool intended to help you hear past the “loudness deception”, and make the best musical decisions for your songs – whatever they might be.
 
 

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Introducing the Loudness Penalty plugin ! http://productionadvice.co.uk/loudness-penalty-plugin/ Sat, 06 Apr 2019 17:48:23 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9729   It’s been exactly a year since I announced the free Loudness Penalty website in collaboration with MeterPlugs – and people love it ! Literally every day now I see it being shared on social media, and get messages from people who’ve found it helpful, which is fantastic. There’s one particular feature request we’ve been […]

Introducing the Loudness Penalty plugin ! is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice Subscribe to the newsletter for great content from the archives, special offers and a free interview - for more information, click here

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It’s been exactly a year since I announced the free Loudness Penalty website in collaboration with MeterPlugs – and people love it !

Literally every day now I see it being shared on social media, and get messages from people who’ve found it helpful, which is fantastic.

There’s one particular feature request we’ve been getting far more than any other, though – and it’s this:

“Can you release this as a plugin ?”

Now, that was never our intention originally, but the requests just kept on coming, so… here it is! You can now assess the Loudness Penalty of your music in realtime, without leaving your DAW.

And there are a few extra features not available on the website !

For a demonstration of how I use the plugin, and some of the subtleties to the results it show, check out the video above. And to get the plugin for yourself, click the link below.

The Loudness Penalty Plugin – by MeterPlugs

Introducing the Loudness Penalty plugin ! is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice Subscribe to the newsletter for great content from the archives, special offers and a free interview - for more information, click here

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The truth about bit-depth (and digital audio ‘resolution’) http://productionadvice.co.uk/bit-depth-and-resolution/ Tue, 22 Jan 2019 13:49:53 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9724 Higher bit-depth files sound better because they have better resolution, right ? 24-bit records the signal with more accuracy so it sounds better than 16-bit, and so on ? Wrong. In fact, the only difference between 24 and 16-bit audio is the noise floor. IF you’re doing it right. (Even 8-bit audio can store the […]

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Higher bit-depth files sound better because they have better resolution, right ? 24-bit records the signal with more accuracy so it sounds better than 16-bit, and so on ?

Wrong.

In fact, the only difference between 24 and 16-bit audio is the noise floor. IF you’re doing it right.

(Even 8-bit audio can store the audio with equal “resolution” – although if you do go that low, the noise will be a problem.)

Lots of people have a hard time accepting this though, so I made a video to show that it’s true – and also explain the simple way to ensure you can maintain maximum “resolution” for your audio – at any bit-depth.

So next time someone tells you digital audio is fundementally flawed because if it’s limited “resolution” – show them this video !

The truth about bit-depth (and digital audio ‘resolution’) is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice Subscribe to the newsletter for great content from the archives, special offers and a free interview - for more information, click here

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Queen in the recording studio – videos http://productionadvice.co.uk/queen-in-the-studio-videos/ Mon, 26 Nov 2018 15:30:22 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9705 Everybody’s talking about Queen at the moment, for obvious reasons – the new film “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a huge hit. I have mixed feelings about whether I want to see it or not – with Freddie at the heart of the story, but not here to help tell it, tragically. But what I have been […]

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Everybody’s talking about Queen at the moment, for obvious reasons – the new film “Bohemian Rhapsody” is a huge hit. I have mixed feelings about whether I want to see it or not – with Freddie at the heart of the story, but not here to help tell it, tragically.

But what I have been doing recently is digging into the treasure-trove of YouTube footage available of the band, and in this post I thought I’d share a few of my favourites from what I’ve found.

The great thing about this is that it’s reminded me what a huge part of my life Queen were as a young teenager. Of course I watched their incredible Live Aid performance like everyone else – in fact, we watched it so many times during the school lunch-hours that the VHS tape started to wear out ! But we were all huge Queen fans long before then – “Sheer Heart Attack” was the third album I ever taped to listen to on my treasured Aiwa personal cassette player, and is still probably my favourite.

(What were the others ? I’d rather not say.

Oh, all right then: “Oxygene” by Jean Michel Jarre and… “Cats”. By Andrew Lloyd Webber. At least you can’t say I didn’t have eclectic taste ! And the fourth was “Script For A Jester’s Tear” by Marillion.)

What’s interesting with hindsight was that I didn’t think much about how the songs were recorded at the time, even though I was already deeply interested in recording an audio technology. So I just took a studio masterpiece like “Bohemian Rhapsody” for granted. Not any more, though ! And to help fill in the blanks, the first piece of YouTube footage I found was the footage above of Brian May listening to the original takes of “Bohemian Rhapsody” in 2002. And perhaps the most amazing thing about it is simply to realise that Freddie had the whole thing in his head, from the outset – choir section and all.

Watching that video reminded me of an excellent documentary about the recording of the song that I posted on my site way back in the very early days of my blog. A quick check revealed that several of the original links were dead, but happily I was able to track them all down again and update it – you can watch and read here:

Recording and mixing Bohemian Rhapsody

Still highly recommended ! (Make sure you check out the links to the Sound On Sound articles in that post, too – essential reading.)

And there’s footage of Queen actually recording in the studio together in this clip – specifically the song “One Vision” from “A Kind Of Magic”, another album we listened to constantly at the time – and, yes, played air-guitar to with tennis rackets, if you must know. Watch out especially for the “alternative” lyrics to the song towards the end…

Lots more interviews and some live footage from the same time (immeditately after Live Aid) in this video:

And finally a “behind the scenes” documentary from the tour here. (If you haven’t already heard the amazing “Live Killers” album from a few years earlier, that should probably be your next step.)

So, there you go – several hours of high-quality Queen-in-the-studio-related footage – I hope you find them as fascinating and inspiring as I do !

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Mixerman says maybe you should use an automated mastering service. Here’s why he’s wrong. http://productionadvice.co.uk/mixerman-versus-mastering/ Fri, 02 Nov 2018 10:58:19 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9666 OK, let’s get this out of the way right up front. I’m a Mixerman fan. I’ve written before about the extraordinarily amusing and interesting Daily Adventures Of Mixerman audiobook before, and I regularly recomend his book Zen and the Art of Mixing to people. He’s a controversial figure who stirs up a lot of debate online, […]

Mixerman says maybe you should use an automated mastering service. Here’s why he’s wrong. is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice Subscribe to the newsletter for great content from the archives, special offers and a free interview - for more information, click here

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OK, let’s get this out of the way right up front. I’m a Mixerman fan. I’ve written before about the extraordinarily amusing and interesting Daily Adventures Of Mixerman audiobook before, and I regularly recomend his book Zen and the Art of Mixing to people.

He’s a controversial figure who stirs up a lot of debate online, and that’s fine.

Because he has a habit of saying things like this:

“You do need to get your record to level, or no one will be able to turn it up loud enough to hear it in their car. So, at this point–and I can’t believe I’m about to write this–it would seem to make more sense to use an automated mastering service.”

Or this:

“Unless you’re paying to have your record mixed, you shouldn’t pay to have it mastered either.”

[Record scratch]

This statement comes right at the end of the section on mastering in his new book, and is bound to be the biggest take-away people get from the topic.

But it’s completely wrong.

I’ll explain why I say that in a minute, but first let’s get some context – because as Eric himself says in the same blog post I took those quotes from:

“…I’m sometimes paraphrased poorly on the Internet”

So first, all the quotes here are taken from a blog post which you can read here, and are parts of an excerpt from Mixerman’s newest book, the Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record.

(Full disclosure – I haven’t read the whole book, apart from the excerpt in Eric’s blog post, I’m sure it’s very good. Except for the section we’re talking about here.)

So to make sure I’m not accused of poor paraphrasing, let’s get back to another quote from the book for a moment:

“Let me just be perfectly clear… My records are mastered by a professional mastering engineer. I’m a professional producer and a mixer, and I intimately understand the process. I hire people who hear like I do, and whose consultation I trust. I know what the mastering process does and, as a mixer, I automatically compensate for what will happen in that process. While the difference between what I deliver and what I get back from an ME is nothing short of subtle, it often feels like the biggest difference in the world. So, a great ME can bring a great mix up another level.”

So far so good.

The trouble is, Eric undermines almost everything he just said in that paragraph with everything else he says about mastering in the excerpt ! For example:

“Whereas a mixer employs balance to cause a reaction. The ME merely shapes the EQ curve of the stereo mix and brings it to the appropriate level, as determined by you. The mixer deals with emotion. The ME touches up the sound… All great mixes were great before the record ever went to an ME.”

I agree with the last sentence, but not the rest of it ! As a mastering engineer I’m absolutely focused on making sure the emotion of the song, performance and mix are conveyed to the listener with the maximum possible impact. The tools are more limited in mastering than in mixing, but the goal is the same, and the impact can sometimes be fundamental.

Here’s another example:

“A good mix starts with your arrangement, and with a little practice on that front, your mixes will come together without the help of someone who believes music is about sound.”

Talk about poor paraphrasing – Eric seems to be saying that because mastering engineers care about Sound, they somehow don’t know or care about music. Last time I checked music was conveyed by sound, and the way we hear it is utterly influenced by the way it sounds ! “Abbey Road” is a great album on any format, no matter how lo-fi, but if you really want to feel the pulse of “Come Together” or get chills from the end of “The End”, you need to be listening in full-frequency stereo, it needs to sound great – and mastering has a crucial role to play in that. Music is about emotion, yes – but it’s about emotion communicated via sound, and to suggest that the two aren’t intimately connected makes no sense to me – it’s a false distinction.

So at the very least Eric is being inconsistent about his message – if he truly understands and appreciates the impact of mastering, why does he spend so much time minimising it’s value ?

I could forgive him all that though, if it weren’t for the two quotes I put at the top of this post. Here’s the point he’s making in more detail:

“Look, if you’re putting out records, and you’re hiring professionals such as myself to produce and mix them, it only makes sense to have your record mastered. You’re going to spend good money on a mixer only to skimp out at the end? But really, if you’re just starting out, or if you merely want to focus-group a new song, I don’t think it makes much sense to pay to have it mastered.”

And

“Until you have a fanbase, and until you’re putting out records on a regular basis–until you’re making money from your music–I wouldn’t bother mastering your records. Just run your production through an online automated mastering service and be done with it. Or get yourself a good brickwall limiter and bring it to level yourself. That suggestion alone will cause people to pull their hair out. You have to hire a mastering engineer! No, you really don’t. If you’re going to hire anyone, hire a bona fide mixer.”

Now actually there are two points being made here, and one of them I don’t entirely disagree with. Eric’s whole argument is that you need a great mix before you can make a great master, and I agree with that. If you’re not able to get a great mix yourself, or to pay someone to make one for you, paying for mastering really doesn’t make much sense.

But the solution is NOT to use an automated mastering service – the idea of using a decent limiter is actually probably better !

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with automated mastering – I know people who use these services and love them, especially when deadlines are tight. (I do have a problem when people say it’s as good as hiring an experienced professional, but I’ve already talked about that elsewhere…)

The real problem is that whereas a good limiter will simply lift the level without dramatically changing the mix, automated mastering services do far more than that. They use “AI” and sophisticated processing to try and emulate what a real engineer might do. Which is fine – sometimes it works really well, and sometimes it doesn’t.

But just like a real mastering engineer, you’re much more likely to get a great result if the mix sounded really good going in. If it doesn’t, with a mastering engineer (or limiter !) you usually just get a not-so-great master back. But with an automated service, you typically get back a train wreck, in my experience.

So Eric’s logic is completely backward ! If you don’t have a great mix to begin with, you really shouldn’t use automated mastering, because it’s far less likely to work well – a simple limiter, used carefully, is probably a much better option. Especially because automated mastering services are “black boxes”. We have no idea what happens in between sending the file and getting the “master” back – and often the default settings are much too aggressive, especially in terms of loudness.

(And while we’re talking about level – who says the music needs a big increase in level anyway, these days ? Most independent musicians submit their music directly to online streaming platforms, where the loudest music is turned down by normalization anyway. You probably only need a few dBs of limiting to get the music into the sweet spot – back to that limiter again…)

So let’s get back to that first quote, that Eric uses to sum up his section on mastering.

“Unless you’re paying to have your record mixed, you shouldn’t pay to have it mastered either.”

I said he’s wrong about that, but how do I know ?

Because I have over 20 years of experience mastering countless projects that people have mixed themselves.

Some of them have been stunning, some of them have been less so – but all of them have been improved by the mastering work I’ve done for them. Otherwise I wouldn’t feel comfortable charging people for them. All of them have sounded dramatically better than they would have by simply lifting the level a few dBs into a limiter – and yes, they have more emotional impact as a result.

Would they have sounded even better if they’d also been mixed by a professional mixer ? Maybe. In some cases definitely yes, but in some cases certainly no ! I’ve heard some outstanding amateur mixes over the years, and some truly dreadful professional mixes, too.

There’s no question that there’s far more potential to make or break a song at the mixing stage than during the mastering – but if your mix is already good, there’s no guarantee that a pro mixer will be able to realise that potential better than you. And it’ll certainly be much more expensive – mixing typically costs 5 to 10x more than mastering at a similar level of expertise.

Eric himself makes this same point but about mastering engineers – how are you supposed to find a good one ? Well exactly the same challenge applies to finding a great mixer – and the same solutions. Listen to people’s work, ask for recommendations and start a conversation with an engineer you’re interested in working with.

Or don’t ! Make the best mix you can, apply some gentle limiting and check how it sounds at www.loudnesspenalty.com.

But whatever you do, DON’T just send it to a machine and hope for the best.

Mixerman, you should know better.

Update

I mention in the post that I haven’t read the whole book, and Eric has raised this in our conversations on Facebook. A major theme of the book is that with proper arrangement and recording, mixing and mastering become far less important for musicians just starting out – and I agree. If you’re not making money from your music yet and have limited resources, it probably doesn’t make sense to pay for mastering (or mixing).

But that includes auto-mastering ! No mastering is better than bad mastering every time, and in my experience auto-mastering is often bad.

Mixerman says maybe you should use an automated mastering service. Here’s why he’s wrong. is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice Subscribe to the newsletter for great content from the archives, special offers and a free interview - for more information, click here

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Spotify upload specs recommend -2dB True Peak (for the loudest songs) http://productionadvice.co.uk/spotify-upload-true-peak/ Fri, 28 Sep 2018 16:16:08 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9582   You’ve probably heard by now that Spotify recently announced it will soon be possible for anyone to upload directly to their streaming service, without going through an agregator like TuneCore or CD Baby. What you may not have heard yet is that along with that, they’ve also published recommendations for the best format and […]

Spotify upload specs recommend -2dB True Peak (for the loudest songs) is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice Subscribe to the newsletter for great content from the archives, special offers and a free interview - for more information, click here

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You’ve probably heard by now that Spotify recently announced it will soon be possible for anyone to upload directly to their streaming service, without going through an agregator like TuneCore or CD Baby.

What you may not have heard yet is that along with that, they’ve also published recommendations for the best format and specifications for your music when you do.

These include some interesting details (like the fact that they support 24-bit files) and confirm several things we already knew – that they’re using ReplayGain for loudness normalization, and that the default playback reference level is approximately -14 LUFS, for example.

There’s one suggestion that may raise a few eyebrows though, and that’s the recommendation that files should peak no higher than -2 dBTP (True Peak) – thanks to Christopher Carvalo for the heads-up.

[Update – Since I posted this last week, Spotify have updated their FAQ to clarify that the -2 dBTP recommendation only applies to material mastered louder than -14 LUFS. If your material measures -14 LUFS or lower, the True Peak recommendation is -1 dBTP]
 

So why is this important ?

Mainly because it’s a much more conservative number than many people would expect. I’ve been mastering with peak levels no higher than -1 dBTP for years now, and recommending people do the same, but I still see people saying that True Peaks aren’t an issue “in the real world”. And Spotify’s guideline is even more conservative than mine.

The reason for the recommendation is simple – Spotify doesn’t stream lossless audio. They encode using Ogg/Vorbis and AAC data-compression methods to reduce bandwidth – like more sophisticated versions of mp3 encoding. These encoded streams sound pretty good, but reduce the file size by as much as ten times to reduce the amount of data needed get the audio from Spotify’s servers to our mobile phones and other playback devices.

There’s no such thing as a free lunch, though – to achieve this reduction in data-rate, the audio has to be heavily processed when it’s encoded.
 

What happens during encoding

VERY roughly speaking, the audio is split up into many different frequency bands. The encoder analyses these and prioritises the ones that contribute most to the way we percieve the sound, and throws away the ones we’re least likely to hear.

When the audio is decoded for playback later, the signal is rebuilt, and usually sounds remarkably similar to the original, despite all the discarded data. However even though it sounds pretty close to the original, the audio waveform has typically changed dramatically – and one of the most noticeable differences is that the peak level will have increased.

And this is where the problem arises. If the audio was already peaking near 0 dBFS, the reconstructed waveform will almost certainly contain peaks that are above zero. And that means that the encoded file could cause clipping distortion when it’s reduced to a fixed bit-depth for playback, which wasn’t present in the original.

In fact, it’s even worse than that, sometimes. Encoded files store the data with “scale factor information” built in (kind of like a coarse floating point), but many players reduce the decoded files to fixed-point immediately after decoding. So whereas extra decoding peaks aren’t an issue if the signal is turned down before it gets played back, clipping during the decoding process will be “baked in” to the decoded audio in this case, regardless of normalization or the final playback level.

(If you’re asking why the encoder doesn’t detect when this might happen and reduce the level automatically – great question ! And actually some do. But the answer for Spotify is almost certainly that users would complain. The simplest way to test an encoded file is to compare it directly to the original, and if the result is quieter than the super-loud result people have worked so hard to achieve, many users would be unhappy, even if the encode is cleaner as a result.)
 

What does all this have to do with True Peaks ?

There’s no way to know for sure if encoding will cause clipping, or how much – it depends heavily on the codec, the material and the data-rate, to begin with. Lower data rates require heavier processing, and cause bigger changes in peak level, and can potentially cause more encoder clipping.

The True Peak level gives a useful warning, though. It was introduced as part of the R128 Loudness Unit specification, and gives a reasonable indication of when encoder clipping is likely to occur. Really loud modern masters can easily register True Peaks levels of +1 or +2 dBTP, and often as much as +3 or +4 !

Those files are virtually guaranteed to cause encoder clipping if they’re processed as-is, so to avoid the risk of encoder clipping, it’s sensible to reduce the level of those files before you supply them, to get the best quality encodes.
 

The question is, how much should they be reduced ?

It’s impossible to say exactly without trying it. The harder the audio is hitting the limiter, and the lower the data rate, the bigger the changes in peak level during encoding and decoding will be, and the more likelihood of problems as a result, so there’s no one-size fits all solution.

Personally I don’t make super-loud masters, and have found that my suggestion of -1 dBTP typically produces very clean encodes, but we have to assume that Spotify’s recommendation is based on analysis of the files they encode. I’ve double checked some of my own recent masters, and found that using my own loudness guidelines I’m getting clean encodes, so I won’t be changing how I work because of this recommendation.

[Update – As I mentioned above, Spotify have updated their FAQ to confirm this – the -2 dBTP recommendation only applies to material mastered louder than -14 LUFS]

But certainly if you’re making mixes or masters that are hitting close to 0 dBFS, you should be thinking of starting to measure True Peaks and reduce the levels to avoid them, at the very least.
 

But the music is MEANT to be loud, why should we turn it down ?!

Well firstly because the encodes could sound better if you do. But also because it’s going to be turned down eventually, anyway ! Spotify uses loudness normalization by default, just like YouTube, TIDAL and Pandora. This means they measure the loudness of all the material they stream, and turn the loudest stuff down. This is done to stop users being “blasted” by unexpected changes in level, which is a major source of complaints. And even if users turn normalization off, they’re unlikely to run the software with the volume at maximum !

So even if you’re in love with the super-dense sound of your music, reducing the overall level when you submit it won’t have any practical consequences for the final playback level – it can only sound better because of a cleaner encode.
 

What about -14 LUFS ?

I’ve had a few people asking about the fact that Spotify’s normalization reference level is approximately -14 LUFS, and if this -2 dB True Peak recommendation over-rules or replaces it.

The answer is No – these are two separate issues. The -14 LUFS figure simply gives us an idea of how loud Spotify will try and play songs in shuffle mode – it’s never been a “target” or a recommendation. This is a common source of confusion, and I wrote about it in more detail here.

The -2 dBTP recommendation is to try and ensure better encoding quality for material that was mastered very loud originally – peak levels aren’t a good way to judge loudness. So to get the best results you should keep both numbers in mind.

 

Summary

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the loudness normalization reference levels aren’t meant to be targets. Instead, master your music so it sounds great to you, and preview it using the free Loudness Penalty site to see how it will sound when normalized.

But you should also be aware that very high peak levels can cause sub-standard encodes when the files are converted for streaming. And if you’re like me, you’ll want to do everything you can to get the best possible results – including keeping an eye on the True Peaks.

 

Update – and a warning

I’m seeing a lot of different reactions to the information in this post. They vary from “yes I’ve been saying this for ages”, through annoyance that there’s yet another number to think about, all the way to “ah I don’t care, I’ll just turn the limiter output down a little”.

Be very careful about this last option.

The harder you push the loudness into a limiter, the higher the True Peak level will go. And the higher the True Peak levels are, the greater the risk of encoder clipping. So you’re fighting a losing battle. Remember True Peak doesn’t necessarily predict how much clipping will take place, so if you try to upload at the same loudness and just reduce the True Peaks, you could end up with just as many issues with the encode.

Wavelab, Ozone, Sonnox and others offer “codec preview” features which allow you to assess the results of encoding – if you’re chasing extreme loudness then you need to use methods like these to check the results you’re getting.

And as always personally I think the best answer is a perfect balance between the different factors – between loudness and dynamics, and now between loudness and True Peak values.

If you want to know the method I use myself to find the perfect loudness when I’m mastering, and why it works – click here.

[Edit – the original version of this post stated that some encoders can “bake in” clipping, which was misleading. A correctly-implemented encoder won’t do this, and I’ve updated the post to reflect that. However not all encoders are guaranteed to be well-written (!) and many decoders end up reducing the decoded file to fixed bit-depth anyway which does cause this problem. So avoiding high peak levels before encoding is definitely a good idea !]

Spotify upload specs recommend -2dB True Peak (for the loudest songs) is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice Subscribe to the newsletter for great content from the archives, special offers and a free interview - for more information, click here

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Loudness Penalty – Live Loudness Preview http://productionadvice.co.uk/loudness-penalty-preview/ Mon, 23 Jul 2018 00:36:22 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9543   People are loving the Loudness Penalty website – but some of them have been saying Who cares what the numbers say ? The important thing is – how does it sound ? And of course we agree ! Which is why we’ve added a new feature to the site – Live Loudness Preview To […]

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People are loving the Loudness Penalty website – but some of them have been saying

Who cares what the numbers say ? The important thing is – how does it sound ?

And of course we agree !

Which is why we’ve added a new feature to the site – Live Loudness Preview

To see it in action in less than 30 seconds, check out the video above. But in this post I want to take a little more time to explain why we’re so excited about this new function. (Which, by the way, works on mobile as well – and, the whole site is significantly faster this time around)

Firstly though:

DON’T compare the different services

I mean – sure, you can, but what’s the point ? We all know ‘louder is better’ so the chances are YouTube will sound a little better than the others, but that’s not very valuable conclusion. (The site doesn’t emulate the streaming codecs, just the loudness differences.)

What is really valuable is to use the new Loudness Preview function to compare the song you’re working on with reference tracks on YouTube itself.

Provided you have the volume slider all the way up, you’ll be making a real-world comparison between the reference and your song, almost exactly as it will sound if you actually uploaded it.

And now we get to the really good part…

DO compare alternative versions of your songs

This is where the real power of the site comes into play. Say you’re under pressure from a client to master something louder than you think it needs to be. If you make two versions of the master – one at the louder level and one at your preferred level, you can send both versions to the client and ask them to Preview them using Loudness Penalty. You can even open both versions at the same time in different tabs of your browser.

If you do, chances are you’ll hear one of two things:

  1. There isn’t a big difference – because loudness normalisation ! Once the loudness is matched, there’s no real benefit to making things loud in the first place. If there are genuinely no down-sides, then you can go for the louder version, but keep an ear out in case:
  2. The louder version sounds worse Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes it really isn’t. Sometimes the less heavily processed version actually sounds louder ! And even if it doesn’t , chances are it will sound more 3D, more open, more spacious – clearer, wider and sweeter.

Spread the word

And that’s why we’re so excited – because this idea is so easy to share. When it was all just numbers, people had to really take the time to understand what was happening, and why it mattered for their music. Now they can hear it for themselves ! And make informed choices about loudness.

(It’s also super-quick & easy to use – like a kind of Lite version of my Perception plugin, almost)

My hope it that eventually the Loudness Penalty site becomes the new standard way to compare new mixes and masters – and if it does, perhaps people will start to hear that louder actually doesn’t sound better, online – and start choosing more balanced dynamics for their music as a result.

If you like the idea too, please share it and help spread the word !
 
 

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Don’t push your music over the Loudness Cliff ! http://productionadvice.co.uk/loudness-cliff/ Thu, 05 Jul 2018 13:07:33 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9508 I’ve been talking about this image for years. Literally, I’d describe it in almost every conversation, interview or lecture when I talked about loudness. And it always got a great reaction. But it didn’t exist ! Except in my head. …until now. I recently did an interview with Chris Selim over at mixdown.online, and my […]

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I’ve been talking about this image for years. Literally, I’d describe it in almost every conversation, interview or lecture when I talked about loudness. And it always got a great reaction.

But it didn’t exist !

Except in my head.

…until now.

I recently did an interview with Chris Selim over at mixdown.online, and my analogy of the ‘Loudness Cliff’ came up again, with me waving my hands around while describing it as usual.

But this time something was different – because a few days later Kredenz emailed me an idea for the image above, asking “is this the kind of thing you had in mind?”.

And it absolutely was ! So after a few tweaks and additions, here it is – The Loudness Cliff illustration.

Hopefully it speaks for itself, but just in case, the idea is pretty simple:

  • We perceive louder sounds better, at least to begin with. So, everyone wants to sound loud – so far so good.
  • But achieving loudness can be difficult – sometimes it feels like you’re trying to push a rock up a hill. Everyone else is at the top of their own mountain though, so you want to be, too.
  • The trouble is, the closer you get to the top, the harder it gets, and the less improvement in sound you get. And if you go too far – past the danger point – it can actually sound worse.
  • And if you push it even further – you’re over the edge and smashed on the rocks.

Instead, you want to look for the ‘loudness sweet spot’ – the perfect balance of loudness and dynamics, where you get all the benefits of cohesion, consistency and translation – without pushing things too far.

The goal is to be loud enough, but not too loud.

So, enough of the analogies – how do you actually find the loudness ‘sweet spot’ ?

My best advice for that is in this post:

How loud ? The simple solution to optimizing playback volume – online, and everywhere else

And if you want to know whether you’ve got it right or not (for free) try this:

www.loudnesspenalty.com

If your music scores between 0 and -2 for YouTube, you’re probably in good shape!

And if not, there’s plenty of free information here on Production Advice to help you – a great place to start is here.

Don’t push your music over the Loudness Cliff – find the loudness Sweet Spot instead !
 
 
Thanks again to Kredenz for making my hand-waving idea a reality ! You can check out his site here.
 
 

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Mastering for Spotify ? NO ! (or: Streaming playback levels are NOT targets) http://productionadvice.co.uk/no-lufs-targets/ Mon, 04 Jun 2018 13:38:37 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9450   So, most streaming services normalize their audio to around -14 LUFS. YouTube are slightly louder, iTunes is a couple of dB quieter, but overall -14 is the loudness you should aim for, right ? WRONG   Wait, what ?! Haven’t I been posting relentlessly about this issue for months (and years), providing relentless blow-by-blow […]

Mastering for Spotify ? NO ! </br>(or: Streaming playback levels are NOT targets) is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice Subscribe to the newsletter for great content from the archives, special offers and a free interview - for more information, click here

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So, most streaming services normalize their audio to around -14 LUFS.

YouTube are slightly louder, iTunes is a couple of dB quieter, but overall -14 is the loudness you should aim for, right ?

WRONG
 

Wait, what ?!

Haven’t I been posting relentlessly about this issue for months (and years), providing relentless blow-by-blow updates on the latest developments and banging on and on about how important it is ?

Well, yes. But that still doesn’t mean the playback levels we’re measuring are targets.
 

Dude. Stop talking crazy and explain yourself !

To start with, TIDAL is the only service actually using LUFS for it’s loudness normalisation. So even if you did want to optimise your audio’s loudness for a particular streaming service, TIDAL is the only place you’ll get completely reliable results. Spotify use ReplayGain, Apple use their own mysterious Sound Check algorithm, and the others aren’t telling.
 

But – but – why do you keep quoting LUFS figures, then ?

Because we have to measure things somehow, and LUFS is the internationally recognised method of measuring loudness – plus it’s the best, in our experience.

And the numbers are accurate – if you run a loudness meter on Spotify for 30 minutes or more, you will find the overall playback loudness is very close to -14 LUFS, especially for loud material.

But that’s an average value – individual songs may vary up or down by several dB, because ReplayGain gives different results to LUFS. The same applies to YouTube, iTunes and Pandora. So using LUFS as a target just won’t work reliably – as well as being a bad idea.
 

What do you mean, a bad idea ? Why NOT target loudness at specific services ?

Because we don’t need to.

Streaming services measure the loudness and make it more consistent for us – so we don’t have to. Loudness normalization is an opportunity to do what’s best for the music, without having to worry about the need to “fit in” with loudness.

Having said that, there can be an advantage to keeping the streaming services’ playback levels in mind while you’re optimizing the loudness of your music – which is why we created the Loudness Penalty website. Let me explain.
 

Why streaming playback levels DO matter

Imagine you master a song, and test it using the Loudness Penalty site, which tells you it’ll be turned down by 6 dB or more on all the streaming services.

That means you could potentially apply 6 dB less dynamic processing and still have it play back just as loud.

I don’t know about you, but that feels like an opportunity to me ! At the very least I’d want to experiment as see how a less heavily processed version sounded, using the LP scores to hear how it will sound online.

In the most agressive genres, it might be that you decide to stick with the original version, but in my experience this rarely gives the best results. For me, the sweet spot for loud material is about LP -2 on YouTube – but you may feel differently.

Either way, don’t we owe it to the music to at least try the experiment ?
 

One master to rule them all

So, what am I actually saying ? On the one hand, there’s no point in trying to optimise loudness for streaming services, but on the other there might be an opportunity. I’m contradicting myself, surely ?

No.

It’s true that there’s no real benefit to supplying separate loudness-optimized masters for each streaming service – partly for the reasons explained above. But also in a practical sense, because most agregators will only accept one file per song anyway, so there’s no easy way to get individual masters uploaded to each service.

But there is a benefit to optimising your music for online streaming in general.
 

Seize the opportunity to create a master that sounds great everywhere

Measure your files using the Loudness Penalty site, and find out how much they’re going to be turned down. Experiment with less agressive loudness processing, and preview the different versions against each other – and your favourite reference material – using the LP scores to adjust the playback level and see how they’ll sound online.

Knowledge is power – and making real-world comparisons like this will let you find the “sweet spot” – the perfect balance of loudness and dynamics, that best serves the music.

Not the streaming normalisation algorithms, or the wild ‘Loudness War’ goose – the music.

And in the process, even if you think your genre needs that loudness war sound, you might find yourself surprised.

If J Cole can break streaming records and debut at Number 1 in the Billboard chart with a more dynamic master – maybe you can, too.
 
 

Update

I’ve been getting quite a few frustrated comments about this, saying “well how loud should we master things, then ?!”. If that includes you, click here for my best advice.
 
 

Mastering for Spotify ? NO ! </br>(or: Streaming playback levels are NOT targets) is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice Subscribe to the newsletter for great content from the archives, special offers and a free interview - for more information, click here

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