Metering plug-ins can be really difficult for non technical people to understand so mastering engineer Tom Frampton from Mastering The Mix teamed up with developers 29 Palms to take a completely different look at a metering plug-in for mixing and mastering that creatives could easily understand and LEVELS is the result.
As a mastering engineer Tom has plenty of experience of having to deal with issues on tracks clients sent to him to master, and that got him thinking, could he design a plug-in that would alert mixers and producers to those common problems and help them resolve those issues at the mix stage rather than at the mastering stage where it can be much harder to solve because all you have is the stereo mix file.
The plug-in has four segments round a central circle with each quadrant representing one of four parameters, Headroom, Stereo Field, Bass Space and Dynamic Range. If all is well the quadrants stay green, if there is an issue the appropriate quadrant goes red alerting the user to a problem which needs attention.
There is also a mono button to check mono compatibility and because you should really listen to mono out of one speaker you can select the left or right channels to send the mono signal to.
LEVELS Features Summary
- Easily see any technical issues with your mix.
- True peak meter to make sure your masters don't clip through speakers or overload lossy codecs for AAC, mp3 or music streaming services.
- EBU R128 compliant integrated and short term LUFS meters - This may seem odd on a music based plug-in but both are really helpful to make sure that different track on an album match in volume.
- Vectorscope to visualise stereo width. Left/Right and correlation meter are normally green if all is well but will change to red if there are issues.
- Low Pass button on vectorscope solos your low frequencies below 300Hz so you can see their stereo width. Stereo width in low frequencies used to be a complete no no in the days of vinyl records. More recently we have been less concerned about this but it is still good practice to keep the stereo width below 300Hz in check for clarity.
- Dynamic Range section tells you if your music is over compressed. The algorithm is based on reliable Short Term LUFS to Peak ratio. The waveform changes colour from green through amber to red, again making it very easy to see if there is an issue.
- Bass Space section identifies if any channels are outputting unwanted low frequencies. You mute the kick and bass and then you can see if any other sounds are occupying this space.
- Price - £69 including VAT with a 14 day free trial available so you can try it out.
LEVELS System Requirements
- Available in AAX formats (all both 64-bit and 32-bit) VST, VST3, and Audio Units (Mac only)
- Mac - OS X 10.8 or higher. 32-bit or 64-bit AAX, AU, or VST 2/3 host.
- Windows - Windows 7, 8 or 10. 32-bit or 64-bit AAX, or VST 2/3 host.
LEVELS - Initial Thoughts And Observations
I have used LEVELS on several projects including speech based programming as part of my post workflow and although LEVELS hasn't been designed for this with a couple of adjustments to the Settings tab I found it very useful.
For me LEVELS is one of those turning points where someone takes a fresh look at a problem and comes up with a very different solution. Those different solutions don't always work, but this one very definitely does work. I am going to be recommending this plug-in to post clients who do a lot of their own editing but who struggle to get to grips with levels and other mastering type issues.
If you are a songwriter, mix engineer of producer then you should also check out LEVELS. Download the free trial and see how it works for you.
LEVELS - Testimonial - Rik Simpson
Detailed Descriptions For Those That Want To Dig Deeper
The central display has a true peak meter which gives you a reading of how close your track is to 0dBFS [decibels full scale]. Each bar represents 1dB [decibel]. When the 'mixing' preset is engaged the central threshold is set at -6dB. The goal is to keep your audio under -6dB and in the lower green half. If your audio goes over the threshold of -6dB the meter will start moving into the upper red half and it will turn the HEADROOM icon red.
The LUFS Meters
The LUFS [Loudness Units relative to full scale] measurement scale was standardised in 2011 and is accurate in displaying the perceived loudness of audio material. It's an extremely useful insight to have whilst mixing and mastering. Navigate to these LUFS meters by clicking the LUFS button in the headroom section. There is a Short Term LUFS meter on the left and an integrated LUFS meter on the right. Similarly to the peak meter, each bar represents 1 Loudness Unit. The defaults for mixing are set at -14 for short term and -16 for integrated.
The Short Term meter will display the LUFS measurement over the last three seconds. The integrated meter shows the accumulating LUFS level of your track. You can reset the meters by clicking on the readouts. You can change the thresholds in the settings to suit your needs. If you material goes over your set LUFS thresholds, the HEADROOM icon will turn red.
The vectorscope displays your audio's placement in the stereo field. When the dots are spread out across the circle, your mix is wide. When the dots are simply one thin line down the middle, your mix is mono. The L R [Left Right] meter at the bottom of the central display area shows how even the left and right outputs are. If the pointer is central, then your music is evenly balanced between the two speakers. If you have an unbalanced output the pointer will hover either too far left or right and will glow red, this will also turn the STEREO FIELD icon red.
The correlation meter on the left side of the circle shows the degree of similarity between the left and right channels. A reading near +1 indicates a well-balanced mix. If the pointer hovers passed the central point towards -1 it indicates that the mix has phase issues. This can cause the mix to fall apart when played back in mono. A breach of the stereo correlation threshold will also cause the STEREO FIELD icon to turn red.
Low Pass Stereo Field
Having very wide low frequencies can have negative effects on your mix. Wide bass frequencies might suffer from phase cancellation when played in mono, making your mix sound weak. Bass also takes up a lot of space, so by keeping it mostly mono you can utilise the rest of the stereo spectrum for other elements in your mix. When LOW PASS is engaged, you can see the low frequencies that are too wide glowing yellow and red in the vectorscope. The goal is to keep the low frequencies in the more central green area. This will lead to a more powerful and balanced mix. If you have wide low frequencies, you could try using a stereo placement plugin to place the low frequencies of your kick and bass in mono.
The oscilloscope in the central display circle will react to the audio material passing through LEVELS. The visuals will immediately show you how dynamic 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.
LEVELS creates a ratio of the 'short term LUFS' to 'peak level' of your track and gives you a DR [Dynamic Range] reading. The lower the number, the less dynamic range your track has. The dynamic range is not relative to the loudness of your music, so if your music is over compressed the oscilloscope will turn red regardless of how quiet the track might be. The default dynamic range threshold is set at 12DR for mixing and can be changed in settings.
BASS SPACE identifies if any channels within your mix are outputting unwanted low frequencies.
For your kick and bass elements to sound powerful and clear, they need as much space as possible. To use BASS SPACE first mute your kick and bass elements within your DAW. The frequency bars in the central display area will give you a reading at 40Hz, 80Hz 120Hz and 160Hz. They will jump into the upper red half of the circle if there is too much low-end energy. If this is the case you need to identify which channels are outputting the excess low frequencies. Solo the individual channels to find the culprit and then use a high pass filter to clean up this excess low-end rumble to maximise the clarity and power of your track. Be careful to not remove the material you actually want to hear in your mix.