Loudness and Streaming
By natewood, Jun 6 2017 05:47PM
As of recently, Spotify has reduced its target loudness. See here:
http://productionadvice.co.uk/spotify-reduced-loudness/. This means that every streaming service (Apple Music, Spotify, Tidal) now all have a target loudness that is much quieter than the level masters have been hovering around for the last 15 years or so.
What does this mean? It means that these streaming services will take your competitively loud master and turn it down about 4db. This won’t mess with the sound quality or the dynamics of your master, they will just be turning it down so it fits into their ecosystem. This changes the advantages/appeal of a loud master. In the past, loud records were rewarded by sounding fuller and punchier next to quieter records with more dynamics. But in this new scenario the opposite will be the case. Loud records turnred down will sound smaller next to more dynamic records that are delivered closer to the average streaming loudness. That leaves only CDs and some downloadable mediums where loudness will still be a virtue. But even Apple’s downloadable “Mastered for iTunes” program punishes very loud masters by turning them down. Mastering engineers have to submit masters that are lower in level to be approved by their codec. Apple doesn’t normalize the content like they do with Apple Music, but again loudness is punished a bit in this scenario. Youtube still has a slightly louder average, but they actually apply their own loudness process to bring the level up (I checked). Thus the “loudness wars” don’t really have a home anymore.
I thought this was worthy of my first blog post because basically no one outside of the mastering community pays attention to the loudness of streaming services. But they are increasingly becoming the predominant delivery medium for music consumption. Digital sales are down year by year, as are CD sales. The competition will predominantly be in the streaming realm.
What about vinyl? Where does vinyl’s loudness stand compared to all of these other formats? Vinyl sales are exploding year by year, but vinyl is inherently a much quieter format than digital. This is because of a physical limitation, the needle will actually jump out out the grooves if a record is pressed too hot. Vinyl pressing plants (the good ones anyway) have been lowering the level of digital masters pressed to vinyl for years so that this doesn’t happen. My theory is that vinyl’s more dynamic nature is why it is so enjoyable and immersive to listen to (and why it is seeing such a resurgence). Also you can’t easily AB your vinyl master’s loudness next to the latest digital record you’ve been listening to- thus, vinyl is immune to the loudness wars.
The ironic thing about this is that digital was originally touted as the medium capable of MORE dynamic range, not less. It has much greater signal to noise ratio, both in its recording and delivery mediums (analog tape and vinyl records are inherently noisy). But unfortunately 2 things happened: early digital sounded relatively bad, and digital tools made it increasingly easier to make louder records. Thus, digital was always relegated to the less dynamic of the two mediums. Great noisy environments like your car or the subway, but not so much for immersive listening in your livingroom.
Anyway, I’m always happy to make loud records. The tools available to us have made it easier than ever to make loud records with less and less artifacts. But the landscape of loudness is changing, and I think people should be aware of it before they have their records mastered.