By most estimations, revenue from music streaming now exceeds that of downloads, CDs and vinyl combined. Whether you think this is an exciting new development or a tragedy, it makes sense to optimise your mixes and masters accordingly.
By now, you’ll know that the major streaming services use loudness normalisation to play out all tracks at the same perceived loudness. This is great for the listener in many ways, especially for anyone listening to music from a wide variety of artists, genres and time periods, all of which are likely mastered very differently. But it’s one thing tweaking older releases to sit nicely alongside each other – how about considering the effect this might have on new releases moving forward?
You could choose to ignore the loudness targets; there is no obligation to submit tracks which conform to a platform’s loudness standard, and the major streaming services generally apply a straightforward dB offset to the entire song, with no further dynamics processing. In a sense, this is no different from a listener turning their volume up for a quiet master and down for a loud one, it’s just automated – but consider the effect it has on headroom!
For an engineer accustomed to producing CD masters, which frequently weigh in around -9 or -10 LUFS, the loss in headroom could be huge. Normalised for Apple Music, a -9 LUFS master gets turned down 7dB to reach the target of -16 LUFS. That’s 7dB of unused headroom, extra headroom which could have been taken advantage of for more transient detail and a wider dynamic range. Even on YouTube – one of the loudest major streaming services with a -13 LUFS target – you would still lose 4dB headroom.
In a Spotify playlist where every track is normalised to play out at -14 LUFS, no track is technically louder than another, but a track with the widest dynamic range – one which takes advantage of all available headroom – will certainly appear to “pop” more. In many ways, this turns the loudness war on its head, encouraging engineers to produce the most dynamic master rather than the loudest master. Thankfully though, this is unlikely to develop into the same kind of mutually assured destruction as the loudness wars, because fixed targets have been set. There is no incentive to keep producing yet more and more dynamic masters because beyond a certain point this makes no difference; a track which falls significantly below a platform’s loudness target is simply turned up even more, and eventually limited if necessary (i.e. the unnecessary dynamics processing we were all working so hard to avoid!). How dynamic is too dynamic? There’s your answer.
A plug-in like MasterCheck allows you to make an informed decision about dynamics processing in your mixes and masters. You can easily measure the loudness of your track, see how much each streaming service will turn it up or down, and audition how that will sound in real time using the ‘Offset to match’ function. If you like how your -9 LUFS master sounds even when turned down 7dB, great! If not, you can tweak to compensate. MasterCheck also allows you to audition the codecs used on major streaming platforms, so you can also preempt any distortion or other artefacts, and tweak accordingly for total peace of mind.