So, most streaming services normalize their audio to around -14 LUFS.
YouTube are slightly louder, iTunes is a couple of dB quieter, but overall -14 is the loudness you should aim for, right ?
Wait, what ?!
Well, yes. But that still doesn’t mean the playback levels we’re measuring are targets.
Dude. Stop talking crazy and explain yourself !
To start with, TIDAL is the only service actually using LUFS for it’s loudness normalisation. So even if you did want to optimise your audio’s loudness for a particular streaming service, TIDAL is the only place you’ll get completely reliable results. Spotify use ReplayGain, Apple use their own mysterious Sound Check algorithm, and the others aren’t telling.
But – but – why do you keep quoting LUFS figures, then ?
Because we have to measure things somehow, and LUFS is the internationally recognised method of measuring loudness – plus it’s the best, in our experience.
And the numbers are accurate – if you run a loudness meter on Spotify for 30 minutes or more, you will find the overall playback loudness is very close to -14 LUFS, especially for loud material.
But that’s an average value – individual songs may vary up or down by several dB, because ReplayGain gives different results to LUFS. The same applies to YouTube, iTunes and Pandora. So using LUFS as a target just won’t work reliably – as well as being a bad idea.
What do you mean, a bad idea ? Why NOT target loudness at specific services ?
Because we don’t need to.
Streaming services measure the loudness and make it more consistent for us – so we don’t have to. Loudness normalization is an opportunity to do what’s best for the music, without having to worry about the need to “fit in” with loudness.
Having said that, there can be an advantage to keeping the streaming services’ playback levels in mind while you’re optimizing the loudness of your music – which is why we created the Loudness Penalty website. Let me explain.
Why streaming playback levels DO matter
Imagine you master a song, and test it using the Loudness Penalty site, which tells you it’ll be turned down by 6 dB or more on all the streaming services.
That means you could potentially apply 6 dB less dynamic processing and still have it play back just as loud.
I don’t know about you, but that feels like an opportunity to me ! At the very least I’d want to experiment as see how a less heavily processed version sounded, using the LP scores to hear how it will sound online.
In the most agressive genres, it might be that you decide to stick with the original version, but in my experience this rarely gives the best results. For me, the sweet spot for loud material is about LP -2 on YouTube – but you may feel differently.
Either way, don’t we owe it to the music to at least try the experiment ?
One master to rule them all
So, what am I actually saying ? On the one hand, there’s no point in trying to optimise loudness for streaming services, but on the other there might be an opportunity. I’m contradicting myself, surely ?
It’s true that there’s no real benefit to supplying separate loudness-optimized masters for each streaming service – partly for the reasons explained above. But also in a practical sense, because most agregators will only accept one file per song anyway, so there’s no easy way to get individual masters uploaded to each service.
But there is a benefit to optimising your music for online streaming in general.
Seize the opportunity to create a master that sounds great everywhere
Measure your files using the Loudness Penalty site, and find out how much they’re going to be turned down. Experiment with less agressive loudness processing, and preview the different versions against each other – and your favourite reference material – using the LP scores to adjust the playback level and see how they’ll sound online.
Knowledge is power – and making real-world comparisons like this will let you find the “sweet spot” – the perfect balance of loudness and dynamics, that best serves the music.
Not the streaming normalisation algorithms, or the wild ‘Loudness War’ goose – the music.
And in the process, even if you think your genre needs that loudness war sound, you might find yourself surprised.
If J Cole can break streaming records and debut at Number 1 in the Billboard chart with a more dynamic master – maybe you can, too.
I’ve been getting quite a few frustrated comments about this, saying “well how loud should we master things, then ?!”. If that includes you, click here for my best advice.