Mike Thornton from Production Expert shows in this 3 part series of free short videos how the growth of music streaming services and how they deliver music to the consumer is changing the way we need to mix and master content, especially for music streaming services. In part 2 Mike shows how the loudness wars have destroyed the dynamic range of our music and how loudness normalisation used my music streaming services is enabling us to bring back life into our music tracks.
The Loudness Wars Break Out
Using compression techniques to try and make ‘my CD louder than your CD’ have meant that we have tended to lose dynamic range in our mixes and masters. Normally when a track that has been mixed and is ready for mastering the peaks won't go all the way up to 0dB, there is some headroom to play with as in the blue waveform above.
The first technique in mastering was to normalise it so the highest peak would be just under digital headroom, this is the turquoise waveform above. It's a simple gain change to bring the overall level of the track up so that the loudest point doesn’t quite hit digital headroom, and in the example in the video this gain change increases the perceived loudness by 4.5 Loudness Units with 1LU equivalent to 1dB. This is now the early CDs were mastered, but with the start of the ‘loudness wars’ this wasn’t considered to be enough.
At first subtle compression techniques were employed to gently increase the perceived volume without increasing the peak level. With subtle peak limiting using ISL2 from Nugen Audio we can make the lower level content louder but we have to compress the audio so that the peaks don’t get any higher. This is the green waveform above. This subtle limiting increases the Loudness by a further 2LU.
The only way we can make the track sound even louder is with even more audio compression techniques which will compromise the dynamic range ‘the light and shade’ even further.
As the loudness wars increased, so did the amount of compression and the dynamic range continued to drop as the life was squashed out of the music. In the final example we have a very heavily compressed version of the same track and you can see how the quieter parts are so much louder and this version is another 5LU louder than the gently processed version. This is the red waveform above.
Music Streaming Services Now Normalising To Loudness
Now that more and more music streaming services are normalising to an average loudness figure, rather than normalising up to a peak level as close to digital headroom as possible, with loudness normalisation there is no point using compression techniques to make the track sound louder because using normalising to loudness, our heavily compressed track simply gets turned down so that the average loudness matches the target loudness. This also means that the peaks are now nowhere near digital headroom. All we end up with is a quieter, but still heavily compressed track with loads of wasted headroom. This is the orange waveform above.
The better thing to do is use the lightly processed track which actually hardly needs any adjustment to match the -16LUFS target that a lot of music streaming services use.
How MasterCheck from Nugen Audio Can Help
Nugen Audio have a range of tools which they have designed to help music producers, mix and mastering engineers prepare content for music delivery service that normalizes to loudness. Firstly we are going to look at MasterCheck. The plug-in is divided into two sections the numeric displays at the top and the meters at the bottom.
Firstly a loudness meter, which measures Loudness using a worldwide standard, that has been developed to produce a meter that responses like our ears to loudness. The meter displays how loud a track is going to sound and averages the loudness over the last 3 seconds. Then the loudness number displays the average loudness since you last hit the Reset button so in normal operation would be the average loudness for the whole track up until that point. The best practice is to mix your tracks to be around -16LKFS so that the streaming services do not have to turn it up or down to normalise to their preferred target loudness which is usually -16.
Peak To Loudness Ratio
Next we have a meter which displays the Peak to Loudness ratio and in effect this displays the amount of dynamic range or how much audio compression there is on a track and notice how the colour changes from green for good, through amber for OK to red warning that you are probably overdoing the processing. The meter displays the short-term peak to loudness whereas the numeric display up here displays the peak to loudness ratio using the average loudness since the last reset.
True Peaks Are Important
Finally, in the meter section, there is a true peak meter to make sure you are not going over digital headroom and we will be looking at this in more detail in the 3rd video in this series..
The End Of The Loudness Wars?
Hopefully you can see why there is no longer any point in chasing the loudness wars because with more and more services normalising to an average loudness rather than up to a peak level it is so much more beneficial to have a mix with light and shade and life to it.
In the last video in this series we are going to show how using a true peak limiter like the Nugen Audio ISL2 is going to help you get the best out of your mix whilst not getting distortion.