Production Advice http://productionadvice.co.uk make your music sound great Fri, 13 Oct 2017 11:59:45 +0000 en-US hourly 1 YouTube reveals EXACT volume normalization values – find out how to see them http://productionadvice.co.uk/stats-for-nerds/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/stats-for-nerds/#respond Fri, 29 Sep 2017 09:50:34 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9223   Are you confused about exactly what YouTube’s playback volume normalization is doing to your music ? Maybe you understand the basic idea but struggle to predict exactly what will happen when videos are uploaded ? Well, that’s understandable – the procedure is still inconsistent and unpredictable. Some songs are measured and normalized right away, […]

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Are you confused about exactly what YouTube’s playback volume normalization is doing to your music ?

Maybe you understand the basic idea but struggle to predict exactly what will happen when videos are uploaded ?

Well, that’s understandable – the procedure is still inconsistent and unpredictable. Some songs are measured and normalized right away, others take weeks, some never seem to be normalized at all.

But it is happening – and YouTube just added an important new feature which can really help you get a grip on the process.

You can now see exactly what effect the system is having on our audio, because YouTube have exposed the normalization data in their interface. You just need to know where to find it – and what it means.

(Thanks to Paul Maunder for the heads-up !)

To see it for yourself, right-click on any YouTube video and select the “Stats for nerds” option.

 (Yes, this means that you are now a nerd 🙂 )

The fourth item down in the list will say something like:

Volume / Normalized:  100% / 54% (content loudness 5.3 dB)



The first percentage describes the Volume slider setting in the YouTube player window, and can be adjusted by clicking on the “speaker” icon and dragging the slider up or down.

The second percentage reflects the normalization adjustment being used. This is the amount by which the playback volume of the clip has been turned down to prevent users being blasted by sudden changes in volume in comparison to everything else. The value scales in proportion with the Volume slider setting.

So for example, if the normalization percentage reads 60% when the Volume slider is at 100 %, it will scale down to 30% if you move the Volume slider to 50%. This means that if you want to use these stats to compare songs with each other, you should always set the Volume slider to 100% first.

The final value is the “content loudness” value, and indicates the difference between YouTube’s estimate of the loudness and their reference playback level. This value is fixed for each clip, and isn’t affected by the Volume slider.

So for example a reading of 6dB means your video is 6dB louder than YouTube’s reference level, and a 50% normalization adjustment (-6dB) will be applied to compensate. Whereas a negative reading of -3dB, say, means it’s 3 dB lower in level than YouTube’s reference, and no normalization will be applied, so the normalization percentage will always be 100% of the Volume slider’s value – YouTube doesn’t turn up quieter videos.

(Important note – I’ve seen the way these values are reported change several times over the last couple of weeks. YouTube are obviously still working on this feature, so it may change again, and I’ll try to keep this post updated if they do.)

So what ?

Firstly, these “Stats for nerds” give you a quick and easy way to check whether your video has been normalized yet. If there’s no “content loudness” value listed, the video hasn’t yet been normalized, and the second value will always be the same as the Volume slider percentage – the song will be played as loud as the Volume slider allows.

(This happens more often than you might expect – for example normalization seems to have been “on hold” in August and early September 2017 – but more recent uploads have already been measured. It also answers a very common question – yes, adverts are being normalized – or at least, they are right now.)

Secondly, if there is a “content loudness” value listed, then your video is being normalized, and you can see exactly how much by setting the Volume slider to its 100% maximum, and checking the normalization percentage value.

So in the image above, for example, the Metallica song is being turned down to only 54% of it’s original volume (-5.3 dB) and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” is also being turned down by a substantial 4.6 dB.

Whereas the final video in the image is a song that I mastered myself recently – a trance/techno track called “Vi er GodsetGutta” by B Killax – and because YouTube measure it as being 0.7 dB quieter than their desired reference level, it always gets played as loud as the Volume slider setting allows.

Thirdly, it means that if you want your music to stand out in comparison to everything else, you want to avoid large positive or negative “content loudness” values – you need to optimise loudness, not maximize it.

The great news is that when you do this, your music will actually “pop” more other songs, in my experience. For example the song I mastered actually has more punch and impact than the other two, in my opinion, especially in the low end – despite having been mastered at a lower level. Which of course is exactly what you would expect, because it has better micro-dynamics. To see if you agree with me, take a listen to the playlist here.

How do we use this ?

Apart from being interesting, the fact that YouTube have made this information visible means that you can test the effects of normalisation yourself. Simply upload a song, wait for it to be normalized and check the stats.

And then you can tweak, re-upload and test again, if you like – to try and get an even better result.

But here’s the thing. My advice is:

Don’t bother.

The best way to optimize loudness on YouTube

By all means check out the Stats For Nerds for your songs, and see how they compare with other similar tracks – and of course, how they sound.

But getting drawn into a cycle of uploading, testing and re-uploading over and over isn’t an efficient way to work, in my opinion. For one thing, it’s really tedious !

And more importantly, at the rate YouTube are releasing updates to their normalization system, there’s no guarantee that what works today will still work tomorrow – or next month, or next year.

It’s far better to aim for a result in mastering that you can be confident will result in minimal normalization changes to your audio, and therefore maximize both the playback volume, and the punch and impact of the music.

That’s the method I used to master “Vi er GodsetGutta” – and every other song I work on, for that matter.

 All the examples I’ve found on YouTube are being played with no volume reduction from normalization, and are assessed as being within 1 dB of YouTube’s reference level. And it works on all the online platforms, not just YouTube.

It’s a simple method, and straightforward to implement – and I explained it in a blog post a few days ago. (Hint: it’s not about aiming for -14 LUFS !) To find out how it works, click here.

And meanwhile, try not to spend too long worrying about the Stats For Nerds, and focus on making great-sounding music instead 🙂

 
 

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How loud ? The simple solution to optimizing playback volume online – and everywhere else http://productionadvice.co.uk/how-loud/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/how-loud/#respond Tue, 26 Sep 2017 11:02:16 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9206   I get asked this question literally every day, now. And I see people asking it, everywhere: “What’s the ideal loudness for my music to get the best playback volume online ?” Because people have realized that loudness normalization is a reality. They know that loud songs are turned down to stop users being blasted […]

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I get asked this question literally every day, now.

And I see people asking it, everywhere:

“What’s the ideal loudness for my music to get the best playback volume online ?”

Because people have realized that loudness normalization is a reality. They know that loud songs are turned down to stop users being blasted by sudden changes in volume – and they’ve probably heard some numbers: -13 LUFS for YouTube, -16 for iTunes and Pandora, -14 for Spotify and TIDAL… but which one should you choose ? Is there a perfect number, or do you have to submit different masters for every platform ?

In this post I’ll answer that question, simply and clearly.

(If you’re impatient, feel free to skip to the end – but please come back and read this explanation afterwards, too !)

Before that though, it’s important to realise – asking this question misses three key points.

The first is:

1 – There are no ideal loudness values – just guidelines you can follow

Because although although all the streaming services are measuring loudness and turning loud songs down, they all do it in different ways. They don’t all use LUFS loudness units, and they’ve all chosen slightly different reference levels.

So you can’t choose an ideal loudness that suits all platforms, because there isn’t one.

But the good news is – you don’t need to.

The whole point about loudness normalization is that each streaming service will measure the loudness, and adjust the playback volume according to their rules.

So you can make your music as loud as you like, if you want to – it just might get turned down. And that’s OK, because so does everything else.

Which means targeting a specific integrated loudness is a red herring. Lots of people are asking if they should aim for an integrated loudness of -14 LUFS, for example – because that’s the volume TIDAL uses, and Spotify recently reduced their level to something similar (although they don’t use LUFS to make their measurements, so this is only an approximate value). Plus -14 is only a dB quieter than YouTube’s approximate level of -13 LUFS, and 2 dB louder than Apple Sound Check… so all in all it seems like a pretty good value to have in mind.

But that brings us to the second key point I mentioned:

2 – Integrated loudness isn’t the best way make loudness choices

Here’s what I mean.

Integrated loudness is an overall value for a song, album or any section of audio.

Just one number.

It does take account of the loudest moments, and the quietest – but you can’t tell what they were, just by looking at the number.

Imagine two songs, balanced by ear. One of them could be straight-ahead rock, with almost the same short-term loudness all the way through, hovering around -14 LUFS – so that’s what the integrated loudness reading across the whole song will read. And now imagine a more varied song – still heavy, but with a quiet introduction and more mellow verses. These quieter sections will reduce the overall integrated loudness reading – down to -16 LUFS, perhaps.

So far so good – you can’t tell by looking at the integrated loudness if you have two “loud all the way through” songs, or one loud and one with more varied dynamics – but so what ? You matched them by ear, and when you play them back one after the other, they sound great. The loud sections of both are at similar levels, and the quieter choruses work for the more varied song – who cares if they measure slightly differently ?

The problems start when you turn this process the other way around.

Rather than measuring the songs, you want to choose how loud they should be.

If you use your ears again, you’ll be fine – but that’s not what people are asking me about. If you just follow the numbers and make things match an integrated loudness value – making both songs measure -14 LUFS for example – the more varied song will sound 2 LU too loud in comparison to what you would have chosen by ear. The integrated LUFS value tells you nothing about the dynamic variety in the song. In other words, our opinion about what integrated loudness feels musically right changes, depending on the song – and genre, and arrangement… and everything.

Don’t worry, there is a solution to this – but before I get to it I just want to highlight the third, simplest and probably most important point in all of this:

3 – Loudness is an artistic decision

You probably already guessed this one – loudness shouldn’t be about the numbers.

And neither should any other property of music, of course. Numbers are helpful as a sanity-check, and for training our ears. But that doesn’t mean you should choose the EQ balance or how loud to master a song based purely on measurements – in an ideal world you just choose what sounds best.

And the great news is that we’re headed in that direction ! Since loudness levels are being adjusted on playback, you’re free to make that choice based on what’s right for the music, and not have to worry that someone else will “cheat” and try to make theirs sound better just by making it louder – that won’t work.

(Up to a point – see the very end of this post…)

Just tell us the numbers !

OK, I said I’d answer the “how loud” question simply and clearly – and I will.

But from what’s written above you’ll have gathered by now that I’m not going to be recommending any of the LUFS numbers suggested above – or any integrated loudness.

Instead, my recommendation uses short-term loudness values, and it’s this:

Master no louder than -9 LUFS short-term at the loudest moments
(with True Peaks no higher than -1)

That’s it.

If you follow this suggestion, you’ll be in great shape, in almost any genre. Your songs will be loud enough to sound “competitive”, whilst still retaining plenty of punch and dynamic contrast. They’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with anything else, on all the streaming platforms, and they won’t get turned down.(*)

(*) Actually they might get turned down a little, but it’s not the end of the world – because so will almost everything else.

OK, now explain how the numbers work !

This suggestion is based on over 20 years of my experience as a professional mastering engineer, on conversations with other mastering engineers, on analysis of my favourite-sounding albums, and on teaching an online course to over 1000 students who’ve also had great results.

The theory is simple – make all the loudest moments similar in loudness, and not too loud – and then balance everything else with them musically.

It just works ! It avoids the problem of using integrated loudness as a target, where you get lower values for music with more dynamic variety, even if the loudest moments are just as loud. But it still gives you a useful benchmark – something to aim for. There can be occasional louder moments, if they work musically, and of course you can go quieter if you want to – always make decisions based on musical considerations, not just the numbers – but this is the simplest and best guideline I can give you.

And in fact when I follow this rule, in most popular genres the integrated loudness often comes out in the -12 to -14 LUFS range – bang in the sweet spot for all the online streaming platforms…

Optimize, don’t maximize – seize the opportunity of dynamics

Maximising loudness doesn’t work, any more. Aiming for a specific integrated loudness doesn’t work, reliably.

But deciding how loud to master the loudest sections of music, keeping them consistent and balancing everything else to feel right musically does work – and it helps you optimize the loudness of your music, making the most of the peak headroom the online streaming services make available.

This is a fantastic opportunity – a true win-win ! You can make the best decisions for your music based on the music itself – and feel confident that it will sound great online, and everywhere else.

(Because these guidelines not only work online, they’re how I’ve been optimizing loudness and dynamics for years, even on CD. Guess what – listeners adjust playback levels, too !)

Make your loudness decisions based on the way the music sounds, rather than arbitrary numbers – but keep an eye on the guidelines, even so.

Coda – The devilish details

The method described above works, but there are a couple of extra details to be aware of.

Firstly, all the streaming services turn louder music down, but not all of them turn quieter music up – for example YouTube & TIDAL. And the ones that do turn quieter songs up will try to avoid causing peak clipping as a result, either by restricting the extent to which levels can be lifted (iTunes) or by using a peak limiter (Spotify).

What does that mean ? If you master your music very quietly, it may not sound as loud as other similar songs. That might not bother you, but if it does, it’s worth keeping an eye on. It’s one of the reasons I developed my Dynameter plugin, which visualizes the dynamics of your music in realtime, to help you optimise it for maximum dynamic impact and compatibility online. I use it on every master I do, these days. For more information, click here.

And secondly, it may sound obvious, but loudness isn’t everything ! Not by a long shot.

To sound great, you still need a great song, great performance, great arrangement, great mix, balanced EQ and dynamics… but that’s what keeps all of this interesting, right ?!?
 
 

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The surprisingly simple hack to make your music POP online – and everywhere else ! http://productionadvice.co.uk/make-music-pop/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/make-music-pop/#respond Tue, 25 Jul 2017 01:35:31 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9181   This video shows a surprisingly simple technique to make your music stand out online – even in an aggressive genre like EDM. The trick is easy, the video includes a real-world example to prove that it works, and best of all – it’s free ! Actually that’s not the best of all – the […]

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This video shows a surprisingly simple technique to make your music stand out online – even in an aggressive genre like EDM.

The trick is easy, the video includes a real-world example to prove that it works, and best of all – it’s free !

Actually that’s not the best of all – the best of all is that this tip works in any genre, and it doesn’t only work online.

And along the way, it proves once and for all that people who tell you there’s only one way to get “The Sound” in EDM… are wrong.

So, what are you waiting for ? Take a look, and if you like it – please share !

[Updated video – remix matches CD master more closely for a better comparison]

How to persuade your clients

If you like the idea of this technique but don’t think you’ll be able to persuade the artists, labels and engineers you work for – try this.

(And to find out more about my Dynameter plugin, click here)

More details (warning, spoilers)

I deliberately didn’t say what the “hack” is above – so if you haven’t watched the video, do that first – there are some clues below.

Several people have commented that there’s too much pumping in the remix, which is fair enough. But bear in mind that the remix is made from stems, and the pumping is part of the stems.

In other words the CD master squashed the dynamics of the original so much it even reduced the pumping effect that the artists chose in the studio !

And I’m sure there’s all kinds of other extra subtlety in the real mix, too. Maybe the remix would benefit from a little more dynamic control in mastering, but it doesn’t need to be crushed by an extra 6 dB.

Bottom line – if you prefer the CD version that’s absolutely fine, but the reason is the mix – not the crushed dynamics.
 
 

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The Foo Fighters just proved me right about loudness – and dynamics http://productionadvice.co.uk/foo-fighters-dynamics/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/foo-fighters-dynamics/#respond Fri, 16 Jun 2017 12:00:22 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9143   Foo Fighters just released a surprise new single, “Run” – and the biggest surprise to me is that it has great dynamics. All their recent releases have been pushed really hard, in the loudness department – not disastrously, but I’ve always thought they would have sounded better with more room to breathe. This single […]

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Foo Fighters just released a surprise new single, “Run” – and the biggest surprise to me is that it has great dynamics.

All their recent releases have been pushed really hard, in the loudness department – not disastrously, but I’ve always thought they would have sounded better with more room to breathe.

This single proves me right.

But then, I would say that ! I’m always saying that balanced dynamics beat loudness.

So in this post, I’m not going to offer any personal opinions at all, I’m just going to let the facts speak for themselves – and the reviews.

Reviews like this one, in Billboard:

Foo Fighters Crank Up the Heavy… play[ing] with a soft-loud-soft dynamic on the new single “Run,” which opens as a dreamy, slow burner then, as you’d expect with the Foos, quickly turns heavy as thunder. How heavy? So heavy your mom will hate it and your neighbors will tell you to turn it down. So heavy it might just feature some of the most hulking moments in the Foos’ canon

Or this one, in Blabbermouth:

a monolithic song of the summer shoo-in as melodic as it is monstrously heavy

– and these comments are about a song that is 4dB quieter than their 2011 single “Rope” !

So how does this compute ?

How can it be a “a full-bore riff-rocker with a huge, triumphant chorus” (Stereogum) with “the speakers going to 11” (SPIN) when it’s mixed and mastered at a lower level than their earlier releases ?

How can it be quieter but sound louder ?

Because dynamics.

And because loudness management.

This song sounds just as loud as “Rope” on YouTube, TIDAL and Spotify. But “Run” has 4 dB more peak-to-loudness impact than “Rope”, as my Dynameter plugin clearly shows – and the Foos have made it count:

QED

Don’t trust the reviews, though – listen for yourself. Listen to the way the guitars pile in during the chorus, the pounding drums – this song still sounds exactly like a Foo Fighters record should, proving yet again that “loudness” isn’t a requirement of “the sound”, it’s just an increasingly irrelevant technicality.

The Foo Fighters have seized the opportunity of using more dynamics in their music, and it’s worked.

Maybe you should, too.

 
 

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Spotify just reduced its loudness playback level ! http://productionadvice.co.uk/spotify-reduced-loudness/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/spotify-reduced-loudness/#respond Mon, 22 May 2017 16:03:14 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9114   The post title says it all – in the last few days it’s become clear that Spotify have chosen to reduce their playback loudness reference level from approximately -11 LUFS down to approximately -14, broadly in line with YouTube and TIDAL. This is a big deal, and in a minute I’ll discuss why, but […]

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The post title says it all – in the last few days it’s become clear that Spotify have chosen to reduce their playback loudness reference level from approximately -11 LUFS down to approximately -14, broadly in line with YouTube and TIDAL.

This is a big deal, and in a minute I’ll discuss why, but before that – what does it mean, in simple terms ?

[This change is very recent, and you may need to update to the latest release of Spotify before you see it – the build number we are testing is 1.0.54.1079.g3809528e. It’s also possible this change hasn’t rolled out in all territories at the time of writing – 22nd May 2017]

In a nutshell, it means it doesn’t matter how high you push the level of your mixes and masters. Once the raw loudness of the files gets past a certain point, online streaming services will turn them down – keeping them all at the same reference level, to stop users being annoyed by sudden changes in volume.

Exactly where the “point of no return” is varies slightly between different streaming services, but Spotify always used to be the loudest, by a whopping 2-3dB.

And this was a real shame, because it put pressure on musicians, labels and engineers to make the raw loudness levels higher to try and “compete” – even if it didn’t suit the style of the music.

But now, all that has changed.

Why this matters

YouTube, Spotify and TIDAL all now use playback reference levels within a dB of each other, and Apple Sound Check and Pandora are another 2 dB lower than that, matching the recommendations of the Audio Engineering Society for streaming loudness.

So there’s no pressure any more to master louder in order to “compete” on Spotify – you can use the same guidelines for all the major streaming services, and be confident of a great-sounding result.

You can have great dynamics and sound loud – that’s a win-win !

How Loud ?

In a nutshell, the new magic number is a reading of -14 LUFS integrated, meaning an overall value measured across the whole song, while keeping peak levels no higher than -1.

YouTube’s reference level is actually 1 dB louder since the Spotify change, so you might choose to push things a little harder if maximum loudness on YouTube is important to you. If your music has varied dynamics though, it probably isn’t necessary.

And of course you do still need to keep an eye on the “crest factor” – the difference between the peak level and the short-term loudness. If this drops too low, your music may be turned down more than you expect. This value is labelled PSR in my Dynameter plugin, which was designed specifically to optimise this value property for optimal audio dynamics.

A huge improvement

This change is fantastic news. The -14 LUFS figure may not comply with the AES recommendations, but the reality is that this figure allows plenty of peak-to-loudness headroom for most mainstream music these days to have plenty of dynamics and sound great – which is a win-win for everyone.

I’ve been campaiging a change like this for some time now, both on the Spotify forums and via the Streaming Loudness Petition. There’s no way to know whether either of these initiatives actually influenced Spotify’s decision, but it really doesn’t matter.

The great news is that all the online streaming services now cater for music with decent dynamics – and they’re close enough to each other that there’s no need to create specially optimised masters for each platform – although this is still an option for people who want it.

Over 6 years ago now, I predicted that Spotify would end the loudness wars. Today is another important step towards that prediction coming true.

Hats off to Spotify, and long may the trend continue !

Coda

You may be reading this thinking – “What’s the big deal ? it’s just normalisation”.

And you’re right – this kind of processing won’t fix the damage that’s already been done in the process of making those loud-songs-that-are-being-turned-down loud in the first place.

But over the longer term, it removes the incentive to do it again. Sooner or later, the questions change:

Old question: “Why does Song X stand out on the CD changer ?”

Old answer: “Because it’s louder”

New question: “Why does Song Y stand out online ?”

New answer: “Because it has great dynamics”

And that is the start of a really interesting conversation.
 
 
Thanks to Home Mastering Masterclass members Norbert Tomczak and Sigurdór Guðmundsson for the heads-up on Spotify’s decision !

Update – Thanks also to Jean-Michel Kovacs, who actually told me about this in a YouTube comment even earlier than Sigurdor or Norbert !
 
 

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Which mastering EQ plugin sounds best ? Hear for yourself ! http://productionadvice.co.uk/which-is-best/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/which-is-best/#respond Sat, 15 Apr 2017 01:24:24 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=9032 People ask me this kind of thing all the time. What’s your favourite mastering limiter ? Or compressor ? Or EQ ? And I’m always reminded of a saying I’ve heard, which goes something like: “Ask an audio engineer what the best ______ is, and he’ll just tell you whatever he’s using right now” There’s […]

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People ask me this kind of thing all the time.

What’s your favourite mastering limiter ?

Or compressor ?

Or EQ ?

And I’m always reminded of a saying I’ve heard, which goes something like:

“Ask an audio engineer what the best ______ is, and he’ll just tell you whatever he’s using right now”

There’s a lot of truth in that, and it’s one of the reasons I try to avoid getting into detailed recommendations myself, although I’m happy enough to tell people particular processors I’ve used and liked.

But now, there’s another option – you can listen and decide for yourself, thanks to a cool new website called Gearshoot.

Decide for yourself

Gearshoot is a fantastic resource put together by the guys at Kog Mastering in New Zealand, and allows you to set up your own A/B comparisons between a massive (and ever-increasing) range of hardware and software processors, with a variety of musical examples in several different genres.

(And crucially, they’re all loudness-matched using the LUFS standard, so you’ll have the most objective comparison of how things really sound, without being fooled by the Loudness Deception.)

So for example, you can design your own shootout between a hardware 1176 and various plugin emulations, using drums, bass or a whole mix. Or you could browse some of the many interesting examples the site owners have already put together as presets – for example, this one on mastering EQ plugins:

Digital EQs for Mastering Review – Part 1

The results can be fascinating. Sometimes there’s almost nothing to choose between the various examples, when people have told you to expect night-and-day – and sometimes there are very clear differences where you might not have expected them, especially with the more extreme processing examples.

And despite the fact that I’ve said on several occasions that my own choices of digital EQ are driven far more by the features and interface, there are some clear and interesting differences between some of the examples in the above test.

But here’s the thing.

It ain’t what you use…

Those differences have a completely different effect, based on the material that’s being tested. So what sounds right to you for one music clip, might sound completely wrong for another one.

And when I listen to ANY of these examples, there are still tweaks I want to make, even to the ones I like best. And in my experience, after making those tweaks, the overall differences between the different processors sound even less significant.

Now that’s not true of all the examples, of course – in this EQ shootout for example, the slightly fuzzy, saturated quality of the vintage emulations can’t be achieved with the cleaner digital varieties. But I bet I could achieve something similar (or better) with some of the other tools in my collection – and probably with more control over the final result.

Of course if the EQ I’m using just happens to have exactly the flavour I’m looking for, then great – but I’m a control freak ! More often that not I still want to tweak and refine further – that’s part of what being a mastering engineer is.

And that’s why the unofficial motto of my Home Mastering Masterclass course is “it ain’t what you use, it’s the way that you use it”.

Everyone loves sexy analogue hardware, me included ! It’s just a pleasure to use, and if you’re lucky enough to have a room full of it, go for it.

But don’t agonise about it if you don’t. Nine times out of ten you can achieve a very similar result with a little ingenuity and experience using the gear and software you already have – and sometimes you can get something even better.

It’s more important to know the gear you have inside out, than have a room full of alternatives – analysis paralysis is a very real problem…

Check out Gearshoot

Having said all that though, don’t take my word for it.

Head over to Gearshoot and try it for yourself ! There’s so much to listen to there, I’ve barely scratched the surface, and it’s great fun. You can spend hours checking out all that high-end gear you’ve been dreaming about for so long, and try to decide if you really need it or not. And who knows, there may be some magic, unique sounds in there that simply can’t be achieved in any other way.

If you find some, please let me know !

PS. You may be thinking that the special analogue magic of the hardware units in these shootouts is being lost because we’re listening to digital recordings. If so, please read this. And this.

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Do YOU know someone who needs this infographic ? http://productionadvice.co.uk/compression/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/compression/#respond Tue, 07 Feb 2017 17:53:06 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=8958 It’s probably THE single most common source of confusion I see in discussions of audio. People say things like: “The compression on YouTube really kills the dynamics” or “To get a good encode the music needs to be compressed really hard” or “I hate the sound of compression. mp3s sound really squashed” Now, all of […]

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It’s probably THE single most common source of confusion I see in discussions of audio.

People say things like:

“The compression on YouTube really kills the dynamics”

or

“To get a good encode the music needs to be compressed really hard”

or

“I hate the sound of compression. mp3s sound really squashed”

Now, all of those statements are based on real opinions about music and sound quality, but they’re all also horribly confused.

Which is understandable, because they’re all talking about compression – but in audio, we commonly talk about two completely different types of compression !

They do different things, they have different purposes, and they have different effects on the sound. But people still refer to them both as “compression”, without saying which one they’re talking about. Sometimes it’s obvious from the context – but often, it’s not.

So, this my infographic is my latest attempt to help people sort out the difference – if you know someone who might find it helpful, please share !

(Click on the image above to see a higher-resolution version, or to download a PDF copy, click here)

And if you want to dig this topic in more depth, here’s something I wrote a few years ago which explains the difference using sponges.

The Gory Details

OK, so you already get it – data compression affects file size, but not dynamics. Dynamic compression affects dynamics, but not file size. And they both affect the sound, but in different ways.

High-quality data-compression can sound almost identical to the original source, while using far less space and bandwidth. But some encoders, codecs and data-rates can suck the soul out of the music, rendering it subtly cold, lifeless, edgy and two-dimensional – or even blatantly distorted, with added ultra-sonic birdies for good measure.

Whereas great dynamic compression can enhance almost every aspect of a recording, adding punch, power, impact, consistency, density and warmth. Just for starters. But inappropriate or clumsy over-compression can also suck the life out of the music, robbing it of almost all the same attributes, or even blatantly distorting the sound.
And even then we’re not done, because the two types do interact in some subtle ways.

Compression plus compression

Excessive dynamic compression actually makes it harder to get a great-sounding data-compressed encode, contrary to popular belief, because the encoder struggles to decide what’s important mjusically when everything is at full tilt the whole time.

And data-compresion can seem to affect the micro-dynamics of the music, by changing the peak level of the reconstructed waveform as a side-effect of the encoding & decoding process. And the more heavily dynamically compressed and limited the source, the more noticeable this effect is. It has no audible effect, though – except perhaps adding extra clipping distortion on playback systems that don’t have enough headroom to deal with the higher peaks.
And because almost all online streaming services use data compression plus loudness management, it’s easy to be fooled into thinking they’re somehow affecting dynamics, too – since really “loud” music seldom sounds anywhere near as impressive when it’s reduced to the same playback loudness as everything else.

Find the sweet spot

Luckily though, the solution to both these complications is straightforward.

Always leave at least 1 dB of peak headrooom, and then find the loudness sweet spot for your music -where you have the perfect balance of loudness and dynamics.

It won’t get turned down online, it’ll encode cleanly to mp3, AAC and other lossy data-comressed formats, and it’ll sound great – maximising the potential for punch, power and impact.

Job done.

Compression is your friend (both kinds!) provided you understand how it works, and how to get the best out of it.

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Mastering for Native Instruments’ Stems format http://productionadvice.co.uk/mastering-native-instruments-stems/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/mastering-native-instruments-stems/#respond Thu, 22 Dec 2016 15:01:26 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=8927 Native Instruments’ Stems format is a different way to distribute music, especially EDM/dance/electronica – each file bundles together both a stereo master, plus 4 stereo “stems”: Drums Bass Melody Voice Having these elements stored separately gives far more flexibility when playing the file using compatible software – for example DJs can choose to layer different elements […]

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Native Instruments’ Stems format is a different way to distribute music, especially EDM/dance/electronica – each file bundles together both a stereo master, plus 4 stereo “stems”:

  • Drums
  • Bass
  • Melody
  • Voice

Having these elements stored separately gives far more flexibility when playing the file using compatible software – for example DJs can choose to layer different elements from different songs in a mix.

Ever since the format was released people have been asking me for ideas on how to master for it, though – how do you process stems to sound good individually, but also combine correctly to create a satisfying mix ? The format includes the ability to add compression and limiting when playing the files back, but these won’t necessarily sound the same as your favourite mix bus or mastering processors, and the metering options are very limited. How can you deal with this ?

I still haven’t dug into the format myself, but in this video, mastering engineer and mixer Ian Stewart shows how he solves the challenges of the format. Ian took my Home Mastering Masterclass course a few years ago, and has been active in the Facebook group ever since, helping other members. He’s one of several members I particularly appreciate there, because he almost always answers questions in exactly the same way that I would, and I even invited him to be a guest on my podcast recently to help explain the topic of mid-side processing. (And if you haven’t read his blog post on EDM dynamics yet, you should !)

In the video above Ian builds on the methods I recommend in the masterclass course, and walks you through his entire process, showing how he has adapted them to master for the stems format, including:

  • How to set up your DAW to master for Stems
  • How he uses EQ and stereo processing when mastering for Stems
  • How to stop the final limiter working too hard
  • How to get consistent results with compression on both separate stems and the final mix
  • How to store lossless audio in Stems format
  • How to get better metering options within the stems creator

So, if you’re getting started mastering for the Stems format, or are interested to give it a try, I think you’ll find it really helpful – take a look !

 

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TIDAL implements loudness normalisation – but there’s a catch http://productionadvice.co.uk/tidal-loudness/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/tidal-loudness/#respond Thu, 17 Nov 2016 14:41:57 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=8881   First it was Spotify, then Apple, then YouTube – now TIDAL are implementing loudness management, or “normalisation”, to give a better user experience, stopping us from being “blasted” by level changes between songs. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know why this is a big deal already – if not, click here to get […]

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tidal-loudness

 

First it was Spotify, then Apple, then YouTube – now TIDAL are implementing loudness management, or “normalisation”, to give a better user experience, stopping us from being “blasted” by level changes between songs.

If you’re a regular reader you’ll know why this is a big deal already – if not, click here to get up to speed quickly. In this post I’ll just cover what’s interesting and different about TIDAL’s loudness management system. As always, the devil is in the details.

TIDAL uses LUFS

Finally ! The ITU’s international standard method of measuring loudness, “Loudness Units Full Scale”, or LUFS, has been agreed for years, but none of the music streaming platforms have actually been using it – until now.

TIDAL are using LUFS, and have released clear information about their chosen playback levels. Over AirPlay, normalisation will be at -18 LUFS, whereas on mobile devices and broswers, all music will be initially be played back at an integrated loudness of -14 LUFS.

This is great news, since in my experience the LUFS meaurement is easily the most reliable way of measuring loudness, and most closely matches what my ears tell me.

Sadly TIDAL’s chosen level of -14 LUFS is still louder than the recommended -16 LUFS maximum specified in the AES guidelines for streaming loudness that I helped draft, but it’s a little better than YouTube’s estimated -13 LUFS level, and far better than Spotify’s level of approximately -11 LUFS.

So far, so good. But…

Quiet songs WON’T be turned up

[Update – recent testing shows that this is now the case on YouTube, too]

This is an unexpected curve-ball. All the loudness normalisation services turn louder songs down to their reference level, to stop you being blasted by a song at very high level following just after a quieter one – but some also turn quieter songs up, too – provided it doesn’t cause clipping, a least. TIDAL doesn’t do that.

At first sight this doesn’t seem like a huge deal – most songs are mastered with a higher integrated loudness than -14 LUFS these days anyway, so are unlikely to need turning up.

There are cases where you need to be careful, though – for example if you’re used to supplying music for use in broadcast, which requires you to maintain an overall -23 LUFS integrated loudness. On some services I’ve tested, songs like this will be turned up, provided it doesn’t cause clipping (although Spotify uses a limiter.) TIDAL won’t do that, so music supplied at a broadcast level like this would sound very quiet in comparison to everything else.

Having said that, since one of TIDAL’s biggest selling-points is CD-quality streaming, this may not be such a big deal – whereas YouTube recieves lots of video content which may be already optimised for broadcast, most TIDAL material will come from a CD master or higher quality file, which is likely to be at a higher level already. On YouTube though, this is something you need to take into consideration.

Lower-level music releases may be affected by this detail too, though. And if you choose to deliberately master your music at a lower level, it will sound quieter than the loudest material on the servcie – but if you make that choice, the chances are that’s exactly how you’d like it.

Normalisation can be disabled, but not in browsers

Finally, TIDAL allows users to toggle normalisation on and off in the settings – on iOS and Android, at any rate. In browsers the option seems to be permanently on – just as with YouTube and Pandora.

Conclusion

TIDAL’s implementation of loudness normalisation can only be a good thing. It gives us a better user-experience, and it allows artists and engineers to master their music with the dynamics that work best, without having to worry about “competing” in the loudness war.

And their choice to use the LUFS measurement system is very wise, in my opinion – hopefully other services will follow suit soon. Their choice of yet another different reference level is confusing for people who want to optimise dynamics for streaming, though – which service do you prioritise ? Or do you upload different masters for each service? Hopefully in future all streaming services will adopt the AES recommendation of -16 LUFS max – if you’d like to encourage them, please click here to sign our petition !

And in the meantime, you can measure the peak to loudness ratio (PLR) of your music to assess how it’s loudness will be treated online with any LUFS loudness meter – or my Dynameter plugin, which offers presets to help with exactly that.

Coda: But what about SoundCloud ?

More and more people have been asking me recently about loudness normalisation on SoundCloud, which is where many of you release your music.

The bad news is – there’s no loudness normalisation at all there, yet.

BUT

I’ve been in contact with SoundCloud’s support team, who have said I can quote them as saying that normalisation is “on the list”. It’s not at the top, right now – but that may change. Let’s just hope that when it happens, they implement not only loudness management on SoundCloud, but the AES’s recomended maximum reference level of -16 LUFS, too.

 

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Do you make these 6 home mastering mistakes ? http://productionadvice.co.uk/home-mastering-mistakes/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/home-mastering-mistakes/#respond Fri, 14 Oct 2016 16:03:14 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=8862   Home mastering is hard – but it IS possible. There’s no question that it’s difficult to master with the same monitoring (and in the same space) that you use for mixing, and it can be very difficult to get that impartial “distance” from your music to know exactly what it needs. But these days, there are […]

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Home mastering is hard – but it IS possible.

There’s no question that it’s difficult to master with the same monitoring (and in the same space) that you use for mixing, and it can be very difficult to get that impartial “distance” from your music to know exactly what it needs.

But these days, there are no technological obstacles, at least. When I started out over 20 years ago, you needed literally hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment just to get your music onto a master tape so it could be pressed, let alone get it sounding great !

Whereas today, you can just upload from a $300 laptop, or maybe even your phone.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. Here are some common but lesser-known mistakes I see people making when they’re mastering their own music, or mastering in a home studio – plus suggestions on how to fix them.

1 – Using too many plugins

Notice I said ‘too many’, not just ‘using plugins’ ! I have nothing against mastering with plugins at all. Yes, there are some fabulous bits of analogue kit out there, but Yes it’s also possible to get superb results “in the box”, these days.

BUT

I see it all the time – in YouTube videos, in emails from people, posts on social media. “Here’s my mastering chain” – and they list 6, 7, 8 or more separate plugins ! Sometimes multiple EQs, multiple compressors, multiple limiters – it’s crazy.

Yes, sometimes you do need to throw the kitchen sink at a song. But most of the time, I have only three processors in my mastering chain.

EQ, compression and limiting.

That’s it.

The problem with using more than this, is that they can all end up fighting against each other, going no-where fast. 9 times out of 10 it sounds better to just bypass the lot ! And of course there are times when you want to work on the stereo image, or add clipping or some specific effect – but only when needed, not on every song.

So, keep it simple. And for more discussion of my mastering chain, click here.

2 – Using compression or limiting

Wait, what ? I just listed those as two of the key elements of my mastering chain, right ?

Correct. The point is, I listed both. It’s not an either-or.

So many people ask me why their masters start to sound lifeless or distorted when they push their limiter too hard, or why compression makes things sound thick and congested – and the answer is almost always: because they’re only using one or the other.

Compressors and limiters are of course both the same thing, under the hood – but they’re typically used with very different settings, and work in very different ways, and achieve very different results.

Limiters work fast and hard, and are great for dealing with short-term transient detail cleanly. But push them too hard and they’ll start biting into the body of the music much to agressively.

Compressors are better working slower and more gently in mastering, shaping the body of the sound. But dial the attack and release times down too far and they’ll suck all the life and space out of a mix.

The key for me is to use both – gentle compresion to shape the overall dynamics, and a super-fast, super-clean limiter to handle the transients that are left.

That way, neither processor has to work too hard, and they stay out of each other’s way so you get all the benefits of more balanced, controlled dymamics – with far fewer of the negative side effects.

3 – Mastering on the mix bus

I get asked this all the time. Why bother with mastering as a separate process at all ?!?

Why not add the processing you need to the stereo output, and apply whatever processing you need right there ? So you have the flexibility to tweak the mix right there, if you need to ?

Three reasons.

Well actually there are loads more than three, but these will do to start with.

Mastering needs to be in context

I often say that when we’re mixing, we’re balancing instruments against each other to make a song. But when we’re mastering, we’re balancing songs against each other to make an album. (Or EP, or playlist, or whatever)

We need to be able to flick instantly from one song to the next, preview the relative levels and EQ balance, audition the gaps – get an overview of the project.

So when I’m mastering, I like to have all the tracks available as stereo files, line them all up next to each other in a new timeline, and balance them against each other.

This is almost impossible to do with multiple mixes – in theory you could have all the songs on their own channels, each routed to a submix where you could apply processing, but in practise it’s un-manageable. Anyone who does work this way almost always ends up applying a global setting to all the songs – and that’s not mastering. But that’s a whole other blog post…

(And for anyone who says nobody masters songs in groups any more – well, they should. Even if you’re only mastering a single song, you should pull in some quality reference material and balance against that.)

Processor overload

I’m not talking about the computer here, I’m talking about you !

Speaking personally, I just can’t cope with all the variables well enough to master when I’m mixing. Mixing is all about the details – kick versus snare, drums versus bass, guitars versus vocals, effects, timing, arrangement, structure…

With all that going on, I simply don’t have the headspace to think about the overall level as well, the overall EQ, the dynamics – in fact, I find it’s really helpful to simply let concerns about those issues go, safe in the knwledge that they’ll be dealt with later, and more effectively, at the mastering stage.

Objectivity

I said at the outset that it can be tricky to get perspective when you’re mastering music you mixed yourself, especially in the same room.

Tackling the mastering as a completely separate process can really help with that. I find having a clear distinction between the two helps give me clarity. Yes, that sometimes means I have to go back and tweak a mix or two – but making a few notes and changes later is far better than being sucked back into that endless obsessive-compulsive spiral of wondering if the vocals are too loud or not !

Exporting stereo files draws a line under the mixing process, somehow – and helps us listen with a different mindset to the song as a whole. There are more ideas on how to get into this ‘mastering mindset’ in Episode 2 of the Mastering Show podcast, if you’re interested.

4 – Using presets

Don’t get me wrong – presets are great.

As a starting-point.

But no preset can ever apply as well to your music as it did to the music that was used when it was created, without tweaking.

In fact I actually have a default plugin chain set up for mastering, but most of it starts off disabled, and all of it gets tweaked individually, for every single song.

So by all means experiment with presets, but know you’ll need to optimise the settings for your music – and ignore the preset names ! Just because you find one called “fast, hard and puchy” doesn’t mean that’s how it will make your music sound – only your ears can decide that.

5 – Peaking too high

If the peak meter of your master is reading above -1, you’re doing it wrong.

In my opinion.

Yes, that’s right – I’m telling you to leave a whole dB of clear space above the maximum peak level of your music. Why ? It’s a complicated topic, but briefly:

  • It meets the recommendations of the AES streaming guidelines, the ITU broadcast standard and Mastered for iTunes guidelines
  • It reduces the risk of clipping caused when encoding and decoding to mp3 or other lossy streaming formats
  • It reduces the chance of additional distortion in some converters, caused by “inter-sample peaks” – more info here

6 – Mastering too quietly

Yes, I know, I just said you shouldn’t let your music peak too high.

So why am I now saying it shouldn’t be quiet ? What about all that loudness war stuff I’m always banging on about ?

Well firstly, peak levels have very little to do with the way we hear loudness. To measure loudness, you need an LUFS loudness meter – for more details, click here.

But also, I said your music shouldn’t be too quiet.

Having a master that’s too dynamic can be just as much of a problem as one that’s too loud. It’s less likely to ‘translate’ well, meaning to sound great on the widest possible range of playback systems, which is a key goal of mastering. The chorus might blast you, or the verse might disappear – or you simply might not make optimal EQ choices unless your audio is in the loudness “sweet spot”.

Yes, it’s important not to push your music too hard, and avoid becoming a casualty of the loudness war – but you also want it to be loud enough – the perfect balance of loudness and dynamics.

Which, combined with optimal EQ, is the essence of mastering !

So, there you go – of course there are plenty of other mistakes to be made in mastering, both at home and in a professional studio, but hopefully these suggestions will help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls, which you may not necessarily have thought of before.

 

For more in-depth discussion and demonstrations of all these points and many more, you might like to take a look at my Home Mastering Masterclass course, which starts again on 21st October. Now is the perfect time to get involved and take advantage of the 30% introductory discount – for all the details, click here.

 

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