[Editor’s Note: This article was written by our friends at Sweetwater.]
Your mix is slammin’, your band is smilin’, and you’re putting the final sheen on your final FINALmaster before you hand it off to TuneCore for distribution. There’s only one problem: the target loudness you used is YouTube’s, not Tidal’s, and your song may come across squashed in translation. Not only that, but the Kansas-flat EQ curve you managed to achieve in Spotify may sound decidedly duller blasting out of your iTunes desktop app. What gives?
Welcome to the Wild West of digital music, where every platform has its own standards — loudness, format, bit rate, and playback curves — and everyone is gunning to be the new sheriff in town. What’s a producer to do?
“I know! I’ll create special masters for Spotify, Napster, and every other platform TuneCore supports!” you might say to yourself. We’ve all been there. But not so fast. Before you reach for that fader or EQ, let Sweetwater walk you through why mastering for specific platforms turns out to be a really, really bad idea for your creative works.
1.) Creating Multiple Masters Is Time and Cost Intensive
There are over 100 digital music services (streaming and download) available through TuneCore alone, with countless others on the rise. And unless you’re working with a million-dollar budget and no deadline in sight, the prospect of making a special master for each major platform, for every one of your songs, is simply impractical.
Sweetwater’s advice: shoot for one master that is maximally translatable across all services — natural sounding, not too hyped in any register, and with peak levels no higher than -0.6dB. Apple Music is the big dog in this game, and its conservative -16 LUFS Soundcheck loudness average is a good mark to shoot for. (Don’t know about LUFS for measuring loudness? This article, What Is LUFS, and Why Should I Care?, will answer all your questions.)
Don’t worry about your master being “too soft” — thanks to playback normalization, many platforms will automatically adjust your output levels to meet their standards. It has also been shown that louder masters do not always equal a louder playback experience for the user.
Sweetwater’s advice: shoot for one master that is maximally translatable across all services — natural sounding, not too hyped in any register, and with peak levels no higher than -0.6dB. Apple Music is the big dog in this game, and its conservative -16 LUFS Soundcheck loudness average is a good mark to shoot for. (Don’t know about LUFS for measuring loudness? This article, What Is LUFS, and Why Should I Care?, will answer all your questions.) Don’t worry about your master being “too soft” — thanks to playback normalization, many platforms will automatically adjust your output levels to meet their standards. It has also been shown that louder masters do not always equal a louder playback experience for the user.
For example, if you were to master at -10 LUFS to try to gain an edge on your competition, Spotify would automatically reduce your level to its default -14 LUFS (since these are negative numbers, the higher value of -14 is actually softer than -10), resulting in a lifeless, yet no louder, product. Just don’t do it. Follow AES’s guidelines: stay between -16 LUFS and -20 LUFS for streaming, and all users, mobile and desktop, will be happy.
2.) Environmental Factors Surpass Platform Discrepancies
There’s no question that your masters could sound different consumed across different digital services. Pandora, for example, appears to have a playback curve baked in by default that can’t be toggled off. However, the minor differences in tonality and dynamic range you’re likely to encounter across distribution platforms and streaming rates are negligible compared to dozens of environmental factors that are completely out of your control.
Each listener’s age, biology, and listening environment (speakers, acoustics) play a much more dramatic role in how your music will come across. Aim for a master that translates well across all platforms, rather than perfectly across one, and your songs are best equipped to stand the test of time.
3.) Platform Preferences Are Not Set in Stone
Many streaming services have been willing to share their playback codecs with developers, so we now have some idea of what differences exist between them. But what about tomorrow? What if Apple were to implement a +2dB bass boost across all its consumable media? What if Pandora dropped its behind-the-scenes EQ curve?
There’s simply no way to know whose streaming rules are here to stay. Therefore, it’s best not to try to game them. Once again, “one master to rule them” needs to be your mantra.
4.) The Goal of Mastering Is Maximum Translation
Any mastering work that tries to accommodate a moving target flies in the face of the goal of mastering, which is to create a uniform listening experience for any listener in any environment. Through headphones on a train, in a car with the windows down, in a club with the bass cranked, or at home through bookshelf speakers, you want your master to sound great wherever it’s consumed. The secret is relative flatness and a healthy dynamic range. Create a translatable product, and a touch of platform limiting here or some EQ liberties there won’t destroy your soundstage.
“But what about vinyl masters,” you might say. Yes, it’s true that vinyl masters are produced with a particular listening medium in mind. But with vinyl, you can be sure of the medium and the standardized RIAA curve, and relatively sure of the playback environment. Vinyl listeners probably aren’t dragging their records and player to the gym to work out with earbuds. Apples to oranges.
What Can You Do to Maximize Translation?
Fortunately, there are a ton of good-sense tools at your disposal to ensure your final music master sounds great across any digital medium you’re likely to encounter through TuneCore. Here are some of Sweetwater’s favorites:
- Promaster by AfterMaster — An instant mastering program that instantly polishes the sound of your music. Just upload your tune and get four alternate mastered versions of your mix. For more info, click here.
- iZotope Music Production Suite 2.1 — Perhaps no single company has had a bigger impact in the home mastering market than iZotope. Today’s Ozone 8 and Insight 2 plug-ins give you all the tools you need to create compelling masters from the comfort of your bedroom. Ozone’s genre-specific presets and Neutron cross-communication serve up balance, punch, and clarity with the click of a mouse. And with Insight guarding the gates, you can be sure your masters stay well within loudness standards. Though not as exhaustive as MasterCheck Pro, Ozone does allow you to preview different codecs and bit rates in real time to prevent unwanted distortion and artifacts.
- TC Electronic Clarity M Stereo — This hardware-based stereo loudness meter from TC Electronic constantly displays essential metering information — peak limiting, average loudness, and more — from its vivid 7″ color display. The high-accuracy real-time analyzer and its broadcast standard compliance make the Clarity M Stereo a useful tool for creating masters for digital streaming and beyond.
- Waves WLM Plus — Looking for a large-format metering plug-in you can run throughout the mastering process? The WLM Plus was built for that. Peak limiting and long- and short-term averages are clearly visible at a glance, with a LUFS meter readout to stay within streaming standards and an onboard limiter to catch unwanted overages.
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