A Modern Definition of Mastering for the Home Studio Producer [Part 2]

July 9, 2019

[Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a two-part series by Gary Gray. Read part one here.]

A Quick Re-cap from Part One

In part one, we covered the modern definition of mastering for the home studio producer: The workflow architecture and series of steps designed to create a competitive finished recording. The definition of a finished recording is: No emotional weak links for the listener, from the very first note to the last moment of silence. This definition at once includes the choice of content. The song. And the performances.

It is not a technical definition. It has nothing to do with watching meters. It does include the statement “designed to create a competitive finished recording.” Within that statement comes the obvious process which shows you definitively if your track is competitive or not: A/B’ing.

A/B’ing is an area I have been researching and developing for over 20 years. For instance, I have developed a revolutionary series of 23 A/B’ing techniques that will cease forever any feelings of second-guessing or frustration as to whether or not your tracks are broadcast quality or radio-ready. 

From The Loudness Wars to The Battle of Normalization

We have now entered the era of the music industry I call The Battle of Normalization. It’s a sort of cold war sequel to The Loudness Wars. And both have been fought by the soldier known as The Mastering Engineer. Many people who own home studios have fully stepped into the shoes of The Mastering Engineer. The reasons? Some financial, some pride, some for the pure joy of creation. Some have more experience than others. Some have more confidence than others. But, for whatever the reason, the shoes are on.

Spoiler Alert — we begin with the moral of the story:

If you start out with great music and solid performances to begin with, your odds of success as a band, songwriter, producer, mixing engineer, Mastering Engineer or active participant in shopping your music for licensing will multiply greatly. Your streaming numbers also follow the quality of your songs, performances and production — but especially your songs (or instrumental compositions) and performances. And so, before we continue, let’s keep our eyes on the prize: great music communicated through solid performances which creates intense emotional impact on the listener. After all, the dream of creating a hit recording is the fuel that keeps most of us going, still plugging away at our musical goals.

Ask any A-List mixing or mastering engineer, which projects delivered the greatest degree of fulfillment and satisfaction? Those projects with great songs (or instrumental compositions) and solid performances. 

If you’re right now thinking that great music and solid performances are subjective (you’re not wrong) — then how do you know when you have created great music and solid performances? Well, after over 30 years of writing, arranging, producing, engineering and mentoring, I find certain songs, compositions and performances unmistakably move people; emotionally and/or physically. And they give people chills.

People universally label these creations timeless masterpieces. So, there is something objective about great music and solid performances.  

I propose that one modern problem we face as home studio producer/engineers is that of having our attention forced more and more onto technology and social media, and less on our core reason for existing: the music itself and the craftsmanship of performing that music.  It appears that those who win in the end (long term) break those chains and keep their attention and hone their craft of music as a priority. 

OK, so to recap so far, The Loudness Wars are pretty much over and the number one priority before we even start to dig in to technical talk, is creating great music and solid performances to begin with (The Magic). Understood. Got it. Makes sense. 

Now what?

Move over “The Loudness Wars” –  Enter “The Battle of Normalization”  

What is normalization? You’ve probably heard this term being used an awful lot in the last couple of years. Especially in the last year, in sentences containing words like Spotify, YouTube, Tidal, Pandora, Streaming, etc.

It’s important to note that there is more than one definition of normalization. When it comes to streaming, normalization simply means turning louder tracks down to a certain loudness level, turning quieter tracks up to that same certain loudness level, and leaving tracks alone that are already at that certain loudness level.

Do all streaming services use the same standard loudness level? No. Welcome to the wonderful world of an industry that sorely needs standardization in several areas. A lack of standardization can and does cause confusion we all suffer through. However, let’s clear up the confusion created by non-standard streaming service loudness levels right now. Though Spotify, YouTube, Pandora, Tidal, Apple Music, etc. do not all use the same standard of loudness, they are all very close.

The good news is that there is no need to continue fighting The Loudness Wars, trying your best (or worst) to squeeze every last bit of loudness (and life) out of your tracks! That’s because the loudness standards for streaming services are lower than previous super-loud masters, allowing us to stop squashing our transients as much as we used to (kick, snare, staccato synths, etc.)

We can allow the dynamics to speak more now! (Dynamics: differences between the loudest and quietest parts of a track) Unless, of course, you WANT to squash your tracks in order to create a specific sound, such as with punk, thrash, dubstep and various EDM genres and subgenres. Just like distorted guitars in the 1950’s created a new sound via new technology (tube amplifiers), so have some artists and producers (and fans) come to expect the raw, distorted edge of literally clipping digital files.

Don’t raise your nose and don’t laugh. That’s how some reacted to the distorted electric guitar. One look at the status of the electric guitar and the powerful world-wide influence it accrued should be enough to at least encourage you to listen to the latest tracks which employ digital clipping and the musical statement being made with new technology.  

In terms of the corollary, try listening to the Rolling Stones “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” with a clean guitar! In the same way, try listening to dubstep without slamming the limiter on the growl bass and top-line synths!

Some home-studio owners are abandoning the essence of their genres in order to “comply” with the new streaming “Loudness Level” specs! Talk about an unnecessary wrench thrown into the works. 

Now, is there one streaming service that seems to be the priority streaming service, a benchmark that we can at least start with? Yes. Spotify. 

(image c/o Mastering the Mix)

On the FAQ page of the Spotify website, the specifications for mastering your tracks are given.

Before you go there and read it, let’s clear up another term which has caused much confusion since its introduction to the indie music production scene about 4 years ago: LUFS. 

You’ll probably hear the term LUFS being used along with Normalization and Streaming. 

What is LUFS in simple, easy-to-understand terms?

It stands for Loudness Units Relative to Full Scale Integrated. Integrated is a fancy way of saying a long-term average loudness level. In the case of the music industry, the long-term average loudness level calculation lasts the full length of a song or instrumental track. LUFS meters and specifications are used because the human perception of loudness is calculated over a period of time, not from instant momentary loud and soft sounds. These instant momentary loud and soft signals are measured with a Peak Meter.  

The standard of loudness for Spotify has been set by Spotify to -14 LUFS. If your tracks are louder than -14 LUFS, Spotify will simply turn the volume down to -14 LUFS. Not to worry. ALL tracks louder than -14 LUFS will be turned down to that same level. It’s all being done for the music fan, because fans complain about having to constantly turn their volume knobs up and down, because the tracks received by Spotify are all different loudness levels. If your track is quieter than -14 LUFS, Spotify will turn your track up to -14 LUFS. However,  they do this with the use of a limiter. That means if your tracks come in softer than -14 LUFS, your track could, theoretically end up distorting and clipping because of their limiter. Here we are talking about unwanted clipping and distortion. 

And herein lies the first Paralyzing Myth plaguing many Indie-Musicians on the subject of Home Studio Mastering: 

Myth: I have to know and follow the “industry accepted standards” for mastering and loudness in order to be successful. Especially with everything I’m hearing about -14 LUFS and Spotify, and other streaming services. I’ve even heard the word PENALTY being used all over forums if I don’t get it right.

Truth: No need to follow this standard. Happy to report that the truth is this: Even Spotify, which includes the term LUFS on their FAQ page for mastering, does not actually use LUFS technology or LUFS calculations when it comes to “normalizing” (turning quieter tracks up louder, and turning louder tracks down quieter – so all tracks are basically the same loudness for those listening on Spotify).

More to this truth: The only streaming service which uses LUFS technology to adjust normalization as of this writing is Tidal. Spotify uses a technology called ReplayGain, Apple created their own mysterious Sound Check algorithm, and several others haven’t made their information public as of yet.

Here’s another eye-opener (and ear-opener!): SoundCloud does NOT use Loudness Normalization. As you know, SoundCloud can prove to be an important marketing and distribution platform. Artists are being discovered and signed on SoundCloud. Artists are closing licensing deals because of SoundCloud. And yet, SoundCloud does not normalize tracks.

Therefore, if you go chasing these lower loudness level specs from streaming services, you may end up with a track sounding quieter than competing tracks on SoundCloud. And on CDs (yes CDs are still selling). And on Vinyl. And while shopping your tracks for licensing.

Am I advocating that you go back to The Loudness Wars? No, not at all. Keep reading and you’ll find a surprisingly simple solution to all of this. 

At this point in this article, you would normally be fed huge amounts of technical explanations of how you can buy certain metering plug-ins and certain limiters that, working together in a complicated workflow, can help you safely navigate the maze and confusion that is The Battle of Normalization. 

We can skip all that. 

Sadly, the word PENALTY is being used by a software company to describe the concept of “non-compliance” to the new LUFS specs. I have nothing against their product or their company. In fact, they have a great line of products overall. Let me be clear on where I stand. Anything that tends to lower one’s confidence level, or raise one’s confusion level, is off the table in my book. One of the most effective ways to stifle or stop someone’s music career, is to put them in an environment where they are not getting sincere encouragement, adequate inspiration and positive constructive critiques. It’s hard enough to tackle the goal of a full-time indie music career, without terms, approaches and philosophies which are not conducive to simple wisdom and positive education. 

So, that being said, I have recently been helping several of my mentoring students through the puzzle of what to do about these new LUFS specs. As if you even need to meet these specs! That’s right, after many hours of research on this exact subject, including sitting down informally with some very successful active mastering engineers, I can tell you that you don’t need to know “all the new specs” and “how to master your tracks so that you don’t get PENALIZED by the streaming services!” 

I’m going to explain to you a stupid-simple, singular, completely workable and safe approach to mastering your tracks for loudness in a way which will play nice with all streaming services, all licensing end-users, all mediums. 

During hundreds of one-on-one conversations with those voicing questions regarding streaming specifications, and after 400 plus hours of research into streaming platforms, licensing end-users and mastering practices and protocol, I offer you my findings. 

This is going to be really short. That’s because the answer is, as are most truths, stupid-simple.

OK, Spotify has set their loudness specs to -14 LUFS. Should you go out and purchase LUFS meters and special limiters, etc? I’m not going to stop you, but my personal opinion is no. There’s no need. It’s a wrong target to steer your focus as a home studio mastering engineer solely onto Spotify. If your tracks come in a bit louder than Spotify specs, you are totally fine. You will experience no loss of quality. There is no “penalty.”

Remember, you have other end-users receiving your tracks, not just streaming services. “Well, shouldn’t I make several different masters for different end-users?” No.  Even though this is being taught and done in some instances, it’s also not necessary. 

The answer is actually something that I have been doing for some time (and maybe you have too) and it’s something that many A-List mastering engineers have done and continue to do. Living near Hollywood, I have the opportunity to get a “behind-the-scenes” look at what’s actually happening on a daily basis in the industry. It sometimes turns out to be quite different from what you see in interviews or on tutorials. It’s not unusual for pros to speak well of sponsors and their products and various associated workflows and techniques. This is one reason I ended my contracts for sponsorships some time ago. I found myself slanting my presentations from time-to-time in favor of my sponsors. Makes sense. That’s natural. But I take mentoring seriously, so I decided to put myself in as much of a non-biased position as possible.  

The Stupid Simple Solution

Use an RMS meter. Most DAWS come with one. If you don’t have one, you can get a free RMS meter, or a very inexpensive one. An RMS meter is somewhat similar to an LUFS meter in that it calculates loudness over time, as an average. However, it doesn’t need the entire song to calculate. It works in smaller time increments. RMS stands for Root Mean Squared. A “mean” is an average. And that’s all you need to know about RMS. Again, no drawn out, complicated impressive sounding presentation about RMS. Not needed. 

Here’s the key: Go to the loudest part of your mix and watch your RMS meter. In the illustration below, the blue portion of the meter shows the RMS (average). The RMS meter will move slowly, since it is showing an average. The green portion moves much quicker, showing every peak as it happens. This is the Peak Meter.  With peaks, you want to be sure that you are not crowding your signal over 0dB and into the red. Always use your ears as the final judge. 

Go to the loudest part of your mix, and adjust your final limiter so that the RMS meter averages somewhere between -10 and -14 RMS.  

To bring up the loudness level, use a limiter that gives you an option to prevent inter-sample clipping or gives you an option to engage peak metering. These options ensure that the “ceiling” that you set on your limiter translates safely to the analog world (to speakers). Even though your limiter might show that your ceiling is -0.5 dBs, when the signal is converted from digital to analog, the “ceiling” often times is higher than the digital read-out. Therefore, it’s important to protect your recording from clipping on speakers by engaging “prevent inter-sample clipping” or “peak metering.”

And that’s it. No impressive sounding scientific explanations and authoritative musings about all the special meters and plug-ins you need to buy. Sorry. 

What I found, and this is shared by many pro mastering engineers on the west coast where I live, is that by mastering your tracks to somewhere between -10 and -14dB RMS, as long as your mix is a good mix, you can circumvent quite a bit of unnecessary confusions and frustrations regarding how to master your tracks for the current online environment, as well as all other media.  

If you also employ robust A/B’ing, such as the Checkerboard A/B’ing technique, and the revolutionary music production ear-training exercises, both of which I developed and which are covered in detail in The Lucrative Home Studio Online Masterclass, you can quickly catapult your recordings from  good demos to broadcast quality, radio-ready masters. 

Good Luck!

Gary Gray is a Voting Member of the Grammy Recording Academy; a Two-Time Telly Award- Winning Producer, Arranger, Mixing and Mastering Engineer; The Author of The Home Studio Bible, and creator of the online Masterclass The Lucrative Home Studio

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