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Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

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Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby jmcmmusic » Fri Feb 09, 2018 11:24 am

I am mixing and mastering our new album; budget is tight so I'm doing it myself, mostly using FabFilter plugins. The genre is modern pop.

But I am terribly confused about loudness standards. On one hand I read that I should forget about RMS, and focus on -14 LUFS for streaming. Okay, no problem with that. But then I watched a video from ADSR that said my RMS should be around -6 to -4, and mine is around -18 at -14. I don't know if that is right or wrong.

So I can mix and master very loud, but if I set it to -14 LUFS, it sounds very quiet.

If I compare a track to a live one on Spotify, the live track seems much louder.

Likewise on CD; if I master to -9 LUFS and burn to CD, then compare it to e.g. a Sia CD, Sia is twice as loud.

So my question in short is:

1. Are people really aiming for -14 and -9 LUFS?

2. Is there a different standard for big artists?

3. Should I be worried about my RMS levels at all?

4. Why does the LUFS standard seem so quiet?

Arrrghhh!!! I am so confused right now!
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Fri Feb 09, 2018 11:54 am

jmcmmusic wrote:But I am terribly confused about loudness standards.

You're not alone in that! :D

The basic issue you're fighting against is that we are currently in a transitional period between peak-normalisation (as used for the last thirty years with the CD format), and loudness-normalisation which is the standard now (almost) universally adopted with streaming services, iTunes Soundcheck, and a lot of broadcasting.

On one hand I read that I should forget about RMS, and focus on -14 LUFS for streaming.

Yes, that's the advice I would give too, for tracks that you intend to submit to Spotify, YouTube, etc. This is Loudness-normalisation.

But then I watched a video from ADSR that said my RMS should be around -6 to -4

This is 'old-school' advice based on peak-normalisation for CD releases.

So I can mix and master very loud, but if I set it to -14 LUFS, it sounds very quiet.

Well, it would, wouldn't it! :D But -- and this is the important bit -- with peak-normalisation you really need to make the whole track loud all the time; you can't have a lot of light and shade dynamics in the track. The peak-to-average ratio has to be kept quite small, or the quiet bits become lost.

In contrast, loudness-normalisation positively encourages dynamics within the track and you can have quite dramatic peaks far above the average level, which makes the music much more interesting to listen too. But to allow big peaks, the average level has to be lower, hence the -14LUFS target (although different streaming platforms currently vary between -12 and -16LUFS, with the latter being the AES recommendation).

If I compare a track to a live one on Spotify, the live track seems much louder. Likewise on CD; if I master to -9 LUFS and burn to CD, then compare it to e.g. a Sia CD, Sia is twice as loud.

Yes, I'm afraid you can't really satisfy both markets at the same time.

The trend is undoubtedly towards loudness-normalised tracks, with the target loudness gradually coming down towards -16LUFS. But if you want to sound comparably loud to existing (peak-normalised) CDs you'll have to stick with the peak-normalisation approach.

As you've found, if you put a loudness-normalised track on a CD it will tend to sound quieter than a squashed peak-normalised track -- although you could make the best of it with good use of dynamics. And in contrast, if you put a peak-normalised track on Spotify it will get turned right down to conform with the streaming target loudness, and sound quiet, flat and lifeless as a result.

1. Are people really aiming for -14 and -9 LUFS?

Yes.

2. Is there a different standard for big artists?

No... just different decisions and mix compromises...

3. Should I be worried about my RMS levels at all?

I wouldn't be....

4. Why does the LUFS standard seem so quiet?

Because it restores the old concept of 'dynamic headroom'; in leaving room for transient dynamic peaks, the average level has to be lower. It allows music to sound a lot more natural and interesting! ;-)

Arrrghhh!!! I am so confused right now!

Try reading this article:

https://www.soundonsound.com/techniques/end-loudness-war
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby jmcmmusic » Fri Feb 09, 2018 11:59 am

Aw, thank you so much, the clouds of confusion are parting!!

So if I just aim my masters for streaming at -14 LUFS, and keep it nice and musically dynamic, then all should be well!

Thank you :)
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Fri Feb 09, 2018 12:12 pm

Yes.

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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby LakeWave Music Lab » Fri Feb 09, 2018 12:25 pm

Hi!
Very interesting questions... and very confusing topic indeed...

First of all, consider that RMS and LUFS are two measures with no direct correlation: RMS is the average measure of an electrical value, while LUFS measures the perceived loudness of your song. Here's my two pennies' worth, very curious about other answers and thoughts.

jmcmmusic wrote:1. Are people really aiming for -14 and -9 LUFS?

Yes, and that is becoming more and more important when you are mastering for digital distribution (Spotify, iTunes, YouTube etc.)

Since each platform is normalizing loudness, when your input already meets the intended loudness level, you are safe since your material won't be touched (adapted/corrected). Otherwise, some gain could be applied, resulting in a loss in dynamics, peak level or both.

I would consider a different master for a CD, however, depending on the genre.

jmcmmusic wrote:2. Is there a different standard for big artists?

No, but big artists could go with higher quality mastering processes. Loudness comes from several tools and steps, and some big guys really can deliver it. Anyhow, in the digital realm 0dBFS is the same upper limit for world class artists and starting bands.

jmcmmusic wrote:3. Should I be worried about my RMS levels at all?

Go for LUFS, which is today's mindset and trend, and, moreover, listen to the artistic result you are getting. If it sounds good, then it is good. Who cares about numbers?

jmcmmusic wrote:4. Why does the LUFS standard seem so quiet?

The standard itself isn't either loud or quiet. The actual goals for loudness (around -14 or so...) are quite when compared to some releases issued in the golden years of the loudness war.
The good news is that -14LUFS allows a pretty good dynamic range... and most final users have access to volume knobs/buttons ;)

Rock on!

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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby Wonks » Fri Feb 09, 2018 12:48 pm

Number 4, why does the LUFS standard seem so quiet?

Because it is quiet if you compare it against other tracks mastered for maximum loudness. the thing is to forget all about that and set your monitoring volume control up so that -14 or -9 LUFS (whichever one you are using) is your normal listening volume level, typically recommended to be around 73dB C-weighted at your normal listening position. For -14 LUFS, you need a higher gain setting on your monitor controller than for -9 LUFS. So just mark on the positions for each setting and you won't feel that the tracks are quieter when mixing.

I used a sound level meter app on my phone to set my monitor levels up. It may not be as accurate as a dedicated meter, but it doesn't need to be super accurate, just repeatable at different LUFS settings. You know what volume level you're comfortable listening at so whatever that is on one setting, use the sound level meter to set that same level at different LUFS levels.
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby CS70 » Fri Feb 09, 2018 1:35 pm

Hugh Robjohns wrote:And in contrast, if you put a peak-normalised track on Spotify it will get turned right down to conform with the streaming target loudness, and sound quiet, flat and lifeless as a result.

Just a question here - if a master goes over say the LUF threshold but it has a good dynamic range, what will happen on Spotify, YouTube each is that they'll apply a gain correction - but that wouldn't necessary "flatten" the master, right?

It is only when the dynamic range is small (for example as consequence of excessive limiting during the mastering process) then the gain reduction will make *everything* sound low - i.e. expose the flat nature of the master.

So it seems to me that it's not really the streaming service gain reduction that makes a track flat and lifeless - it's that either a master is flat and lifeless (i.e. has low dynamic range) or not.

The reason for this distinction is that I find for example that I can pseudo-master a song up to say 9LUFS, and still have a dynamic range good enough so that the song keeps being interesting and listenable in Spotify/Youtube etc - but not so crazy low when played on the radio right after a loudness-war song.

So I don't worry too much about the LUFS but really try and keep the dynamic range as high as I can, by using all the tricks of the trade (both arrangement&instrumentation and mixing) so that the mastering engineer can still master it loud enough without losing all dynamics..
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Fri Feb 09, 2018 1:55 pm

CS70 wrote:if a master goes over say the LUF threshold but it has a good dynamic range, what will happen on Spotify, YouTube each is that they'll apply a gain correction - but that wouldn't necessary "flatten" the master, right?

Correct. If the track has an Integrated Loudness level (say -6LUFS, for example) which is much higher than the target loudness for the streaming service (eg, -16LUFS), the streaming service's processing system will attenuate the source track by 10dB (in this example), so that it matches the service's target loudness.

But it won't apply any dynamic compression, just the level shift.

However, in order for the source track to have had such a high Integrated Loudness figure in the first place, it must have been pretty squashed during mastering and thus be quite lacking in dynamics anyway.

It is only when the dynamic range is small (for example as consequence of excessive limiting during the mastering process) then the gain reduction will make *everything* sound low - i.e. expose the flat nature of the master.

Correct.

So it seems to me that it's not really the streaming service gain reduction that makes a track flat and lifeless - it's that either a master is flat and lifeless (i.e. has low dynamic range) or not.


Yes. That's the illusion of the 'make it louder' approach. In trying to make a track sound louder than any track that ever came before -- which has been the vogue for the last twenty years or more -- it actually has to have any dynamic life crushed out of it.

The result is that if you then play it stupidly loud it will sound stupidly loud... but if you play it at a sensible level it sounds flat, lifeless and really, really boring -- at least to anyone who knows what music is supposed to sound like! :lol:

The reason for this distinction is that I find for example that I can pseudo-master a song up to say 9LUFS, and still have a dynamic range good enough so that the song keeps being interesting and listenable in Spotify/Youtube etc - but not so crazy low when played on the radio right after a loudness-war song.

Yes, that's a reasonable compromise to adopt during the transitional phase (which could easily last another twenty years).

However, as loudness normalised services become the standardised, and as the listening public (and A&R people) become more used to the dynamic range potential that loudness normalisation allows, and as personal music players* and laptops etc become available with sufficiently strong headphone amps to allow listening to loudness normalised material at a sensible volume, the target loudness will come down to -16LUFS or even lower.

I had a conversation with some people at the BBC recently who thought that while -23LUFS worked for TV, the likes of Radio 3 would like an even lower target!

*EU legislation was brought in a while ago to limit the maximum sound pressure level that can be generated by portable music players. It was a well-meaning attempt to protect the public from themselves and avoid deafness from excessive noise exposure. However, because the EU bureaucracy grinds so slowly, bu the time the legislation as brought in the rest of the world had adopted loudness normalisation which, as we have been discussing, radically lowers the average sound level. The problem has now become one of personal music players not having sufficient volume capability to work sensibly with lower target loudness levels, which is part of the reason why so many streaming services are reluctant at the moment to drop below -12 or -14LUFS.

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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby jmcmmusic » Fri Feb 09, 2018 2:46 pm

So I've just gone back to mastering one of my tracks.

I've got an integrated LUFS of -14.9. The WAV is bouncing out at -7.9 dB, so it's a quiet file. RMS is around -14.

But the waveform is flat; there's not much dynamism there. But it is a very energetic song all the way through, so I'm not overly surprised. I think Pro L2 flattened it out even more, so I think I need to consider other options, perhaps not using a limiter, or reducing the signal going into it so that the song's dynamics are preserved by the limiter.

So am I on the right track now?

Interestingly, I also did a quick free master on Landr for comparison purposes, and that's a much bigger waveform and a lot louder, peaking a 0dB.
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby Dave B » Fri Feb 09, 2018 2:51 pm

Just to clarify - the Integrated LUFS value that we are talking about here is calculated across the whole track - yes?

I'm thinking of tracks that have light and shade then move to the earth shattering 'big finish' - think Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb here. That has quiet verses, 'bigger' choruses and then a huge, building solo at the end. If you took the whole thing, surely the integrated loudness figure would be skewed by the end.

Or does that not matter? (he says scratching his head)
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby Wonks » Fri Feb 09, 2018 3:03 pm

The integrated value algorithm has a level detector built in and ignores very quiet sections, and only uses levels that cross a threshold. So the very quiet bits don't skew the results for the loud bits.
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Fri Feb 09, 2018 3:19 pm

jmcmmusic wrote:But the waveform is flat; there's not much dynamism there. But it is a very energetic song all the way through, so I'm not overly surprised. I think Pro L2 flattened it out even more, so I think I need to consider other options, perhaps not using a limiter, or reducing the signal going into it so that the song's dynamics are preserved by the limiter.

You can't 'preserve' dynamics with a limiter; limiters exist to reduce dynamics!

In the loudness-normalised world, the limiter should only be used to provide protection from transient overloads, with the threshold set between -1 and -3dBTP (the lower level is better if using lossy data reduction codecs like MP3 for file distribution).

As for building dynamics into your track, you might find mixing using a dynamics metering tool like the Dynameter will help:

https://www.soundonsound.com/reviews/meterplugs-dynameter

...and if so, as it happens, there's about to be a group buy discount offer: https://www.soundonsound.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=16&t=60199&hilit=dynameter#p542301

If using a standard BS1770-based meter, check out the LRA value to give a useful impression of the track's dynamic range.

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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby Dave B » Fri Feb 09, 2018 3:19 pm

Fairy nuff. :D
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Fri Feb 09, 2018 3:28 pm

Dave B wrote:If you took the whole thing, surely the integrated loudness figure would be skewed by the end.

To a degree, yes. The final Integrated Loudness value will be weighted towards the loud end.

There is a threshold to remove the down-ward pressure caused by quiet sections, as Wonks says, but that threshold is a movable thing related to the current integrated value. So, if you have a really loud bit, followed by four bars of silence, say, followed by a loud bit, the silence wouldn't be counted and thus wouldn't pull down the Integrated Loudness value. But, of the song starts very quietly and builds steadily throughout, the threshold will rise with it so it all gets counted.

I don't think anyone is claiming the current loudness normalisation algorithm is perfect in all situations, and in fact we are already on the fourth iteration of it. But it offers such a major improvement in musical quality and enjoyment compared to the peak-normalisation madness we endured before that it has my full support... and some very clever people are working hard on developing it further to more reflect our human perceptions even more accurately.

For me, the real benefit is the revival of musical dynamics. The target loudness level is less critical because everything has a volume control, and even if the integrated loudness calculation gets caught out occasionally, it still does a much better job of matching the perceptual loudness between disparate tracks than peak normalisation ever did!

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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby jmcmmusic » Fri Feb 09, 2018 3:33 pm

"You can't 'preserve' dynamics with a limiter; limiters exist to reduce dynamics!"

I see, yes that makes perfect sense to me now; and yes I see that an appropriate meter would be essential, I'll check that one out.

When I take off the limiter the song is very dynamic, so the material is good, just need to meter it right.

Thank you :)
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby Dave B » Fri Feb 09, 2018 3:54 pm

I wasn't criticising Hugh, just curious. Traditionally, I come from a prog background so overall dynamic changes can be a given and I'm curious to see how intelligent the calculations are. Sounds like they are at least trying to take things into account which is great.

Interesting thread this. And well timed. I've just been fiddling with some live recording mixes and was curious about levels and loudness, so I'm just re-doing the mixes with the final level at -12 lufs-i. As I have to wait for the tracks to play to get the values, it's nice to read and learn...

;)
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Fri Feb 09, 2018 5:10 pm

Dave B wrote:I wasn't criticising Hugh, just curious.

Yes, I appreciate that Dave, but you're not the first to wonder about it and it is a potential weakness in the current system with some specific types of material.

As I have to wait for the tracks to play to get the values, it's nice to read and learn...

There are some loudness metering apps that will analyse a file and report back in moments, rather than playing through in real-time if that helps... although It's often no bad thing to be forced to listen to the whole track ;-)

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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby CS70 » Fri Feb 09, 2018 5:20 pm

jmcmmusic wrote:So I've just gone back to mastering one of my tracks.

I've got an integrated LUFS of -14.9. The WAV is bouncing out at -7.9 dB, so it's a quiet file. RMS is around -14.

But the waveform is flat; there's not much dynamism there. But it is a very energetic song all the way through, so I'm not overly surprised. I think Pro L2 flattened it out even more, so I think I need to consider other options, perhaps not using a limiter, or reducing the signal going into it so that the song's dynamics are preserved by the limiter.

So am I on the right track now?

Interestingly, I also did a quick free master on Landr for comparison purposes, and that's a much bigger waveform and a lot louder, peaking a 0dB.

If you are peaking at -8dBFS, the last thing you need is a limiter :)

Keep in mind that dynamic range (and interest) is much more in the arrangement, song and musical expression than in the technical mixing/mastering. A bass line is punchy because there’s little else around it. A vocal stands out because there’s space around it. A chours is exciting because is a sudden surge in instrumentation, complexity and (just a little) level - but you can’t surge if you’re already 100%..

Landr masters by peak limiting, so no surprises there.
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby jmcmmusic » Sat Feb 10, 2018 2:32 am

"If you are peaking at -8dBFS, the last thing you need is a limiter "

Yeah, I had to turn everything down to get it within the -14 LUFS limit, as measured by Levels by Mastering The Mix, which luckily I remembered I had.

So the peak is at 0dB now, but the troughs are much lower.

And yes I understand about musical interest, building the energy etc, and that's all part of the current arrangement.

But it's the technical levels I'm concerned about getting right now, and understanding whats required level-wise for distribution.
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Re: Very confused about LUFS and RMS; can someone please clarify

Postby jmcmmusic » Sat Feb 10, 2018 5:27 am

And I think I found the tool I need to help me out here : EXPOSE from Mastering The Mix. It will at least give me some degree of confidence when I am submitting the album tracks for streaming.

According to LEVELS, the track I'm currently mastering is ready for release in terms of levels and dynamic content. I'd attach a screen shot but it doesn't seem to be possible.

Many thanks to you all for demystifying a very confusing topic! :) :thumbup:
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