The music industry is a constantly shifting landscape. As a songwriter or audio engineer, the way your musical art is experienced has changed dramatically over the past decade. So, where is music consumption heading in the near future? And what can you do to make sure your listeners get the best experience?
Digital Consumption In Numbers
Figures from 2015 show that the total paid downloads of tracks and albums were 1.07 billion. Compare this to the 317.2 billion total on-demand streams of audio and video. So in 2015, streaming was how 99.7% of people digitally experienced the music you worked on (source). Streaming is still in growth so that figure is most likely higher still today.
The Changing Consumer Experience.
Streaming platforms normalise audio to make the playback volume consistent between different tracks. They do this to improve the user experience, removing the need to constantly reach for the volume control. Spotify and Youtube normalise music to around -13LUFS (loudness units full scale). So if your music is submitted at a louder -9LUFS, (a level at which many chart topping records are mastered) they will reduce the volume before it reaches the consumer. At the date of writing, neither Spotify nor Youtube uses LUFS to analyse the perceived loudness of music, though it’s likely that they will in the future as it will lead to a more accurate normalisation process.
Tidal’s unique selling point is their higher quality streaming capabilities. Tidal normalises to a slightly quieter -14LUFS. They utilise the LUFS scale to analyse and normalise their audio files. Perhaps other platforms will follow suit in the near future.
The Audio Engineer Society recommends that streamed audio is normalised to -16LUFS. They recommend this to “avoid excessive peak limiting, and allow a higher dynamic range in a program stream”. With artists and platforms both striving to deliver the best possible listening experience, could -16LUFS be where streaming normalisation levels are headed in the future?
Delivering Future-Proof Music
As songwriters, producers and engineers, what can we do to ensure the quality of our music isn’t degraded by future methods of consumption?
Answer: Preserve the transients.
Music might get turned up or down, but the vibe will remain. The punch and attitude of a track play a large part in the vibe. Compressors and limiters are amazing tools when used musically, but when used incorrectly they can really suck the life out of music.
Don’t Squash The Master
It can be hard to fight the temptation and pressure to push your music as loud as it will go. Our ears lie to us and lead us to believe the illusion that louder music sounds richer and clearer. But there is a point where your music will be damaged beyond repair. With streaming platforms normalising louder tracks to a reduced volume, squashing the master to make it as loud as possible makes no sense.
So, how much compression and limiting is too much?
Rather than discuss how I set up the many parameters of my limiter, I want to talk about ‘peak to short-term loudness’ ratio. This measurement looks at the peaks in your mix and compares them to the perceived loudness in short-term LUFS. This allows you to look at the ‘punch’ or short term ‘dynamic range’ of a full mix.
We created a tool called LEVELS to help producers keep an eye on the important technical details of their mix. One of the sections in LEVELS displays the peak to short-term loudness ratio using an easy to understand visual and DR (Dynamic Range) reading. The ‘Dynamic Range’ section in LEVELS remains active even after the trial has expired. (We’re passionate about dynamic music at Mastering The Mix…)
LEVELS has a ‘Streaming’ preset which recommends that you don’t breach the threshold of 9DR. The oscilloscope in the central display circle will react to the audio material passing through LEVELS. The visuals will immediately show you how punchy your music is. If your music has a dynamic range above the set threshold, the oscilloscope will glow green. If your music approaches the threshold it will begin to turn orange. If your music breaches the threshold, the oscilloscope will turn red. If the oscilloscope glows red, you should consider reducing the amount of peak limiting in your master chain to breathe some life back into your music.
Click here to download the 15 day free trial of LEVELS.
LEVELS is available for $89 in the Avid Marketplace.