Mastering With LEVELS
The home display has four sections labelled HEADROOM, STEREO FIELD, DYNAMIC RANGE and BASS SPACE. LEVELS assesses your audio as it passes through. If there are no issues with your master, the sections will glow green. If there is an aspect of your master that needs to be fixed, the section will glow red. The four section icons are clickable and open up a new dedicated central display. These dedicated displays give you a relevant insight into the technical details of your master. If an issue has been resolved you can reset the section from red back to green by clicking the section icon. You can navigate back to this home display by clicking LEVELS in the top left corner. You can reset all four sections back to green simultaneously by hitting the RESET button in the bottom left corner or by navigating back to zero in the transport of your DAW.
The MONO button sums your dual stereo signal into one single output. This summing process can cause dramatic changes to your master. Many listeners will experience your music in mono when they are in clubs or bars. When auditioning your master in mono it is advisable to listen through one monitor. This is because the low end can feel 'hyped' when listening in mono though two monitors. Select MONO and then either the R or L [right or left] buttons to limit the output to either the right or left monitor respectively.
The central display has a true peak meter which gives you a reading of how close your track is to 0dBTP [decibels true peak]. Each bar represents 1dB [decibel] and the central threshold is set at a default of 0dBTP for mastering. The goal is to keep your audio under 0dbTP and in the lower green half. If your audio breaches the threshold of 0dbTP the meter will start moving into the upper red half and it will turn the HEADROOM icon red as seen in the image above.
What is True Peak Metering?
A true peak meter displays the absolute peak of an audio’s waveform as it will be heard in the analogue realm through speakers.
How do True Peaks affect Music?
Most DAWs show levels in the digital mixer using a Sample Peak Programme Meter (SPPM). This type of meter only shows the peak sample value and doesn't represent the ‘True Peak’ of the audio. The meters that we see in our DAWs make us assume that 0 dBFS (decibels full scale) on our output is our absolute limit. So, as long as we don’t exceed 0dBFS our audio will sound great…right?! We seem to have forgotten about the digital to analogue conversion that happens when we hear our audio through speakers.
All music created digitally in a DAW must be converted back to analogue before we can hear it. As part of this conversion a reconstruction filter is applied to round off the stepped digital audio signal. This gives us a smooth listening experience. These filters can cause slight changes in the levels of the audio. This can be a problem for the signals that are close to 0dBFS and can cause clipping. A high-end digital to analogue converter has headroom to compensate for this issue, but cheap speakers won’t be able to compensate for these inter-sample peaks. This means your mix won’t sound distorted in the studio, but your peaks might become clipped when played through a cheap Hi-Fi.
Mastering Using LEVELS True Peak Meter
The LEVELS true peak meter will give you an accurate reading of your audios peak level. By mastering to 0dBTP you’ll give your audience the best possible listening experience.
The LUFS Meters
The LUFS [loudness units relative to full scale] measurement scale is extremely accurate at displaying the perceived loudness of audio material. It’s a useful insight to have whilst both mixing and mastering. Navigate to these LUFS meters by clicking the LUFS button in the headroom section. There is a short term LUFS meter on the left and an integrated LUFS meter on the right. Similarly to the peak meter, each bar represents 1 unit. The default thresholds for CD mastering are set at -7 for short term and -9 for integrated.
The short-term meter will display the LUFS measurement over the last three seconds. The integrated meter shows the accumulating LUFS level of your track. You can reset the meters by clicking on the readouts. If you material breaches your set LUFS thresholds, the HEADROOM icon will turn red.
Why is LUFS Helpful during mastering?
How many times have you mastered a track, then released that it’s much quieter than other tracks of the same genre? With the LUFS meters you can make sure your track is the same perceived volume as your references. Forget RMS and Peak metering for loudness, LUFS is far more accurate.
With over 100 million people using Spotify, it’s crucial to make sure your music is heard in its best light. Consider this, the loudest your music will ever be heard on Spotify is about -11 LUFS. So why submit a CD master measuring -9LUFS when it’s just going to be turned down or ‘Normalised’. It’s better to make good use of the opportunity to provide a more dynamic master. You can select the ‘Streaming’ preset in the settings to give you the ideal thresholds for Spotify. Lay off the limiter and go for a setting of around -11 to -13 LUFS with the dynamic range reading on LEVELS not exceeding 9DR and a true peak of -0.1dbTP.
How To Decrease or Increase the LUFS value of your track
If your track is breaching the LUFS thresholds you could reduce the amount of compression or limiting to both reduce the loudness and increase the dynamic range. Alternatively, if you didn't want to change the compression you could lower the overall volume of the mix using a gain plugin on the output bus before your mastering chain.You could also tweak the plugins that are adding gain. This can be any EQ boosts you’ve made or harmonic distortion.
To increase the LUFS, without changing the sound and balance of your mix, you could use a gain plugin at the start of your chain. You could also add some compression, limiting or harmonic distortion to increase the loudness. LEVELS will warn you if you breach your True Peak or Dynamic Range threshold.
The vectorscope displays your audios placement in the stereo field. When the image is spread out across the circle, your master is wide. When the image is simply one thin line down the middle, your master is mono. The L-R [Left Right] meter at the bottom of the central display area shows how even the left and right outputs are. If the pointer is central, then your music is evenly balanced between the two speakers. If you have an unbalanced output the pointer will hover either too far left or right and will glow red, this will also turn the STEREO FIELD icon red.
The correlation meter on the left side of the circle shows the degree of similarity between the left and right channels. A reading near +1 indicates a well-balanced mix. If the pointer hovers passed the central point towards -1 it indicates that the mix has phase issues. This can cause the mix to fall apart when played back in mono. A breach of the stereo correlation threshold will also cause the STEREO FIELD icon to turn red. These thresholds can be changed in the settings.
If you have issues with the Correlation or L-R meter, you’ll need to go back a step and fix them in the mix. Refer to the ‘Mixing With LEVELS’ eBook for instructions of how to fix these issues.
Having low frequencies placed very wide in your master can have negative affects on your music. Wide bass frequencies might suffer from phase cancellation when played in mono, making your master sound weak. Bass also takes up a lot of space, so by keeping it mostly mono you can utilise the rest of the stereo spectrum for other elements in your track. When you engage LOW PASS (by clicking the ‘Low Pass’ button), you can see the low frequencies that are too wide glowing yellow and red in the vectorscope. The goal is to keep the low frequencies in the more central green area. This will lead to a more powerful and balanced master. If you have wide low frequencies, you could try using a stereo placement plugin to place the low frequencies of your kick and bass in mono.
The oscilloscope in the central display circle will react to the audio material passing through LEVELS. The visuals will immediately show you how dynamic your music is. If your music has a dynamic range above the set threshold, the oscilloscope will glow green. If your music approaches the threshold it will begin to turn orange. If your music breaches the threshold, the oscilloscope will turn red.
LEVELS creates a ratio of the ‘short term LUFS’ to ‘peak level’ of your track and gives you a DR [Dynamic Range] reading. The lower the number, the less dynamic range your track has. The dynamic range is not relative to the loudness of your music, so if your music is over compressed the oscilloscope will turn red regardless of how quiet the track might be. The default dynamic range threshold is set at 9DR for CD Mastering and can be changed in settings.
Great songs will often have interesting changes in volume between the verse/chorus buildup/drop. This builds tension and release and adds energy and drama to the music. The technical term for this is dynamic range. A small dynamic range can come about from over compression and limiting. This can suck the life out of your music. It can also reduce the clarity and punch of the transients in your music. So to get a great final mix, you'll need to make sure that the dynamic range is on point.
To get a more dynamic mix, look at the compressors and limiters in your session and make sure they aren't working too hard. I usually don't compress any material with a ratio exceeding 4:1. If things sound too quiet in parts of your mix, automate to get your levels and then apply lighter compression. Mastering can lower the dynamic range of your track so it's better for your mix to be over dynamic than not dynamic enough.
BASS SPACE identifies if any channels within your mix are outputting unwanted low frequencies. You will only be able to use Bass Space on a stem master (music bounced into groups with kick and bass separated), not on a stereo master (just one audio file).
For your kick and bass elements to sound powerful and clear, they need as much space as possible. To use BASS SPACE first mute your kick and bass elements within your DAW. The frequency bars in the central display area will give you a reading at 40Hz, 80Hz 120Hz and 160Hz. They will jump into the upper red half of the circle if there is too much low-end energy. If this is the case you need to identify which channels are outputting the excess low frequencies. Mute the individual channels one at a time until the bars drop into the green to find the culprit and then use a high pass filter to clean up this excess low-end rumble to maximise the clarity and power of your track. Be careful to not remove the material you actually want to hear in your mix.
To access the settings, click the cog icon in the top right corner.
LEVELS has seven mastering presets: ‘CD’, ‘Club’, ‘Composer’, ‘iTunes’, Soundcloud’, Streaming’ and ‘Youtube’. By default, the ‘Balanced’ mixing preset is selected when you first load LEVELS. You can switch between the presets by clicking the buttons. Your selected preset will be saved with your project and will load when you re-open a project.
The settings for each preset can be seen in the boxes on the right-hand side. These can be tweaked to suit your needs. For example, if you want your track to peak at -1dBTP rather than the default 0dBTP, simply change the ‘Peak Threshold’ box to -1.0. Or, if you have a large amount of panning and want the Stereo Balance (L & R meter) to be more forgiving, simply increase the value from 0.3 to something more forgiving like 0.6.
Creating more than one master
It is customary to create one final master and use it in all scenarios. However, given that music is consumed in many different ways, it’s more appropriate to create a few variations to best suit the distribution mediums you will be using. This might sound like a lot of extra work, but in reality the minor tweaks might take an extra 10 minutes. When you’ve spent so long on the songwriting and production, this final step is the icing on the cake to a job well done.
If you’re going to be pressing your master to CD this is the preset for you. CDs are not subjected to any normalisation so you could push the loudness a bit further than streaming playback scenarios. I would recommend not breaching a threshold of -9 LUFS and -8DR as this is the point at which the audio can start to sound distorted and lifeless. A good setting would be from -9 to -13 LUFS with the dynamic range reading on LEVELS not exceeding 9DR.
Club Play -
This preset is get your track sounding great when played back through large sound systems. The louder club tracks sit around -4 to -6 ST LUFS during the drops. I master club tracks to about -6 to -8 ST 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.
Composing covers a very broad spectrum of sounds and textures. For this reason, the dynamic range and stereo field sections are very forgiving. This is the ideal setting for composing for adverts, TV, film and games.
The iTunes Store converts audio to AAC (Advanced Audio Coding). For the best result, bounce your audio at 24 bits with a maximum peak of -0.1dbTP (decibels true peak). You can use the free AAC Roundtrip plugin to preview your audio as AAC. -9 to -13 LUFS would be good target for the iTunes Store (even though they don’t normalise music before it’s purchased).
With over 100 million people using Spotify, it’s crucial to make sure your music is heard in its best light. Consider this, the loudest your music will ever be heard on Spotify is about -11 LUFS. So why submit a CD master or Club Master measuring -9LUFS when it’s just going to be turned down. It’s better to make good use of the opportunity to provide a more dynamic master. Lay off the limiter and go for a setting of around -11 to -13 LUFS with the dynamic range reading on LEVELS not exceeding 9DR and a true peak of -0.1dbTP.
Soundcloud has over 175 million users. Most artists utilise the Soundcloud platform to present their audio to their fans free of charge. Soundcloud streams audio in MP3 format at 128 kbps (I hope they change this soon as 128 kbps is extremely poor quality…) You’re able to upload a high quality 24 bit Wav file to Soundcloud but it is transcoded to MP3 to make streaming faster for its users. To make the best of this situation Headroom is more important in this scenario than any other. I would recommend mastering your track to -0.5dbTP for Soundcloud to minimise the artefacts that WILL happen when your track gets transcoded to MP3. Regarding loudness, A good setting would be from -9 to -13 LUFS with the dynamic range reading on LEVELS not exceeding 8DR.
Youtube is still one of the main places people discover and enjoy the music they love. Youtube normalises music to around -13 LUFS so the ideal settings for your YouTube master would be -12 to -14 LUFS with the dynamic range reading on LEVELS not exceeding 9DR and with a safe true peak of -0.1dbTP.