How the West was Won: Part 2

Throughout 2015 online music streaming platforms such as iTunes, Spotify and Youtube introduced loudness normalisation algorithms to regulate playback loudness. This is important for a number of reasons. Perhaps most importantly is the move away from peak loudness as a measurement scale and a move towards a sophisticated average loudness scale referred to as LUFS (Loudness Units Full Scale).

Peak loudness does not accurately represent how the human auditory system perceives loudness whereas the LUFS scale, although not unlike RMS, is a recent development that draws on contemporary research into how we perceive loudness. Peak loudness as a level against which standards were designed is therefore inherently flawed. Think about how TV advertising used to be perceptually louder than the TV program itself.  -20dbFS is to be the maximum level for program material destined for Australian TV, but because peak level doesn’t accurately represent perceived loudness, advertising sound was heavily compressed so that the average perceived loudness was far greater than inherently dynamic program material in your average TV series or movie.

With streaming platforms incorporating LUFS measurements and subsequent loudness normalisation into playback, this is effectively the arch nemesis of the loudness wars (or hyper compressed music and program material based on peak level). Loud, hyper compressed tracks with a small Peak to Loudness Range (PLR) regularly meter at -10 to -7 LUFS. With iTunes using a -16 LUFS playback standard, Youtube at -13 LUFS and Spotify at -11 LUFS, tracks will be effectively turned down to meet the standard of the platform. Loud songs are turned down, quieter, more dynamic songs are left alone or even turned up. This goes against mastering for peak level and maximum loudness.

Certainly this is not a silver bullet, and so far this is only relevant to streamed audio on the platforms mentioned above. But, I think this is an important development for high fidelity music production. It can only encourage a more thoughtful approach to music production and mastering, and should signal the return, at least to some extent, of dynamics in contemporary music. In the aftermath of the loudness wars, no one wants their tracks to sound quieter and have less impact than the next guys, do they?