I get asked this question quite a bit now – And, it is to do with the Loudness Wars. Sometimes the question is framed with RMS, sometimes with the modern unit of LUFS (or, LKFS). We are a modern studio and we use LUFS (or, LKFS). And, a lot of people are asking online too…
“What’s the ideal loudness for my music to get the best playback volume online?”
This is because people have realised that loudness normalisation is a fact they need to take stock of. They know that loud songs are turned down to stop users being blasted by sudden changes in volume – and they’ve probably heard some numbers: -14 LUFS for YouTube, -16 for iTunes and Pandora, -14 for Spotify and TIDAL… but which one should you choose ? Is there a perfect number, or do you have to submit different masters for every platform?
1 – There Are No Ideal Loudness Values – Just Guidelines We Can Follow
Because although all the streaming services are measuring loudness and turning loud songs down, they all do it in different ways. They don’t all use LUFS loudness units, and they’ve all chosen slightly different reference levels.
So you can’t choose an ideal loudness that suits all platforms, because there isn’t one. But the good news is: you don’t need to.
The whole point about loudness normalisation is that each streaming service will measure the loudness, and adjust the playback volume according to their rules. So you can make your music as loud as you like, if you want to – it just might get turned down. And that’s OK, because so does everything else.
Which means targeting a specific integrated loudness is a red herring. Lots of people are asking if they should aim for an integrated loudness of -14 LUFS, for example – because that’s the volume TIDAL uses, and Spotify recently reduced their level to something similar (although they don’t use LUFS to make their measurements, so this is only an approximate value). Plus -14 has recently been adopted by YouTube, and is only 2 dB louder than Apple Sound Check… so all in all it seems like a pretty good value to have in mind.
But that brings us to the second key point I mentioned:
2 – Integrated Loudness Isn’t The Best Way Make Loudness Choices
Here’s what I mean. Integrated loudness is an overall value for a song, album or any section of audio.
Just one number.
It does take account of the loudest moments, and the quietest – but you can’t tell what they were, just by looking at the number.
Imagine two songs, balanced by ear. One of them might be straight-ahead rock, with almost the same short-term loudness all the way through, hovering around -14 LUFS. If so, that’s what the integrated loudness reading across the whole song will read. But now imagine a more varied song – still heavy, but with a quiet introduction and more mellow verses. Those quieter sections will reduce the overall integrated loudness reading – down to -16 LUFS, perhaps.
So far so good – you can’t tell by looking at the integrated loudness whether you have two songs that are “loud all the way through”, or one loud and one with more varied dynamics – but so what ? You matched them by ear, and when you play them back one after the other, they sound great. The loud sections of both are at similar levels, and the quieter choruses work for the more varied song – who cares if they measure slightly differently ?
The problems start when you turn this process the other way around. Rather than measuring the songs, you want to choose how loud they should be.
If you use your ears again, you’ll be fine, but that’s not what people are asking me about. If you just follow the numbers and make things match an integrated loudness value – making both songs measure -14 LUFS for example – the more varied song will sound 2 LU too loud in comparison to what you would have chosen by ear. The integrated LKFS / LUFS value tells you nothing about the dynamic variety in the song. In other words, our opinion about what integrated loudness feels musically right changes, depending on the song – and genre, and arrangement… and everything.
Don’t worry, there is a solution to this, but before I get to it I just want to highlight the third, simplest and probably most important point in all of this:
3 – Loudness Is An Artistic Decision
You probably already guessed this one: loudness shouldn’t be about the numbers.
And neither should any other property of music, of course. Numbers are helpful as a sanity-check, and for training our ears. But that doesn’t mean you should choose the EQ balance or how loud to master a song based purely on measurements – in an ideal world you just choose what sounds best.
And the great news is that we’re headed in that direction ! Since loudness levels are being adjusted on playback, you’re free to make that choice based on what’s right for the music, and not have to worry that someone else will “cheat” and try to make theirs sound better just by making it louder – that won’t work.
Devil’s In The Detail #1
OK, I said I’d answer the “how loud” question simply and clearly – and I will.
But from what’s written above you’ll have gathered by now that I’m not going to be recommending any of the LUFS numbers suggested above – or any integrated loudness.
Instead, my recommendation uses short-term loudness values, and it’s this:
Master no louder than -14 LUFS short-term at the loudest moments
(with True Peaks no higher than -1)
If you follow this suggestion, you’ll be in great shape, in almost any genre. Your songs will be loud enough to sound “competitive”, whilst still retaining plenty of punch and dynamic contrast. They’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with anything else, on all the streaming platforms, and they won’t get turned down.
Devil’s In The Detail #2
This suggestion is based on over 5 years of our experience as a professional mastering engineers using the LUFS Method, on conversations with other mastering engineers & on analysis of my favourite-sounding albums. The theory is simple: make all the loudest moments similar in loudness, and not too loud – and then balance everything else with them musically.
It just works ! It avoids the problem of using integrated loudness as a target, where you’ll get lower values for music with more varied dynamics even though the loudest moments are just as loud. But it still gives you a useful benchmark – something to aim for. There can be occasional louder moments, if they work musically, and of course you can go quieter if you want to – always make decisions based on musical considerations, not just the numbers – but this is the simplest and best guideline I can give you.
And in fact when we follow this rule, in most popular genres the integrated loudness often comes out in the -16 to -14 LUFS range anyway – bang in the sweet spot for all the online streaming platforms…
Parting Shot: Optimise, Don’t Maximise – The Opportunity Of Dynamics
Maximising loudness doesn’t work, any more. Aiming for a specific integrated loudness doesn’t work, reliably. But deciding how loud to master the loudest sections of music, keeping them consistent and balancing everything else to feel right musically does work – and it helps us optimise the loudness of your music, making the most of the peak headroom the online streaming services make available. This is a fantastic opportunity – a true win-win! We can make the best decisions for your music based on the music itself – and feel confident that it will sound great online, and everywhere else. After all, it is how Dynamic your music is that sets it apart.