If you've been making records for any length of time then I'm sure you've heard about the “loudness wars”. Basically for the last 20 years everyone wanted their record to be louder than everyone else's so it would grab your attention and sound more energetic, and it totally works! When listening to a record then switching to a louder record, it immediately grabs your attention, even if it doesn't sound as good, when it's louder it usually feels more energetic.
People rarely listen to CDs anymore and even digital downloads are becoming a thing of the past. Streaming is king and the rules have changed. If you have a super loud record then the streaming services will just turn it down.
It all started in Europe when people became fed up with television commercials (adverts) that were a lot louder than the actual content they were watching. You know, when you're watching your favorite TV show and then a mattress ad comes on and blasts your face off, screaming about how their prices are at “ROCK BOTTOM!!!” For decades there have been rules put in place that govern how loud broadcast content can be, but those were based on peak level values rather than the average overall loudness. Remember how loud content grabs your attention and gives a feeling of excitement? Well, advertising agencies know that too, so they “cheated” the system by limiting the audio so the average overall loudness was much louder than the scheduled programing you are watching but without going over the peak level requirements. To combat this the European Broadcast Union (EBU) came up with a new way to regulate and meter loudness.
Why It's Relevant
Youtube was the first online platform to start level matching content automatically and it makes sense. Think about it, if someone was watching a video shot on an iPhone of someone whispering and then they switched to a Skrillex music video they'd blow up their speakers or they’d get hearing damage! To combat this the YouTube servers analyze the loudness of all uploaded content, if it's louder than their standard, they simply turn it down, however they don't limit or compress the audio (yes I know it has digital compression, but not dynamic audio level compression). Spotify, Apple Music, youtube and the others do the same thing, if it's too loud, they just turn it down.
The Sweet Spot
You don't want your record so loud that it’s distorted and thin, but you don't want them to be too dynamic either, both will sound smaller than a record that's right in the sweet spot. Basically we believe that a record should be mastered to the level that it best suits the song since it will be normalized regardless.
All the streaming services use LUFS program loudness to measure loudness levels. Basically it’s the average level from the start to end of a song, It doesn’t care about peak levels.
If you wanna geek out, then these are the levels some of the streaming services normalize to:
Spotify -14 LUFS (Default is On)
Apple Music -16 LUFS (Default is Off)
Youtube -13 LUFS (Always On)
TIDAL -14 LUFS (Default is On)
Here are two examples, we’ll call them “Master A” (Lower Level) and “Master B” (Hotter Level). We’ll use Spotify levels for this example since they are currently the most popular:
“Master A” (Lower Level) peaks at 0dB but has a -12LUFS program loudness - Spotify will turn the level down -2dB. The new peak level when streaming will be -2dB and stream at -14LUFS'
“Master B” (Hotter Level) peaks at 0dB but has a -7 LUFS program loudness - Spotify will turn the level down -7dB. The new peak level when streaming will be -7dB and stream at -14LUFS
As you can see, they will both play at the same average volume level, and therefor will sound like they are the same volume. The difference is that “Master B” might sound thin, distorted and fatiguing while “Master A” will have a higher peak level, which can sound more open, more punchy and cleaner.
Very often the sonic fidelity of a master has suffers when volume is the ultimate goal. I hope that as our community starts to understand how streaming services affect the music we create, and we can see it as an opportunity to make records sound great again!!
Check out the video below for an example.