This is a long read, but so worth it if you care about your music.
Loudness in music terms is simply the idea that "louder" sounds better. (Louder meaning compressed, limited, to where the overall volume is consistently loud the whole time, as opposed to something with dynamics.)
Loudness comes up almost every project I work on. The number one thing clients ask me to do is, make it louder.
This is usually detrimental to the actual music, but I understand the fear that surrounds music not being loud or competing side by side to the reference they are using.
This has created a panic for all artists, labels, etc.. that if they do not have loud music they will not be able to compete with whats out there.
Over the years we have the data to show that there is zero... zero connection between loud music and success. Most of the top selling albums are not loud. They have a good balance of dynamics and loud.
Over the years it has been shown that people prefer a more dynamic sound over a loud compressed sound when level matching occurs.
Loud, compressed audio actually plays back softer and weaker when it goes to digital due to the way iTunes, Spotify, Tidal, YouTube, and Soundcloud all encode music... more on this later.
So when a client asks me to make something louder, I cringe because it actually will hurt their music. I don't blame them. Its a lack of education and the myth that they have been told that loud is what gets you noticed.
iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, Soundcloud, and Tidal all measure music with LUFS (Loudness Units Relative to Full Scale). Very simply, if your above their range, your music will be turned down or limited to their LUFS standard. This can create digital distortion and/or weak playback.
Most clients send me mixes that are already above the optimal LUFS level and I actually have to reintroduce dynamics in order for it not to turn into digital distortion when encoded.
Most clients are comparing a master they get back against something in iTunes, Spotify, or Soundcloud that has been encoded.
Most clients are getting a master that is anywhere from -12 to -7 LUFS.
Anytime I am below that, there is often a complaint that its too soft or quiet compared to other songs.
iTunes uses Sound Check and "Mastered for iTunes" to help stop loudness wars. Its a good start. Not perfect, but a start.
For iTunes anything that is above -16 LUFS will be turned down.
So right from the start, almost everything I work on will be turned down unless the client trusts me (some of them do).
For iTunes, -16 LUFS is optimal for playback. It will encode well and playback untouched.
LET THAT SINK IN PLEASE, -16 LUFS.
That is between 4-8 below what clients ask me to deliver.... even labels.. fall into this trap.
What does this mean for the audio. It will get turned down, all the fighting for it to be louder is wasted.
For Tidal, optimal levels are around -14 LUFS. If it is above that it will be normalized at some level and it will not be raised back up. This means your music will just be quiet.
YouTube, optimal level is around -13 LUFS and anything that is loud or smashed will be turned down to that level.
Spotify optimal level is around -14 LUFS and they will use their own limiter to reduce your music if it is above that to hit their target LUFS.
Soundcloud has no optimal LUFS but anything over -1.0db ceiling will be clipped and cause playback level reduction... this is almost everything on Soundcloud due to the amount of amateur uploads.
Let me give you a tangible iTunes example with a visual.
iTunes streams at around -16 LUFS. If a track has a -7LUFS (most of pop, rap, electronic is around here), iTunes will lower that volume to -16 LUFS.
Here's the great news... anything that is below their optimal -16 LUFS , say a -22 LUFS, meaning if you create a really dynamic, full sounding song and it gets mastered properly, it will automatically raise your volume to their optimal playback in most cases and be untouched and sound truly "loud".
Let me give you a visual of this situation.
This is a track with -16 LUFS, plenty of room to breath and it feels huge. Lots of impact, still loud but balanced. Lots of transients, meaning things that have impact, usually kicks and snares.
This next track has a -6 LUFS. You can see it looks more like a brick, everything is smashed and makes things sound very flat and fatiguing over time. The kick is the same as the snare and is the same as the vocal and the bass. Its all there the whole time.
Next we will see the -6 LUFS track from above once it hits iTunes streaming playback and is lowered to -16 LUFS. The over compression and limiting is something that can not be fixed at this stage and it will sound dull and softer compared to the track that was mastered at -16 LUFS.
Now lets look at them side by side. Both tracks measure at -16 LUFS. The more dynamic track on the right will playback louder and more full than the -6 LUFS on the right. This literally is what happens. Would you look at it........ just look at it.....
The comparison is pretty night and day.
If you want your tracks to be loud and sound clear and full, you must begin to be more concerned about how it sounds overall instead of how loud it sounds in volume.
If you let me master your music to ideal LUFS, I get to actually improve your music and make what is great about the performance stand out, I can make that kick drum feel huge... the last chorus feel like it soars, as opposed to just smashing everything to where the intro feels as big as the last chorus just for the sake of hoping being loud will mean sales or attention.... or that your friends say.. thats so loud.. wow.. that song is louder than bruno mars... so its gonna be a hit.....
anywho..... I digress .... moving on
Another factor in loudness and digital encoding is output ceiling.
All my masters get sent back with a -1db ceiling to prevent clipping and distortion. Clients ask me about this all the time as what they compare to is usually hitting 0db or just below.
Most people do not realize that once the music is encoded via iTunes, Tidal etc...it changes the music. It normally adds a little gain.
So a master that I send that has a -1.0db ceiling will actually be right around -.2db when it hits iTunes allowing it to not distort or trigger any limiters or reduction.
See photo below from a session I worked on recently. The master source is -1db. Encoded to iTunes -0.3db and inter-sample -0.1db
Also notice.... zero clipping before and after... this is what you want... you will get zero distortion or limiting. Your music will playback at optimal level and quality assuming you allow the mastering engineer to hit the target LUFS.
What does this all mean? Each digital music provider has a different target.. frustrating, I know.
But if you fall around a -16 LUFS with a ceiling output of -1db you will really never run into any issues and your music will play back as loud and more then likely more impactful than any other song that is above that.
All of this kind of changes each year as digital audio changes, which is why it is important to work with a mastering engineer who knows the ins and outs of encoding music.
Hopefully some of that made sense.
....this is just an introduction to loudness. If you have more questions, please ask.
also... if you like loud and compressed sound that is cool too. I like some things to be in your face... but for the majority of audio.. it just sounds better with some emotion and movement and dynamics.
If you want to use some plugins to measure your LUFS, I recommend the Waves WLM Plus Loudness Meter.
or a cheaper option is