Mastering The Mix

Why does LEVELS find issues with commercial hits?

Below is an email that I received, and this person wasn't the only one to ask me this question…

 

“Dear Tom, while testing the LEVELS demo version, I found that most of my mixes do not comply with the suggestions. However, after testing some chart tracks and DJ mixes which are sold and distributed successfully, it seems that they all "suffer" from the exact same issue. So it seems that my mixes are close to the standard, but miles away from your suggestions. Now I would really like to know your point of view on this, if you find the time. Thank you very much!”

 

UPDATE: We have now added mixing & mastering presets to LEVELS so it can be used on a wider variety of material from dynamic film composition to loud club tracks. LEVELS still addresses some of the common technical issues found in some commercial tracks. Read my response to learn more. But first... check out the presets we've added to LEVELS in the image below...

LEVELS presets

 

This was my response :

 

You’re right to raise these questions! Actually, one of the main reasons we created LEVELS was to address these technical issues with mainstream music releases. Before we start, it's important to note that LEVELS has 2 settings, 'Mixing' and 'Mastering'. When comparing commercial releases that have been mastered, it’s important to make sure LEVELS is on the 'Mastering' setting.

 

Lets start with why most commercially released tracks are clipping around 1-3 dBTP (decibels true peak). DAW (digital audio workstation) meters use sample peak programme meters that don’t tell you how music will be replicated through speakers. They only tell you the peak of the sample (click here to see an infographic of this). On the DAW output meter you may see 0.0 or -0.1dBFS (decibels full scale) but the digital to analogue conversion process that HAS to happen for audio to play through speakers will always add extra level. So a commercial release mastered to 0.0dBFS may increase in volume to as much as 3dBTP when replicated through speakers and is therefore CLIPPING when it reaches your ears. This seems to be the standard… but why should it be the standard? It means that the audio suffers from distortion when it’s heard by the consumer. So, this raises the question: why would audio engineers be intentionally mastering to 0.0dBFS using peak programme meters rather than using a true peak meter and leaving some headroom to allow for a digital to analogue conversion that doesn't result in distortion? It could be pressure from their major label clients to get the audio sounding as loud as other 'previously successful' releases. But as you read on you'll see why this is an outdated way of thinking.

LEVELS gives our users an accurate display of how their music will be heard through speakers. We hope this will help them deliver high quality music to their fans. True Peak is explained in a bit more detail in this short video… 

 

Lets move on to LUFS and dynamic range. Tracks have been getting increasingly louder over the last few decades. This is because the human ear perceives louder music to sound fuller, crisper and better (Try this your self, listen to the same track at 0dB and then again at -3dB and see which one you think has a better mix…The louder one sounds better even though the mix is identical)… To get a track sounding as loud as possible, you need to heavily compress and limit the music. This heavy compression and limiting brings about negative consequences to the quality of the audio and sucks the life out of music. LEVELS recommends a more dynamic approach to ensure your audio doesn't suffer. Streaming services also favour dynamic music over heavily compressed music. Spotify, Youtube and iTunes Radio normalises audio to around -13 to -16 LUFS anyway, so there really is no need to push our music to extremes for loudness anymore. Here’s another video explaining this in a bit more depth…

 

You mentioned DJ mixes in your email. Mastering audio for clubs would be an exception where you could push the loudness a bit further. The louder club tracks sit around -4 to -6 integrated LUFS during the drops. I master club tracks to about -7.5 to -9 LUFS for my clients and they work perfectly in their mixes. They might not be quite as loud as other tracks in their genre but they have superior dynamics & transients which make them hit harder and sound punchier. If you are mastering for club play then you can just change the settings in LEVELS (which is what I do). We’ll be looking to include a new approach to presets in a future update of LEVELS.

I hope this has answered some of your questions. The music industry has put a lot of pressure on artists with the ideology that 'Louder Is Better!'. This is an archaic way of thinking and shows a lack of understanding of how music is currently consumed. It takes courage to put your music out in a format that differs from the 'standard', but being different is often what gets you noticed. 

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