Loudness War - How Loud is Too Loud

“Loudness War” seems to be over, well at least I keep hearing that statement for the last five years or so, but, with more and more loudness standards over the past couple of years, now it seems to be true. Several services like YouTube, iTunes, Spotify and TV broadcasts now have some kind of standards or loudness normalization algorithms that will make anything with too much loudness sound weak, and with more and more producers distributing over those kind of services, well, it’s worth to know what you are dealing with!

Why Louder?

Over many years everybody wanted their music to sound “louder” than the rest -unfortunately, this keeps happening with TV ads and some other stuff, when in fact, every final consumer has a volume control and the ability to decide how loud to listen. Anything louder seems to sound better, but, that’s not true, actually quite the opposite.

To make things louder, you have to compress more and more to the point where there are no dynamics at all (yeah, 3dB of dynamics is not a very good dynamic range, sorry). In today’s digital world 24 bits depth will give you at least 115dB of dynamic range, which is a lot (far more than vinyl records or CDs), so, what’s the point in compressing everything till everything is almost reaching 0dBfs in your master?

LUFS and Loudness Standards

Since a couple of years ago, the norm was to measure loudness and not peaks to keep different audio programs consistent in how loud they sound. The unit used for this is LUFS (Loudness Units Full Scale) which measures negative values all the way up to zero. Measuring peaks for normalization of different programs let you cheat to make something louder by compressing (over-compressing) and limiting in the master bus, but, when measuring loudness, well, guess what? you can’t cheat and make it louder, so, ultimately, the quality of music gets the benefit!

You can have all the peaks you want to as loud as you want to, what counts is the average loudness in a program, so, you don’t have to worry about been louder than anybody else’s music and now, focus on making good use of the dynamic range. Awesome, right?

The thing is, it seems that everybody is having different loudness normalization standards, for example, for digital TV broadcasts, the standard is -23 LUFS with a +/- 1 LUFS tolerance, but, for iTunes (when you turn the Sound Check option on) it’s -16 LUFS, YouTube is a little bit hotter on this department and uses a system a bit different, but you could say it normalizes loudness at -13 LUFS +/- 1 LUFS.

But the good news is that if you master using the iTunes -16 LUFS standard, YouTube, Spotify, and any other who uses an automatic loudness normalization system, will automatically compensate and bring your track up to -13 LUFS or whatever the target is, but even better is the fact that if you smash a track to make it louder, it will sound thin and lifeless in any of this platforms, so, this is a great excuse to stop producing over-compressed, clipped and with no dynamic range music. Great-sounding music wins!

True Peak

Of course, with -16 LUFS, there’s plenty of headroom for peaks, and this will make your music sound punchier, with more dynamic range, and won’t fatigue ears. Something you need to figure is that peaks, shouldn’t go all the way up to 0 dBfs. -1 dBfs is a good maximum peak level for iTunes, Spotify, and YouTube, and -2 dBfs for TV broadcasts. So, don’t go crazy trying to reach 0 dBfs, it has no point at all, besides, your music will sound awfully clipped.

Ok, how do I measure this?

Luckily there are lots of new tools for this. If you use iZotope Ozone, then you can use the integrated iZotope Insight, which measures all of this information. Some editors like Adobe Audition have an integrated amplitude analysis that can measure True Peak and Loudness in LUFS. There’s also the Dynameter plugin (recommended), which measures the PSR in real-time, and also displays a color-coded history graph, giving you an intuitive snapshot view of the dynamic profile of your music.

Dynameter Metering Plugin

If you run a google search for “LUFS metering plugin”, you’ll find tons of plugins, some of them free.

Should I avoid using compressors and limiters then?

Not at all! Compressors and limiters are great tools, not only for controlling dynamic range but, as well to create it! Besides, they add color, character, and warmth. If you have to smash, let’s say a guitar solo, go ahead, feel free! All you got to be careful with is not to over-compress or limit to much the master bus.

One nice exercise is to have two different mixes for the same tracks, one as you would normally do, when you are done, analyze it with any LUFS metering plugin and check what’s your dynamic range (LU), now, re-build your mix, targeting at least 8dB of dynamic range. You will immediately hear the difference! With more dynamic range, it just sounds better!

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