Understanding levels in mastering

Discussion in 'Mastering' started by Jeremy Dean, Aug 18, 2016.

  1. Jeremy Dean

    Jeremy Dean Active Member

    Hi there!
    I'm trying to learn more about mastering. I'm very much a beginner in this area. One thing that has stumped me a little in the learning process is what is a good level to bring things to. I've read a lot about the loudness wars and really want my music to be mastered better than a lot of music is being mastered currently. A lot of my favorite modern albums have little dynamic range compared with albums 30 or 40 years ago. Currently I've been mastering everything so that my limiter doesn't have to squash anything. My limiter on the master buss, with a few exceptions here and there, is set in such a way that if I moved the knob just a notch forward my limiters needle would come up some and squash the sound a little. My limiter is not actually limiting most of the time, I just use as a tool to keep all the dynamic range I can. I do use some compression for sure to glue the mix together but my limiter is nothing more than a meter right now.
    Here's my question: Is there a better way to go about this? Is squashing the sound to a little to bring the volume up actually not damaging the quality any? How do you master? I'm not experienced in this at all, so any help is much appreciated. Thanks!
  2. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    what levels are you feeding into your gain reduction? If your tracks are cranking at close to 0db, then it's not gonna take much for your limiter's detection circuit to kick in.

    If you are after dynamic range, start with an output on your 2 bus ( with no gain reduction engaged) of -23 to -18 db, using a LUFS meter that shows the overall level of the song. For CD release, apply limiting to bring the LUFS level up to around -12, with peaks at -0.1db. this will give you a DR of 12db. For streaming services such as YouTube, look to set your LUFS level ( post limiting) at -16db.

    Remember your gain structure. Your track's output levels shouldn't be over-driving the input of the gain reduction.

    The days of having resolution dependent upon amplitude are long gone. You don't need to have your track levels approaching 0db to have full bit res anymore.
  3. bouldersound

    bouldersound Real guitars are for old people. Well-Known Member

    Quality is subjective. One person's awesome sound is another person's damaged sound. If you're taking on the job of producer you have to make that determination according to your own standards. In light of that I would point out that our own hearing has a built in compressor and that in some cases some compression is more natural sounding than no compression.
  4. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    @Jeremy Dean
    Mastering doesn't have a fixed recipe. Everything we do is dependant of the source, the genre and the media it's gonna end up
    If the source is already compressed too much, there isn't much we can do about the dynamics so it can end with a bit of EQ alone.
    It's a bit tricky when you are the one who performs, record, mix and master because doing mastering ask for a certain detachment from the project.
    You need to check for frequency peaks and gaps, dynamics, stereo field, levels and many aspect of the sound. One rule of thumb tho is less equal more..
    Most of the time, the ME (Mastering Engineer) has better equipement that we have, this is why it's recommended to do less as possible on the masterbuss before you send them the files. The difference between a mix and a master can be very subtle in some case. It depends on the the mix itself

    The best thing to do when you begin to master songs is to A/B with a similar commercial content. You should do it like crasy until you get a clear target to where the song/album should go.
  5. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    "Like". ;)
  6. Jeremy Dean

    Jeremy Dean Active Member

    The level of my songs during the mixing stage is far below 0db. I use proper gain staging when recording so I have more headroom later during the mastering stage to EQ, compress, limit, etc. properly.
    Ok, thank you! I'll try to keep this in mind the next time I'm mastering anything. Great tip for YouTube! I'd wondered how many people have been putting out separate masters for YouTube, SoundCloud, and such to deal with their extra compression.
    Definitely! Good stuff to remember. Sometimes I get to work on some electronica music and for that kind of project I'll definitely compress things a lot more than normal because of the sound I'm going for. But for a lot other stuff I work on I don't want to squash things nearly as much.
    Very helpful, thanks!
    Am I listening in terms of EQ, the stereo field, and things like that @pcrecord, or also try to match the levels? My stuff currently is much quieter than many of my favorite artists albums, but I feel most mastering engineers are currently squashing things more than what is needed. I don't know if any of you all have ever checked this site out: http://dr.loudness-war.info/ Pretty interesting stuff. Most everything modern has an average of 4-6db of dynamic range. That's not much. Though, that's maybe just my opinion?
    pcrecord likes this.
  7. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    On thing that helped a lot my final levels is using a LUFS measurement. Do you use one ?
  8. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    All of the above. The over-propagated myth in the last few years, is that the process of mastering equates to nothing more than making the content as "loud" as possible... A myth that has been perpetuated by many online "mastering" services, offering said "mastering" for as little as $5 per song, services which are often run by people who haven't a clue that there's a LOT more to it than just slapping a Waves L2 plug on the 2 Bus, squashing the living day lights out of the content to bring the volume up to ungodly levels, and calling it "mastered".

    EQ, stereo width, phase coherency, respecting the dynamic range, along with conversion and file formats based on intended use, are all a part of the process.
    Professional M.E.'s also use top notch monitors and monitoring controllers, are working on the project in very well-balanced spaces acoustically, and frequently use very nice (and expensive) external processing (EQs, compressors, limiters) that they are very familiar with. Mastering the project to certain specs - YouTube, iTunes, CD, vinyl, etc., is also part of their knowledge and skill set.
    And, don't discount the importance of having a pair of objective and fresh ears...often, by the time you are done writing, arranging, recording and mixing a song, you are perhaps the last person who should be mastering the project as well, because you're not able to listen with any sense of objectivity. When you use a pro ME, along with their gear and knowledge, you're also getting a pair of fresh, good ears to analyze the music. No small thing.

    The thing to realize these days, especially in the last two years or so, is that there have been broadcasting standards put into place that stipulates the use of certain RMS/LUFS levels. One of these recent standards is the EBU/R128 standard, that stipulates that no broadcast service will play audio that exceeds -23 db RMS. YouTube has also joined the crowd, they have a set standard that no audio will be played that exceeds -16db LUFS, and iTunes also has a similarly set criteria as well. Most would likely agree that -12db is the LUFS measurement to shoot for if the project will end up on CD.

    The result of this, is that if audio is delivered that exceeds these settings, it will be turned down to meet that standard, which means that in some cases, the attenuated audio will actually be perceived to be softer in comparison to audio that was mastered to meet that criteria. In some cases, especially if clipping/distortion occurs, the broadcast service may choose to not play a song at all.

    Music requires a dynamic range to ultimately be enjoyed at its optimum. And, the respect for the dynamic range is returning. Fewer and fewer mastering engineers are feeling the heat anymore to process musc at those ridiculously hot levels, and more of them are mastering with respect paid to dynamics everyday. That dynamic rang choice is subjective, of course, unless it's been set at a particular finite amount to adhere to certain standards.

    You might want to check out Ian Sheppard's site... I'd give you the link but I'm getting dicey wifi where I am at this morning and don't want to chance getting kicked off by moving from this page...but if you google his name, you'll find a slew of info that would probably answer a lot of your questions.

  9. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    I'm gonna ditto what Marco mentioned... If your DAW doesn't already have a LUFS meter, (there are several recent DAW versions that have this meter included in the stock features) you should definitely pick one up in plug form. You could also use this meter to deliver 2-mixes to a pro ME, helping to insure that they have sufficient headroom to work with.
    Place the LUFS plug on your master buss in the Post position, and you'll get accurate numbers to work with. This will also be of benefit to you, if you plan on doing more of your own mastering...as it will allow you to deliver content that is accurately appropriate/necessary for its final use and broadcast format.

  10. Brother Junk

    Brother Junk Active Member

    I think the idea of training our ears is a good one. I love a good pair of headphones and amp set up for this. It's different than room sound, but get a good set of cans and you can help keep your ears on the mark tonally.

    I think it takes some people a while to get a hang of good compression. When it's needed, when it's not, and how to do it. Either that or the mixing room is off, so they are making compression decisions in a faulty listening environment.

    What if you are not after DR, what do you typically narrow down to? I understand it's all different/music dependent etc...I'm just curious where you tend to be at on average?

    Also, are you talking about a song? Or an album?
  11. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    I was referring to a by-song process, as delivery systems for indie artists are usually singles driven these days. That's not to undermine the feel and sonic vibe of an entire album, but I think most people tend to download singles these days more than full albums. The mastering engineer should be more concerned with the overall LUFS of an Album, whereas the mix engineer can focus on one mix at a time, which tends to be the case for the most part anyway.

    As far as not being concerned with dynamic range, I can't answer that question, because I'm always after a DR to some degree or another. Current - and near-future broadcasting standards are eventually going to stipulate your RMS /LUFS levels for you, anyway. So there'll be a time in the not too distant future where if you want that content to be played on broadcasting outlets, you'll need to adhere to whatever LUFS levels are stipulated.
  12. Sean G

    Sean G Well-Known Member

  13. Jeremy Dean

    Jeremy Dean Active Member

    Yes, I do.
    I don't know if you have ever heard of a mastering service called LANDR, but their advertisement is "Sound like a pro. Instant results at a fraction of the cost of studio mastering." It's a site that does instant "mastering" doing who knows what to your music and calls it professional mastering. After reading about what real M.E.'s do to master a song correctly that's definitely a joke. But it appears the majority wants things done in a microwave fashion these days.
    This is one thing that I'm really beginning to realize as I continue making music. There are maybe a few people who can perform, mix, produce, etc. their own stuff and it come out great, but for most folks it's way better to have different experienced pros in each of those positions. I don't know if I'll ever get really good at mastering, I'd like to, but somewhere down the road it'll be great to have more people aboard to take on those various roles alongside me.
    Does anyone know the reason for putting broadcasting standards on LUFS levels?
    Thanks! I've checked it out before, but I haven't been over his way in a while. Probably overdue for a visit to his site.
    I really enjoy listening to music on headphones and doing nothing else. It's a good practice IMO to just listen to the music without any distractions. One can learn a good deal just from doing that for 30 minutes while doing some real listening, picking the piece apart mentally.
  14. Sean G

    Sean G Well-Known Member

  15. Jeremy Dean

    Jeremy Dean Active Member

    Interesting.... Thanks Sean G!
  16. Sean G

    Sean G Well-Known Member

    You are welcome...I hope it answers you question as to why we have loudness standards in broadcasting.
  17. Jeremy Dean

    Jeremy Dean Active Member

    Yes, it definitely does! :)

Share This Page