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

September 26th, 2017 BY 

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: -14 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

Even though 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 distribution 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 have 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 might get turned down, but that’s OK, because so does all the other loud stuff.

Which means targeting a specific overall 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 moved to using LUFS. Plus -14 has recently been adopted by YouTube, and is only 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 might be straight-ahead rock, with almost the same loudness all the way through, hovering around -14 LUFS, say.  If so, that’s what the integrated loudness reading across the whole song will read. But now imagine a more varied song – still heavy, but with a quiet introduction and more mellow verses. Those quieter sections will reduce the overall integrated loudness reading, down to -16 LUFS, perhaps.

So far so good - you can’t tell anything about the internal dynamic structure of the songs simply by looking at the integrated loudness values, but so what ? You've 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 try to follow the numbers and make things match using integrated loudness value – setting both songs to measure -14 LUFS for example – the more varied song that measured -16 will be increased in level to -14, and sound too loud as a result. 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 ! Because loudness levels are being adjusted on playback, we don't need to focus on loudness so much. You’re free to make choices 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 – it won’t work.

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 instead, and it's this:

Master no louder than -10 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 by a huge amount.(*)

(*) They will 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, because you'll naturally get lower values for music with more varied dynamics, even though 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 -11 to -14 LUFS range anyway – 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 don't 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, by restricting how far levels can be lifted.

What does that mean ? If you master your music very quietly, it may not be played back 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 ?!?

Update - The proof is in the pudding

Are you interested by the suggestions but still not sure ? Well, you don't have to take my word for it any more. Since writing this post I've been working with MeterPlugs to develop a new website called Loudness Penalty.

It will tell you (for free) exactly how the loudness of your song will be affected when it gets played back online. On Spotify, YouTube, TIDAL and Pandora. And it'll give you a decent estimate for Apple Sound Check, too. Even better, it allows you to Preview the result, live in your browser. (Don't worry, nothing is uploaded so it's entirely secure.)

So you can test the ideas in this post for yourself ! Make a master following my guidelines, and hear the way it will sound in comparison to louder (or quieter) versions on your favourite streaming service - and choose the one you prefer. (Personally I find a penalty of -3 on YouTube is OK for the loudest stuff. You're fighting a losing battle with anything that scores lower than that, in my experience.)

It couldn't be easier. To give it a try, click here.

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My name is Ian Shepherd - I've worked as a professional mastering engineer for over 20 years and I run the Production Advice website with over 50,000 readers each month



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