Production Advice http://productionadvice.co.uk make your music sound great Tue, 21 Mar 2017 10:44:27 +0000 en-US hourly 1 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

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 they 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 the other 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.

Lower-level older 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 ? Do you upload different masters for each service? But 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, especially as SoundCloud is being bought by Spotify. Let’s just hope that when the two services merge, 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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Peak to Loudness Ratio (PLR) and online loudness normalization http://productionadvice.co.uk/plr/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/plr/#respond Tue, 20 Sep 2016 13:17:56 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=8848 Online loudness isn’t controlled by the levels you choose to mix and master at, it’s being managed – meaning it’s being measured and “normalized”. Loud songs are turned down, because users always complain about loudness constantly changing – and the PLR of your music plays a key role in determining it’s final playback level. PLR […]

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Online loudness isn’t controlled by the levels you choose to mix and master at, it’s being managed – meaning it’s being measured and “normalized”.

Loud songs are turned down, because users always complain about loudness constantly changing – and the PLR of your music plays a key role in determining it’s final playback level.

PLR stands for the Peak to Loudness Ratio of a piece of audio, sometimes referred to as the crest factor. You may have come across the “DR” measurement of the TT Meter – PLR is the same idea, but using the modern LUFS loudness unit standard.

PLR is a long-term measurement, giving you an overall value for a song, album or section of audio. Because online music streaming platforms use loudness management, or normalization, it’s an important factor in determining the playback level of your music on YouTube, Spotify, Apple Music and elsewhere, and this fantastic video by MeterPlugs tells you everything you need to know about it in less than three minutes. You’ll learn:

  • How to calculate PLR
  • Why it matters
  • Why pushing PLR low won’t help with online loudness
  • How to optimise the PLR of your music – and why you should

More information about PLR and online loudness

Loudness online – how loud is loud enough, and how loud is too loud ?
(An infographic comparing several music streaming services)

YouTube just put the final nail in the Loudness War’s coffin
(How and why loudness management is used on YouTube and other online platforms)

AES recommendations for Loudness of Audio Streaming and Network File Playback
(Official online loudness guidelines for streaming audio)

Optimising PLR with Dynameter

You can calculate PLR with any LUFS loudness meter, but to make it even easier we recently added realtime PLR metering to my Dynameter plugin, including presets for YouTube, Spotify and Apple Sound Check, making it simple to check if you’re achieving the right PLR for your music, and maximising it’s dynamic impact.

For more information, click here.

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The new Metallica single sounds better on YouTube ! Yes, REALLY http://productionadvice.co.uk/metallica-hardwired/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/metallica-hardwired/#respond Fri, 19 Aug 2016 16:58:02 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=8823 Metallica have a new single out – you can listen to it on YouTube above. And people are already asking me about the dynamics – in fact I’ve already seen a blog post claiming that it’s more dynamic than their infamous album Death Magnetic: NEW METALLICA SONG HAS DYNAMICS! The Gear Gods Analysis So I was […]

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Metallica have a new single out – you can listen to it on YouTube above.

And people are already asking me about the dynamics – in fact I’ve already seen a blog post claiming that it’s more dynamic than their infamous album Death Magnetic:

NEW METALLICA SONG HAS DYNAMICS! The Gear Gods Analysis

So I was excited to listen to it, and this post is just to quickly put my opinion on record since I have a feeling people may be asking me about this fairly often – since I have form on this topic.

So…

My verdict – the sound

First, I tested two versions of this song – one on YouTube, and the one in iTunes. Both sound better than Death Magnetic, to me. They don’t have the blatant distortion, or the flat-as-a-pancake “clipped” sound.

(In fact, I noticed recently that the iTunes version of Death Magnetic is actually more dynamic than the original CD release – but that’s a whole other blog post !)

The drums in particular immediately sound better, despite a slightly odd kick sound – and overall the song has far more “life” and energy for me – more excitement and punch than Death Magnetic.

But that’s not saying much. At all.

The dynamics of this song are still pretty squashed, in both versions. And here’s where it gets really interesting, because

The YouTube version sounds better

I mentioned that I listened to two versions of the song, and I went to YouTube first. But then I went straight to iTunes, for two reasons. First, this should be better quality than YouTube, in theory – and second, I’d already seen some discussion claiming that at least some of the apparent dynamics might be because of YouTube’s encoding.

Wrong, on both counts.

The iTunes version is obviously mastered louder. The sound is thicker, duller, less lively, less engaging. Not as bad as Death Magnetic, but still more “flat” and lifeless than it feels on YouTube.

Time to break out Dynameter and analyse the dynamics !

Measuring the numbers

They say a picture speaks a thousand words, and here is what I found.

metallica hardwired youtube vs itunes

Dynameter’s analysis of the two versions of “Hardwired” is on the right, with “The Day That Never Comes” from “Death Magnetic” and their most popular song on iTunes, “Enter Sandman” from 1991’s “The Black Album” on the left for comparison.

(For an explanation of how to read Dynameter’s display, click here)

The graphs confirm what my ears had already told me. “Hardwired” is no-where near as crushed as Death Magnetic, but is still pushed pretty hard. And the YouTube version has more dynamics ! 2 dB more, in fact, based on the raw loudness measurement – you can see it at a glance from Dynameter’s graph.

(For those who prefer their dynamics analysis more old-school, the unofficial Dynamic Range Database lists the iTunes version as measuring DR 6, versus YouTube’s DR 8)

Which is crazy, bearing in mind Apple’s Mastered for iTunes guidelines. YouTube has technically inferior audio in terms of data-rate, but the master sounds noticeably better !

(For anyone who is unhappy about me comparing two lossy encoded audio streams, fair comment. But they’re all I have right now, and this detail doesn’t affect our perception of the dynamics. And if anything YouTube’s lower audio data-rate should count against it, in terms of sound!)

Why have they made this decision ? Presumably because they wanted the iTunes version to sound as loud as the CD (which I haven’t heard yet, but will bet is at the same level as the iTunes version) but also wanted to comply with the iTunes guidelines on inter-sample peak levels. And the only way to achieve that is to further reduce the dynamics.

Whereas on YouTube, where loudness management is mandatory, the same pressure doesn’t apply – the only shame is that they didn’t go further. There are still several dBs of unused peak “loudness space” in the YouTube version. If the 2 dB we had makes such a big difference, who knows what it could have sounded like with another 2 !

Conclusion

Does the new Metallica single have more dynamics ?

Yes… but not much. Or at least, no-where near as much as it could have had.

The YouTube master gives us a taste of what might have been, but the iTunes master is a sadly missed opportunity.

And even the YouTube version is louder than it needs to be, louder than it should be, in my opinion.

Yes, it’s metal, yes it’s meant to be aggressive and distorted – but you can do all that without being crushed, even in this genre. A typical short-term peak-to-loudness (PSR) of 6 or even 7 just isn’t enough for music like this to work the way it’s meant to, especially not dropping down to 5 as this song does. My suggestion is for a minimum of 8 at the loudest point – which is basically what you can see in “Enter Sandman”.

So, it’s a step in the right direction, but not far enough for me.

Fingers crossed for the HDTracks master…?

The new Metallica single sounds better on YouTube ! Yes, REALLY is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice

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Predicting Spotify loudness – is this the formula ? http://productionadvice.co.uk/spotify-loudness-formula/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/spotify-loudness-formula/#respond Thu, 18 Aug 2016 14:20:34 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=8788 Music streaming services turn down music that’s louder than their reference level. They also turn up music that’s quieter. And that’s a good thing, usually – it improves our listening experience, meaning we don’t get “blasted” by loud masters, or strain to hear quieter songs. But what happens if you submit a song that the […]

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spotify loudness formula

Music streaming services turn down music that’s louder than their reference level.

They also turn up music that’s quieter.

And that’s a good thing, usually – it improves our listening experience, meaning we don’t get “blasted” by loud masters, or strain to hear quieter songs.

But what happens if you submit a song that the loudness management system wants to boost, and it’s more dynamic than the platform expects ?

Your song will be either be clipped or limited, or more likely it just won’t be turned up as loud as everything else.

If maximum playback loudness isn’t your goal, that’s not an issue. But if it is, you have a problem.

So where is the sweet spot ?

How loud is loud enough, and how loud is too loud ?

This is a question my Dynameter plugin aims to help answer, by measuring the dynamic profile of your music. And for YouTube and iTunes, it works pretty well – to see this feature in action, click here.

But on Spotify, it’s not so easy.

Dynameter user and BBC engineer Guy Rowland discovered that no matter how he tried, the results predicted by Dynameter’s readings (and every other meter he tried) failed to accurately predict how Spotify handled it’s loudness.

Whatever he did, his song wasn’t playing back at the same level as his chosen reference tracks, and lost impact as a result.

So Guy did what any self-respecting BBC engineer would – he threw Science at the problem.

And he found a formula.

You can read his highly detailed and entertaining blog post about the whole process, and all the other things he learned along the way, here.

But in this post I’m just going to go straight for the juicy details and summarise his findings, so you can try the formula for yourself. In my testing so far, it works pretty well !

Measuring dynamics

Dynameter measures the micro-dynamics of your music in two ways. The long-term overall PLR measurement, which works pretty well for predicting loudness on YouTube and Apple Sound Check, in our tests – and the short-term Minimum PSR measurement, which helps you avoid crushing the peaks of your music too much.

In a nutshell:

  • If the Min PSR is too low, your music will be turned down
  • If the PLR is too high, your song may not be turned up as much as you would like

But on their own, neither of these values reliably predicted how loud Spotify would play Guy’s songs.

Now you may be thinking – isn’t that a huge fail for Dynameter ? Well, not really – Dynameter is not a loudness meter, and predicting playback loudness isn’t our goal for it –  the main focus is optimising musical dynamics. But Guy wanted to go further, and he pressed on with his tests.

And as part of his observations he investigated another valuable way of using Dynameter’s measurements – comparing PLR and PSR.

PLR versus PSR

Remember, PLR is a long-term measurement of dynamics, and PSR tracks the short-term values.

So if the PLR and Min PSR values are similar, it suggests that your music has very consistent dynamics – there isn’t much variety over the length of the song. That doesn’t necessarily mean your song doesn’t have enough dynamics, though – just that they are consistent.

Whereas a larger difference between PLR and Min PSR suggests that the dynamics are likely to be more varied. It’s easy enough to see why – if the overall PLR is high but the Min PSR is low, it suggests that even though the song is quite dynamic overall, some sections are still very crushed.

All this is something we talk about in more detail in the Dynameter manual.

But Guy went a step futher. In his testing, he found that for Spotify, the numerical difference between PLR and Min PSR was crucial in predicting the final playback level.

The bigger the difference between PLR and Min PSR, the more likely it was that the song would be played back below the maximum reference level. In other words, the song would be played quieter than other songs on the platform.

In fact, he boiled it down to a formula.

The formula for playback loudness on Spotify ?

Here it is:

Min PSR PLR 8 = Spotify Playback LUFS

(Up to Spotify’s maximum of approximately -11)

So for example, if you play a song from beginning to end and measure it with Dynameter and find it measures Min PSR 9, PLR 12, Guy’s formula predicts that it’s final playback loudness will be

912 – 8 = -11 LUFS

And since Spotify’s maximum replay loudness is roughly -11 LUFS, that’s about as loud as you can hope for.

What about a more squashed master of the same song ? This might measure Min PSR 6, PLR 9, for example. So the predicted playback loudness is

69 – 8 = -11 LUFS

The extra compression and limiting used to create this master doesn’t achieve anything – it will play back at the same loudness on Spotify, exactly as we’d expect.

BUT

What about an version of the song with more dynamic variety ? Say with Min PSR 6, PLR 12 ? Meaning the loudest sections are still quite squashed, but overall there is more contrast ? This was the case for Guy’s original master, where he couldn’t get the playback loudness as high as he wanted, and sure enough his formula predicts

612 – 8 = -14 LUFS

This is 3 dB below Spotify’s normal playback level, and as predicted it sounded quiet in comparison to the reference tracks he’d chosen.

So what does all this tell us ?

1 – No, it’s NOT ‘the formula’

The best results I’ve got with this formula are correct to about 1 dB of accuracy. But a dB can make a big difference to perceived loudness ! We’ll never get it to be perfect, because Spotify doesn’t use LUFS for it’s normalisation – so you need to treat this formula as an “early warning system”, rather than expecting exact results. At the end of the day, Spotify’s algorithm will do it’s thing, and we have to put up with the results!

But we can say…

2 – The loudness ‘sweet spot’ rules

The simple conclusion is that balanced dynamics will be most successful.

This has been my message all along – crushing your music in pursuit of loudness won’t work on Spotify (or any other loudness managed playback system). But equally, too much dynamic variability can also work against you as well, if playback loudness is an important goal for you.

Guy’s final master was less crushed at the loudest moments, and more controlled at other times – and crucially this worked better musically, as well as playing back louder on Spotify.

The key is to find the perfect balance – the loudness sweet spot, and the great news is that the guidelines and presets we offer to Dynameter users work really well. If loudness with great dynamics is your goal, just choose the “YouTube” and “Limited” presets and you’ll be in great shape, for both loudness and musical impact.

3 – More testing is needed

It’s early days – Guy’s formula needs more testing. On the songs I’ve measured, it works pretty well, predicting the right replay loudness to within a dB or two. Most of our testing has been on loud material, though – it may be less accurate for more dynamic songs.

So please, help us out! If you own Dynameter or fancy doing the maths yourself, please give it a try and let me know how you get on in the comments below.

4 – If it SOUNDS good…

Finally, remember to treat all of this with a large dose of salt. Our ears are always the most important judge of what sounds great, not numbers.

In particular, balanced EQ is crucial to sounding great (and loud) – your masters need well-balanced EQ and dynamics. More on this topic here.

Dynameter has been carefully optimised to reflect what sounds best in my experience and opinion, but at the end of the day your ears must be the judge of that. Just remember to loudness-match as part of your decision-making process – click here to find out how.

Conclusion

Online loudness is complicated.

Different platforms have different rules, and none of them use LUFS or follow the AES guidelines – yet.

But with LUFS metering and a little ingenuity, we can have a good idea what to expect.

And by following a few straightforward guidelines – balanced EQ and balanced dynamics – we can be confident our music is going to sound great, have maximum musical impact, and sound loud online.


To read Guy Roland’s blog post about finding a formula to predict loudness on Spotify, click here. For more information about Dynameter, click here.

Predicting Spotify loudness – is this the formula ? is a post from Ian Shepherd's: Production Advice

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Pop goes the Loudness War http://productionadvice.co.uk/pop-dynamics/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/pop-dynamics/#respond Thu, 12 May 2016 13:40:48 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=8749 What’s happening ? In the last couple of weeks we’ve had new releases by Drake, Beyonce, James Blake and Radiohead – and the overall (integrated) loudness of all of them is lower than I’d normally expect. Here are the numbers: Radiohead -9.9 LUFS Drake -10.2 LUFS Beyonce -10.5 LUFS James Blake -14 LUFS (!) Wait, […]

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pop goes the loudness war

What’s happening ?

In the last couple of weeks we’ve had new releases by Drake, Beyonce, James Blake and Radiohead – and the overall (integrated) loudness of all of them is lower than I’d normally expect. Here are the numbers:

Radiohead -9.9 LUFS
Drake -10.2 LUFS
Beyonce -10.5 LUFS
James Blake -14 LUFS (!)

Wait, what ?

If you’re paying attention, you’ll have noticed that the number for the Radiohead album is barely different from Beyonce or Drake’s – and in a recent post I said that those numbers were “positively restrained, especially in these genres”. But in the same post, I criticised the new Radiohead single for being unnecessarily loud ! How can both statements be true ? Do I need to eat my words ?

Sadly, no. And this post will show you what I mean.

It’s not about loudness, any more

The awkward fact is, the raw integrated loudness figure for an album tell you almost nothing about individual songs within that album.

All these releases include plenty of songs with sparse, mellow arrangements – and their integrated loudness measurements are lower than many current pop releases as a result. And this means they can sandwich in a few really loud songs without having a huge effect on the integrated loudness number – in every case apart from James Blake’s, which really is at a much more sensible overall level than most new releases. (Did I tell you how great it sounds yet ?!)

It’s about dynamics

So if raw loudness isn’t helpful, what is ? That’s where my Dynameter plugin comes in. As the name suggests, it’s a dynamics meter. It gives an estimate of how “squashed” the dynamics of the music are, by measuring the difference between the peak level of the music and it’s loudness. The closer the loudness level of the music is to the maximum peak, the less “loudness space” it uses, and the more “squashed” it will be.

The technical name for this value is PSR , which stands for the “Peak to Short-term loudness Ratio”. It’s effectively an updated version of the TT Meter’s “DR” measurement that you may have heard of – and Dynameter shows a colour-coded graph this value over time, so you can see at a glance how much “loudness space” the music is using.

In a nutshell, the higher the PSR values, the more dynamic the music is likely to be. Very low PSR suggests the music is heavily squashed, utilising relatively little loudness space, and having limited dynamics as a result. Whereas larger PSR values are usually seen in music with more dynamics.

In my experience, audio quality inevitably starts to suffer when the PSR falls below a value of 8, so PSR 8 is coded red on the graph, and lower values go brown and then grey to indicate extremely limited dynamics. Whereas higher PSR values are coded orange, yellow, green, blue and purple.

But what does this tell us ?

You can see how Dynameter measures the PSR profiles of three of the albums I’m discussing in the infographic above, and immediately you can see why I still say the Radiohead album is “too loud” and Drake has better dynamics, even though they both have almost identical integrated loudness measurements of -10 LUFS.

Focusing on the lowest PSR readings, where loudness-war crush is most audible, you can immediately see that “A Moon Shaped Pool” frequently drops as low as PSR 6 – with a tragically low minimum reading of PSR 3. Whereas although “Views” dips down as low as PSR 6 for two songs, visible as bands of dark red in Dynameter’s display, most of the time PSR 8 is more typical – and as I mentioned above, it is possible to go down to PSR 8 without too much risk of loudness damage.

And James Blake ? His album briefly dips down to PSR 6 a couple of times too, but the typical value is even higher, at PSR 10.

So how does it SOUND ?

I said in my original post about James Blake’s “The Colour In Anything” that the dynamics of the album encouraged me to turn it up – and when I did, it sounded great.

In stark contrast, I constantly find myself turning the Radiohead album down. The overall LUFS loudness measurement suggests you should be able to listen to it at a similar volume to Drake, but that’s not how it feels. Fatigue and irritability soon set in, and I keep reducing the volume untill it becomes nothing but background music – which I’m guessing is the exact opposite of what the band were hoping for!

The sound is blunted and stodgy in comparison to Drake and James Blake, for me. They have far more space and detail – in particular there’s far less depth and thump in Radiohead’s sub bass. And the biggest moments feel “held back” to me, full of compression pumping and saturation, whereas the loudest moments of James Blake sing out, sending shivers down my spine. Isn’t that what music is supposed to do ?

Which is a huge shame, because just a few dB more PSR could have made all the difference in the world. The music of “A Moon Shaped Pool” positively cries out for that extra loudness space to take advantage of. It’s tailor-made for dynamics, but the band have chosen to let that opportunity slide. The album was mastered by Bob Ludwig, who is a passionate advocate of dynamics. But he always offers multiple versions and lets the artist choose – and Radiohead went for the “loud” option, as they always have recent years.

Online

The algorithms of the online playback platforms seem to agree with my subjective opinions – YouTube turned “Burn The Witch” down by 5.6 dB soon after it was uploaded, whereas “Hotline Bling” by Drake is only turned down by 4 dB. In contrast, the replay volume of James Blake’s “I Need A Forest Fire” is left virtually unchanged from the level it was originally mastered at, meaning the loudest moments are actually a dB or two louder than the end of “Burn The Witch” !

Don’t take my word for it, though – here’s a playlist with all three songs, judge for yourself. Which song really jumps out of the speakers at you ?

(If your answer is “none of them”, it just goes to show that “loudness” really is pointless…)

The verdict

So is this the end of the loudness war ?

No.

But it’s a step in the right direction, even though both the Drake and Beyonce albums still have a handful of songs on each where the levels go over the top – and the James Blake album shows that they didn’t need to.

But until artists like Radiohead can reject the loudness FUD and choose a more dynamic master, the war will rumble on.

Meanwhile, we can’t sensibly compare whole albums from raw loudness figures – or even the internal dynamics of a single song. Whereas PSR analysis can give immediate, intuitive, at-glance feedback – in realtime, as we work.

According to both my ears, the measurements and the online loudness management software, if the PSR of your music is too low, too often, it will suffer both sonically and in in terms of the playback volume.

Whereas if you want your music to sound great and stand out, a typical PSR of 10, dipping lower at the loudest points, will sound excellent, with maximum punch, clarity and impact – and will be played just as loud as anything else, if not louder – both online and by end users.

And most importantly ? People will want to turn it UP.


#DynamicIsTheNewLoud

For more information about Dynameter, click here.

Please support Dynamic Range Day !

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James Blake and the dynamics of The Colour In Anything http://productionadvice.co.uk/james-blake-dynamics/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/james-blake-dynamics/#respond Tue, 10 May 2016 17:44:09 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=8736   I think I’m in love… I’m listening to the new James Blake album on Apple Music. I saw it in the new releases and just clicked on it, out of curiosity. I haven’t really paid any attention to him until now – but WOW. I’ve been busy launching this year’s Dynamic Range Day competition, […]

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james-blake-dynamics
 
I think I’m in love…

I’m listening to the new James Blake album on Apple Music. I saw it in the new releases and just clicked on it, out of curiosity. I haven’t really paid any attention to him until now – but WOW.

I’ve been busy launching this year’s Dynamic Range Day competition, and while I work on things like this I’m in the habit of listening to music with my monitors dimmed – that’s 12 dB lower than my usual mastering level. Actually, I often listen even quieter than that, because modern music is mostly mastered at such a high level !

But for this album, I found myself tempted to turn it up.

And up.

And UP.

And when I did, it sounded huge.

So why does it sound so good ?

It has depth, it has weight, it has space. I started nodding my head, listening more carefully, pulling stupid faces to the music (which is a good thing, yes!).

Try it. Play the video below with the volume cranked, and see if you get chills when the vocals come in @ 1’15”, too.

That’s the dynamics, doing what they’re meant to do, in music – giving you goosebumps. Of course it’s a superb vocal performance too, that goes without saying – but trust me, it wouldn’t have anything like the impact if it was crushed and distorted the way so many recent releases are.

And unlike those releases, where I inevitably turn them down lower and lower over time, exhausted by the constant maxed-out wall-of-sound, listening to this album loud feels great – and I want to keep listening. That’s the great thing about balanced dynamics – they make you want to listen loud – the way the artists want you to listen.

But, I hear you say…

I can already hear the objections from the “loudness-sounds-good-really” camp: this album is left-field and eclectic; lots of the material is intended to be quiet; this genre doesn’t typically require limited dynamics.

It’s all rubbish. They could easily have given in the to the FUD and crushed the life out of this album, just as with almost every other mainstream release these days – but they didn’t. And it sounds so much better as a result. Other big-name artists like Beyonce and Drake are making moves in the right direction, as I mentioned in my last post – but this is a truly dynamic release.

And what’s more

The reviews agree with me – I keep seeing glowing references to the sound and production of this album, and the dynamics are a big part of that. Guess what I’m not seeing ? Anyone saying it’s not loud enough. Even though it’s almost 6 dB quieter overall than most new pop releases ! (PLR 14 as measured by Dynameter, for those counting)

The message is getting through – dynamic is the new loud. People are starting to pay attention – and this album is a pure pleasure to listen to, as a result.

If you agree, and want more albums with dynamics like this – please support Dynamic Range Day and help spread the word !

PS

I haven’t been able to find out who mastered this yet – I’ve seen intriguing suggestions that “much of the album was mixed and mastered at [Rick] Rubin’s Shangri-La studios in Malibu” – long-term followers of the Loudness Wars will know how ironic that would be, if it’s true !

Please let me know, if you have any info – I want to give whoever it was a big sloppy kiss !

Or at least buy them a beer, if it turns out they have a beard.

Instant Edit – I just found out this was mastered by Matt Colton @ Alchemy. Matt, you’re a legend – watch your back !!!

:-p

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So is the loudness war REALLY over? http://productionadvice.co.uk/is-the-loudness-war-really-over/ http://productionadvice.co.uk/is-the-loudness-war-really-over/#respond Wed, 04 May 2016 10:38:52 +0000 http://productionadvice.co.uk/?p=8707 You’ve heard people say it often enough, me included – but is it true ? Well, the evidence is deeply divided. On the one hand, both Drake and Beyonce have both released new albums in the last couple of weeks – and neither of them is unspeakably “loud”, thankfully. (They sound pretty good, by the […]

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You’ve heard people say it often enough, me included – but is it true ?

Well, the evidence is deeply divided.

On the one hand, both Drake and Beyonce have both released new albums in the last couple of weeks – and neither of them is unspeakably “loud”, thankfully. (They sound pretty good, by the way.)

Don’t get me wrong, they both have a handful of songs with very high levels, full of saturation, distortion and pumping as a result. But they also both have an “integrated loudness” – you can think of it as a loudness “centre of gravity” – of about -10 LUFS. And by 21st century standards, that’s positively restrained, especially in these genres.

On the other hand…

Radiohead have just released a new single, Burn The Witch, and it’s integrated loudness is right up at -7 LUFS, despite having a quiet introduction. The loudest moments get right up to -4 LUFS, which is absurd, in my opinion. You can watch the video above.

So does it sound horrific ?

No. It sounds OK.

But could it have sounded better ? Absolutely yes !

The song is one giant crescendo, building thoughout it’s length – but the loudness reaches a plateau very early on. That’s a wasted opportunity – the performance and the arrangement subside and then continue to build, giving the impression of dynamics, but the actual loudness never gets any higher.

Is that really a problem ?

If it sounds OK, and seems to get louder even though it doesn’t – isn’t that OK ? Why shouldn’t Radiohead make it sound that way ?

Well it’s their music, so they’re entitled to. But what’s the point ?

They’ve ditched the dynamics in pursuit of loudness – but YouTube’s loudness management system will turn it right back down again, in the next couple of days. By at least 5 dB, if not more. It may already have happened by the time you read this. On Spotify it already has.

The high level of “Witch”, while superficially impressive, is rendered useless – on Spotify, and YouTube, and Pandora, and radio and TV… almost everywhere.

And what we’re left with is a song that sounds “held in” and restrained, when it could (and should) explode into your ears like their classic “Creep” does. (It’s odd really – Radiohead make “progressive” music, but the way this has been mixed and mastered is about ten years out of date…)

Whereas Drake and Beyonce are taking the first tentative steps towards realising that, in the future, dynamic is the new loud.

So. Is the loudness war REALLY over ?

Yes. It’s just a shame that lots of the people fighting in the trenches haven’t realised yet…


All of which means that Dynamic Range Day is still as relevant as ever ! To find out more, click here.

Update

As predicted, YouTube’s loudness management software has turned “Burn The Witch” down by a whopping 5.6 dB. So now, you can hear what this post is talking about in acton.

I’ve added a live Radiohead clip to the YouTube player above right after “Burn The Witch”, so you can experience the benefit of the extra dynamics for yourself. If you’re impatient, skip ahead to 4:35 and listen to the extra punch and weight in the drums of “15 Step” in comparison to “Witch”, or the power and intensity of the end of “Paranoid Android” at 22’50”, especially in comparison to the subtle introduction of “Everything In It’s Right Place” immediately afterwards.

That’s an extra 4dB of micro-dynamics being put to great use – in the transients, in the punch of the drums and the subtle contrasts between instruments in the mix.

And that’s what’s missing from “Burn The Witch”, sadly – replaced by limp drums, pointless compression pumping and a crescendo that goes no-where.

Maybe they’ll think again for the final album release…

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