With over 27 million subscribers, Apple Music is a major player in the music streaming industry. In this post I’ll discuss how to master your music to give listeners the best possible listening experience. I’ll go into some depth on the production side of things for the artists who really care about their music and engineers who care about their clients. In my research, I’ve discovered a worrying truth about the way a lot of music is submitted to iTunes. It’s bad.. But I’ll show you how to avoid it and an example of how I successfully avoided it with a track I mastered for a major label.
How to master your music for Apple Music
Apple transcodes the lossless file given to them to AAC (advanced audio codec) at 256kbps. They then stream this file through Apple Music.
During this transcoding process, the peak of the audio will almost always increase. If you’ve mastered to 0dB using the peak programme meter found on the master channel in your DAW, then your music will be digitally distorting when it’s streamed by Apple Music.
You need to leave around -1dBTP (decibels True Peak) of headroom to anticipate this transcoding process. This SUPER SIMPLE step will mean that your music isn’t distorting when it’s reaching listeners. Check out the 15 day free trial of our plugin LEVELS which has a highly accurate true peak meter… 16x oversampling for you nerds. Hit the ‘MFiT [Mastered For iTunes] preset and check your last master to see if it had this issue.
Does Apple Music Normalise Playback?
It’s widely known in the audio community that Spotify normalises tracks to around -14LUFS integrated as a default setting. You can turn normalisation off, but most people probably don’t.
Conversely, Apple Music doesn’t normalise music as a default. Normalisation is a good thing and should be encouraged. It might not be long before Apple Music follows the trends of other streaming platforms enables Soundcheck as the default.
When Soundcheck IS enabled, Apple Music streams audio at an average of -14 LUFS. Some individual tracks can be as loud as -12 LUFS and some a quieter -16LUFS.
The loudness wars might be over as far as digitally delivery of music is concerned…But a lot of producers, engineers and labels seem to be a bit slow to accept the transition. When I streamed a long period of chart music without Soundcheck enabled, the music played back at an average of -8LUFS and some tracks had a true peak as high as +2.2 dBTP (grim).
So, most major labels are giving their listeners an over-compressed and distorted listening experience…? Still…? There’s nothing wrong with the way Apple Music delivers audio, it’s the fault of the mastering engineers and labels who submit these masters.
Here’s an example of how it can go horribly wrong…
Rockstar by Post Malone peaks at +0.14dBTP, so it’s clipping when it reaches the listeners ears whether Soundcheck is enabled or not. The damage is done before the normalisation, so the clipping is irreversible. The non-normalised track at its loudest streams at a very un-dynamic -7.6 LUFS (the 4.1 loudness range measured in LU confirms this).
So what happens when Soundcheck is enabled?
The track is reduced to -13.5 LUFS. This brings the peak down to -4.15dBTP. The short term and long term dynamic range are unaffected by normalisation. So here we have around 4dB of potential headroom that could have been used to create a more dynamic and exciting listening experience for Post Malone’s fans. Instead they get an over compressed mix that distorts.
It doesn’t have be like this!
I mastered a track call ‘This Town’ for a Niall Horan (One Direction) remixed by Tiesto. This was a good test as I had accurate technical details of the lossless master file. I mastered ‘This Town’ to -0.5dBTP and -10.5 LUFS. Once Apple transcoded the master it was -0.4dBTP and still -10.5 LUFS.
When Soundcheck is enabled, Apple Music streams this track at -2dBTP and -12.50 LUFS. A much less drastic change than ‘Rockstar’, but still a bit of room for improved dynamics. At the time I was just happy to get this (very dynamic for electronic music) master past the decision makers involved.
So my master of ‘This Town’ plays back a whole decibel louder on Apple Music than ‘Rockstar’. It’s also got a much broader dynamic range and doesn’t distort. Winner!
As music producers and audio engineers, we have a duty to learn our craft as best we can to deliver the best listening experience. A lot of music is still being delivered with easily avoidable technical issues. In an effort to disrupt this trend we have created a standalone application called EXPOSE that can be used by producers, labels, A&R, or anyone with a computer. EXPOSE assess the technical data of audio before you commit to releasing the music. Even people with no music production knowledge will be able to identify technical issues. This will empower decision makers to demand specific changes to ensure technically excellent masters are streamed to audiences.