The hardest part in music production is mastering – especially the dynamics and loudness. I’m here to stop loudness war. Let me show you what it’s about and what I decided to do against it.
The Loudness War
If you grew up in the 2000s you may have come across the term “Loudness War”. Music in radio stations, streaming and advertising became louder over the years. The audience is annoyed that each song has a different loudness, which makes it hard to create playlists and mixtapes without moving the volume button. Musicians and engineers are annoyed, that most mixes sound metallic and fuzzy. The more gain the limiter produces, the more distortion happens. Even if you don’t have the full physical understanding of limiters and compression, just imagine a sine wave being pressed into a square to enlarge the amplitude and thus loudness. But a square wave has a completely different, more metallic characteristic of sound. You can construct a square wave by adding lots of higher harmonics to your sine wave. Thus, distortion, which looks like a square wave, consists of plenty of higher harmonics. It is really hard to mix a loud song that it still sounds great, because you have to take these mathematically generated higher harmonics into account. Most of the time, the fuzz is out of control.
Fighting the Loudness War
Some years ago, people used the dB RMS scale to compare the loudness of songs. But this is a physical measurement unit, which means something like averaged sound pressure level. It is a neat concept for technical application, because it is independent of frequencies. But this led to the problem, that inaudible frequencies are taken into account and high frequencies have the same weight as bass.
Therefore, another standard (R-128) and unit (dB LUFS) was introduced. With these, it is easier to calculate and to compare the perceived loudness of songs. In contrast to the dB RMS unit, the LUFS takes the human hearing threshold into account. This scale is weighted and means something like the perceived loudness.
I am a big fan of the dB LUFS scale, because it helps to compare different genre as well as spoken words to music. Some popular streaming platforms set up rules for uploading music. In most cases algorithms render the song to the loudness of the platform. If you’re not careful, it can destroy the song. Therefore, it is important to know the loudness of the platform, where you want to upload your music.
LUFS is not the final answer
Being a producer of different kinds of music, it is hard to compile an album of calm pop ballads and punk rock. Even the R-128 norm is not able to solve this problem completely, because it does not take the dynamic range into account. I guess, it is not a great idea, because a pop ballad needs a constant build, whereas a punk rock song is loud from beginning till end.
I took me years to figure out the level, that works for my song. Everybody talks about 10 dB RMS and 14 dB LUFS, cause it’s been a quasi-standard. But I don’t like pop songs with 10 dB RMS and punk rock sounds super lush with 14 dB LUFS. My third studio album is mixed at 12 dB LUFS which is a bit quiet for electronic music. Still, I decided the next one to have the same loudness level. I figured out, that this perceived loudness is a bit lush for harder music – but it works great with calm and mid-tempo music. I also avoid distortion on my pop music. Still, 12 dB LUFS is really soft in comparison to the music played on radio.
If you don’t like my loudness, turn up your amp or use a brickwall limiter. But I won’t do that for you, because I hate distortion and brickwall dynamics.