So from now on you’ll hear more consistent playback volume from videos on YouTube, regardless of how “loud” they were when they were uploaded. To read more about what this means, and why it’s important, click here.
The news has had a fantastic, positive response from almost everyone.
But there’s a problem, as I mentioned in my original post.
And I’ll get to that in a minute.
Before we start
First, I should be clear that everything here is based on research and speculation. As far as I know, there has been no official word from YouTube about normalisation at all. Which means…
This is a moving (dynamic ?) target
Some of what I say here will probably be wrong, or go out of date really fast. But for now, here’s what (I think) we know.
This is a playback setting only
The underlying audio isn’t affected – downloading raw files shows that the original levels are encoded intact. That makes sense – adjusting the playback level is faster than re-encoding music, non-destructive, requires less processing power, and allows for future changes to the normalised level.
Not all songs are normalised (yet)
Everything I’ve tried that’s been uploaded this year is playing back normalised, but older songs aren’t. That’s the reason you can see some examples that are louder or softer in the LCast graph in my original post – for example, the very last song is “Bangarang” by Skrillex, which still plays at thunderously high level. But…
Some songs are being normalised after the fact
Eric Perlas from Tower Of Doom studios has seen older songs that have also been normalised – some time after he uploaded them.
(I didn’t realise it when I posted yesterday, but Eric had actually beaten me to it, blogging about this issue just the day before me – and he has some interesting other observations to add, especially as he regularly uploads music videos to YouTube. You can read his original post here.)
It can take up to a week for the normalisation to come “online”
Several people have told me they’ve recently uploaded songs which aren’t playing back normalised – yet. But based on what Eric is telling us, we can expect YouTube to “catch up” with those songs fairly quickly.
It’s not just major label artists, and not just VEVO
Several people have suggested that this is only happening to major artists releases, most of which are on VEVO rather than the main YouTube site. However Eric’s examples again show that this isn’t the case.
It doesn’t use R128 (LUFS)
R128 is the internationally agreed standard method for measuring loudness, measured in LUFS – and we’re pretty sure YouTube isn’t using it, at this point. At least, not the standard “integrated” overall value.
Most normalised songs we’ve measured come in somewhere between -12 and -14 LUFS integrated, at the moment – but if that’s how YouTube were measuring it themselves, you’d expect those values to be exact.
Unless they’re using a tweaked version, of course. We’re trying to get to the bottom of how it works – you’ll know as soon as we figure it out ! Other options might include ReplayGain (like Spotify), for example.
(When I say we, I mean Sigurdór Guðmundsson and I – he’s been helping me with measurements and testing all this)
It doesn’t add extra processing
Everything we’ve seen and heard so far suggests this is just a volume control, nothing else. Some people feel things sound more compressed, or less bassy – I’m pretty sure that’s just loudness deception.
Although, some labels may already be using more dynamic masters, in a reaction to the normalisation – perhaps that’s why the Skrillex video I commented on recently is more dynamic ?
Quieter songs are being boosted
“Loud” songs are being turned down, but quieter songs are also being turned up. This is a good thing – it means great-sounding music with more dynamics will stand up well against the “smashed” mainstream stuff.
And don’t worry…
It doesn’t cause clipping or extra limiting
Another concern is that if quieter, more dynamic music is boosted in loudness by the normalisation, it might cause clipping, or add limiting to prevent it, as Spotify does.
Again, our testing suggests YouTube isn’t falling into this trap. More dynamic songs aren’t boosted so far that they will distort. And although that’s a good thing, it also leads directly to…
The Big Problem
I mentioned in my first post that there’s a big problem with the way all this has been implemented, in my opinion. And that is:
-13 LUFS is still pretty loud
Don’t get me wrong, this is a very positive step in the right direction. There’s no question that the normalisation as it is today is vastly better than nothing, and I’m delighted that YouTube have taken this step.
But because the normalisation system avoids clipping or extra limiting, it also means that some more dynamic material will end up playing back quieter than everything else.
For example, Steven Wilson’s critically acclaimed new album is one of the nominees for this year’s Dynamic Range Day Award, measuring DR11 on the TT Meter. Allowing for some extra peak information in the decoded waveform caused by YouTube’s lossy data-stream, it plays back several dB quieter than the -13 LUFS average.
Which is a great shame, because one of the benefits of loudness-normalised playback is that it gives great-sounding music like this the chance to really shine.
If YouTube chose to follow Apple’s lead with iTunes Radio instead, and chose a value like -16 LUFS instead, this issue would be far less of a problem.
Let’s hope they update the value in future.
It’s still early days for figuring all this out, and there are still lots of un-answered questions. For example:
How exactly does this work ?
I’ve made some suggestions in this post, but it will be interesting to see exactly what method YouTube are using for their normalisation, and why. Are they using R128 ? Or ReplayGain ? Or something similar of their own design ?
Why did they do it ?
Actually I think the answer to this is pretty obvious – Google Play was recently announced, and a key part of what it offers is unlimited access to YouTube’s music archive – ad-free. Since the #1 cause of complaints from audio listeners is always loudness-related, it makes perfect sense that YouTube needs a loudness normalisation solution to give their subscribers the best possible user-experience.
Does it apply only to music, or all videos ?
I have no idea, yet. Maybe you’d like to do some testing, and let me know !
What about adverts ?
Several people have raised concerns that ads won’t have their volume controlled in the same way, meaning they could be very intrusive if they were louder than the music. All I can say at this point is that during my testing, none of the ads played back louder than the loudest music moments – but some were actually somewhat quieter.
So where does all this leave us ?
Loudness normalisation on YouTube is a Good Thing.
Even if the target loudness YouTube have chosen is a little louder than I’d like right now, they have made loudness for it’s own sake a waste of time if you’re trying to stand out on YouTube.
And because YouTube is such an important part of the music discovery and sharing process in 2015, people are going to pay attention.
As more people (like Daft Punk, Pharrell, Mark Ronson et al) experiment with more dynamic masters, those masters are going to sound better (punchier, livelier) than more squashed stuff. On YouTube, on iTunes Radio, on Spotify, and any device that uses ReplayGain – pretty much everywhere.
And just like our clients used to ask us “why does that sound better ?” when they heard a master that sounded louder, they’ll start to ask “why does that sound better” when they hear something more dynamic.
That’s when we get to tell them why, and that’s when the word will start to really spread.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait.
If you know someone at YouTube – please forward them this link ! And if you agree that YouTube’s loudness normalisation is a good idea, tell them. You probably don’t, but even so you could contact their support and social media accounts, and say Thanks. But also mention that you think a lower overall loudness would be even better
And if you prefer your music to have great, balanced dynamics, please support Dynamic Range Day – make a start now by Liking the Facebook page:
Dynamic is the new Loud
Let’s get the word out.