Updated: Jan 25, 2021
Article published on Audio Issues Blog - Sept. 3rd 2020
Nowadays, music is mainly distributed via online streaming services. Almost everybody listens to their music through iTunes, Spotify, YouTube, or one of the many other online streaming services options there is on the market!
This new reality brings us new challenges as we want to master our tracks. We now need to optimize our masterings so that they sound amazing whenever they are played through those streaming services.
To get the best results, we need to understand exactly what is happening to the quality of our audio when it goes through those platforms and work within those parameters to maintain the highest quality possible for our music.
SO WHAT HAPPENS?
When receiving your song, streaming services convert it into a smaller file, making it easier for them to share it and stream it around the world wide web.
It then scans your song for a loudness value and normalizes it so that all the songs played by that platform will have the same perceived loudness.
That’s amazing in a sense, because that way, you don’t have to adjust the volume between each track when you are listening, and on a safety matter, it won’t blast your ears if a song is way louder than the one before!
The technical downside for us, however, is that we now need to adjust our masterings in order to please those streaming services’ new rules.
Here are some essentials you need to understand to deliver a kiss-ass e-master!
CONVERSION AND LOSSY CODECS
As we said earlier, the first thing online streaming services do when receiving your song is to convert the track into a smaller, more shareable format.
This conversion doesn’t come without a cost. It discards a part of the musical information, often resulting in less high-end frequency information. That’s why we call them lossy formats!
It is, unfortunately, not something that we can avoid, but rather something we have to deal with. So how do we do so? By being prepared!
Some plug-ins, such as the MasterCheck from Nugen Audio, allows you to hear your final track as if it was converted in different formats right from your DAW.
This gives you an idea of how the final result will sound like once converted by the streaming services before uploading it online.
With this advantage, you are now a step further than everybody and can correct and trick your mix to reach the best possible sound in every format, avoiding bad surprises once your release is out.
The True Peak is the highest point the signal reaches during a selected song.
It is essential that your song doesn’t clip (exceed 0dB), because digital overdrive can cause artifacts and noises that we definitely don’t want in our final result.
Don’t go over 0dB! Easy, you tell me?
Kind of, but here are some precious pieces of information you might be missing:
First, one of the natural consequences of taking a .WAV file and converting into a lossy file like .MP3, is that the peak level will be a bit different at the output.
So let’s say your True Peak is at – 1dB on your .WAV file once converted in .MP3, it could be up to -0.5dB. In that case, everything’s still fine, right?
But then imagine your true peak is at -0.2dB on your .WAV format… you might be now in trouble!
This means your song could be fine when you export it in .WAV, and once the online streaming services convert it in the lossy files they are using to distribute it, it “clips”, with all the inconveniences that come with it.
Another good reason to play it safe is that True Peak meters plug-ins have a potential error margin, which is normally around 0.6dB.
So, try to convert your final master in lossy files, then analyze them through your True Peak meter plug-ins to make sure that it doesn’t go over. Also, take into account the plug-in’s potential error margin and make sure you give your track some extra room.
As we said earlier, some of the online streaming services are using what we call loudness normalization. Even though not all of them are doing it yet, it is something that will become more and more used by all the different platforms.
The regulated unit used to calculate loudness is called LUFS (Loudness Unit Full Scale).
Each platform has its own LUFS normalization standards, but for most of them, it plays between -16dB and -13dB LUFS.
So basically, what those streaming services are doing when they normalize your track, is that they analyze it first, and based on the LUFS value that comes out, the platform will either lower or raise your track level to meet the desired loudness.
It is then a good thing for you to try to meet the targeted LUFS with your master before uploading your song because if you let the streaming services handle it for you, you will have no control over what is happening. Your song might become just a pale version of what it really was before normalization.
The loudness of a track is calculated on many factors :
So basically, listen to your master within the targeted LUFS range. If you are not satisfied with the result at that loudness, you have the option to go back to your mix and use those different factors to make sure you maintain dynamic, punch, and clarity!
FINAL SOUND QUALITY ADVICE
Some of you might think: “Well if it is converted into an MP3 at the end of the day, shouldn’t I upload it myself as an MP3 in the streaming services right away and call it a day?”
The answer is NO!
Even if you submit an MP3 to the streaming services, they will reconvert it anyway, which will end up in an even poorer quality result.
Basically, the higher the quality file you upload, the higher it will come out!
Also, many platforms allow their premium members to hear a higher quality stream, and some of them, like Soundcloud, even offer the option to listen to a .wav version of your track.
So it’s always at your best advantage to provide the highest quality master you can possibly do to those platforms!
I hope this advice will help you out with your future e-mastering, and if you would like to chat a bit more about mastering or other audio topics, feel free to reach out on social media any time!
LOF is a composer, music producer, and audio engineer based in Montreal, Canada. She also works as a Front-of-house (FOH) engineer in different venues around her city. She completed a bachelor in Communication and Marketing in 2014 and uses that knowledge every day to help her clients navigate their way through the music business!