Master Your Music to this Level
How loud should my music be? Should I release music at different levels for different streaming services? Why should I go louder if my music will be turned down?
If these questions sound familiar and you find yourself asking the same, you are not alone.
An overwhelming amount of people are confused on the subject of “how loud should my song be”, and the answer can be answered with another question, “What is Best for the Song?”.
The simple answer is no. While most of the streaming sites such as Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music have specific levels they play music back at through normalization, this in no way a requirement on your part to deliver at this level. Normalization is the act of turning up, or turning down audio to match a specified level. Every website does this through different means, some more damaging than others. In addition, the targeted loudness levels have been changed several times, and will more than likely continue to change based on current trends and the market, forcing you to play by their rules should you believe this is something you have to do.
If normalization turns my music down, why should I release music louder than what their level is? Easy. The magical number they suggest takes no account of how your music sounds. It doesn’t listen to your music. It’s not going to tell you your music needs some “glue” or is squashed. It will just do as its programmed to do, turn up, or turn down. In mastering, one of the most important parts of the process is being able to critically listen and evaluate a piece of audio to determine what may or may not be needed. While this process may often include compression, equalization, and specific mastering techniques like M/S processing, we will focus on the last step usually, and that is final loudness. Program material such as a song usually have a sweet spot like all things. Left with too much dynamics a song may lack cohesion and need glue. Pushed too far though, and a song can quickly lose its vibe and punch. It is the mastering engineer’s job to find this sweet spot based on what the artist is expecting. Often times in my own work, this is well above what streaming services tell you there normalization levels are. While one record may sound fantastic at -7LUFS, another may feel much better at -11Lufs. To add to this, having your music turned down is not a penalty, and in most cases your music is simply lowered in volume with no negative effects.
As a side note, some may say their song audibly changed after being uploaded to a digital streaming service. A important issue to remember is a max ceiling of 0DbTP will often result in ISP (Inter Sample Peaks) from codec damage and down sampling. This isn't a case for a song being too loud, and more of an example of leaving proper headroom to anticipate the damage that will be done through digital streaming, conversion, and down sampling. Again, many different websites will tell you what you should do, and this can be anything from 0.1DbTP to a whopping -2DbTP. As to how much ceiling should you leave, this all comes down to the material in question. More dynamic material that is conservative in level will be much more forgiving than something aggressive and quite loud.
Now because websites normalize music to have even volume across the board, this can work against you if you deliver a song that is too quiet. A algorithm will then turn your music up, applying compression/limiting to reach its target number. This can wreak havoc on your track depending on the arrangement and mix. Never trust an algorithm when you can have a trained set of ears listen and apply processing as needed in context of what’s best for the material, often with high quality tools then what these websites currently use.
The danger of mastering music to a hypothetical number is that you have removed the most important part of audio engineering, using your ears. You have now put your trust into a “magic” number that varies depending on what website you use. The best thing you could do is to shut your meters off and listen to the changes you’re making from applying compression and limiting. As I’ve said above, this is what part of the role of a mastering engineer is, listening, and judgment.