Old 03-20-2017, 06:01 AM   #1
Mr. PC
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Default How to decide export volume levels.

So recently I've been thinking, I want my music to be a 'good level'...

I know, seems like an obvious and somewhat stupid conclusion.

What I mean is, I've heard tale of this "loudness war" taking place in music I don't really like, and so doesn't affect me. But there is something to the psychology, if my music is 1db louder than the next person's, all else being equal people will prefer mine.

But then personally, I find there's a threshold, where it doesn't sound good too loud (I mean literally, if I turn the volume up too much. I'm keeping my headphone amp at 10%ish).

But there's more... if I write a quiet piece of music, it sounds better quiet, rather than normalizing it so the peak is at -0.1db. I'm exporting some tracks, and looking at a tiny waveform, and thinking it's wrong.

Recently I've had the idea, listen to some music, decide what volume it sounds good to me through my DAC/Amp/headphones, and then use that volume on the final export stage. Is there something wrong with this method? Should I rather increase the final limiter's input level until I have an RMS of at least -10ish? How quiet is too quiet?

Here are a couple tracks I'm referencing, maybe there's something better, or maybe it doesn't matter. This track sounds good with my volume at '10'
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-21AtiWV3TE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SACeGmvxE1A
https://youtu.be/65af3-HIT-w?t=3m43s


This sounds a bit too loud for me at 10
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmU4KX7nxYs

Actually, I don't know if it's my new DAC/amp/headphones, but a lot of recordings are sounding bad to me now... maybe I'm just going nuts.

Should I just find an ideal recording to set my levels to?

{edit}
Listening to some of my past recordings,
https://albertmckay.bandcamp.com/

Some are a touch quiet, and some a touch loud, but overall better than average what I'm hearing on YouTube. Now I think I'm just overthinking.
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Old 03-20-2017, 08:02 AM   #2
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The workflow for a good level is actually really quite easy.

"Recently I've had the idea, listen to some music, decide what volume it sounds good to me through my DAC/Amp/headphones, and then use that volume on the final export stage. Is there something wrong with this method?"

Your hardware levels are subjective, so yes this is not a good method. You could play a reference mix and get close but you're shooting the dark.

All you need to do is put a limiter on the master, and push the input until you get some very gentle reduction in the loudest section.

You can use the JS RMS meter after the limiter to check loudness, for your music you're probably aiming around 16 to 14. 12 to 10 is more common for modern music but classical pushed that hot doesn't sound so great.

If you're not hitting those levels, I wouldn't push the limiter much more. I'd be looking at the mix itself, applying gentle peak compression to every instrument (or instrument bus/folder), this will give you way better results. You can also use longer distance RMS levelling compression (try that Vocal Rider preset in ReaComp, it's really good, and you can make it even more sluggish by maxing the RMS, pre comp, and adding ample Knee). This will level the difference between loud and quiet sections but you don't want to overdo that.

That rider could be put gently on the master before the limiter to preserve relative levels between tracks.

Another way to add perceived loudness is a bit of saturation. Without going overboard, it really helps 'glue' a mix and help with pitch recognition for the bass instruments. I actually find it works even better on classical without peaks because it doesn't draw attention to itself when pushed.
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Old 03-20-2017, 08:28 AM   #3
serr
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mr. PC View Post
So recently I've been thinking, I want my music to be a 'good level'...

I know, seems like an obvious and somewhat stupid conclusion.

What I mean is, I've heard tale of this "loudness war" taking place in music I don't really like, and so doesn't affect me. But there is something to the psychology, if my music is 1db louder than the next person's, all else being equal people will prefer mine.

But then personally, I find there's a threshold, where it doesn't sound good too loud (I mean literally, if I turn the volume up too much. I'm keeping my headphone amp at 10%ish).

But there's more... if I write a quiet piece of music, it sounds better quiet, rather than normalizing it so the peak is at -0.1db. I'm exporting some tracks, and looking at a tiny waveform, and thinking it's wrong.

Recently I've had the idea, listen to some music, decide what volume it sounds good to me through my DAC/Amp/headphones, and then use that volume on the final export stage. Is there something wrong with this method? Should I rather increase the final limiter's input level until I have an RMS of at least -10ish? How quiet is too quiet?

Here are a couple tracks I'm referencing, maybe there's something better, or maybe it doesn't matter. This track sounds good with my volume at '10'
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-21AtiWV3TE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SACeGmvxE1A
https://youtu.be/65af3-HIT-w?t=3m43s


This sounds a bit too loud for me at 10
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmU4KX7nxYs

Actually, I don't know if it's my new DAC/amp/headphones, but a lot of recordings are sounding bad to me now... maybe I'm just going nuts.

Should I just find an ideal recording to set my levels to?

{edit}
Listening to some of my past recordings,
https://albertmckay.bandcamp.com/

Some are a touch quiet, and some a touch loud, but overall better than average what I'm hearing on YouTube. Now I think I'm just overthinking.
It's still a bit more of the wild wild west out there than many like to admit!

The industry is claiming everything will use -16 LUFS as a target moving forward.

Dark Side of The Moon hits -16 LUFS (24/96 bluray edition). (This matches the dynamic profile of the original vinyl edition.)

Most 24 bit HD master releases I've heard go for -16 to -13 LUFS.

The average CD level seems to be bumped up to -10 LUFS.
Volume war CD's get up to -6!!!

I see many newer CD versions of a release hitting -13 LUFS (going for in-between) while the 24 bit master versions are -16.

Mp3s are usually made from the CD master and have the same level. Same for the online streaming sites. A couple of them are starting to limit at -13 LUFS I believe but streaming audio is so lo-fi it's almost a moot point.

I see occasional exceptions, from a CD (usually classical or jazz) at -16 (classy) to a 24/96 master on a bluray being identical to the volume war produced CD at -8! (expect returns!)

Playing along...

I shoot for -16 to -13 for a final 24 bit master and then -13 to -10 for the CD version depending on the clients request. This is actually a comfortable place at present and everybody seems happy. Snobbier consumers will download the 24 bit files and not be assaulted by the volume war compression and levels. CD listeners will find the CD loud enough to match their collections they started in the 1990's.
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Old 03-20-2017, 09:35 AM   #4
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You are unlikely to get the kind of "loudness" as a pro mastering engineer with as little "damage" as a pro mastering engineer.

Quote:
But there is something to the psychology, if my music is 1db louder than the next person's, all else being equal people will prefer mine.
Thus, the loudness war!

Quote:
But there's more... if I write a quiet piece of music, it sounds better quiet, rather than normalizing it so the peak is at -0.1db. I'm exporting some tracks, and looking at a tiny waveform, and thinking it's wrong.
Don't go by the waveform or the peaks. You can use a "loudness" plug-in if you wish, but the normal thing to do would be to make it "sound right" by ear. If you're making an album it should be easy to get the relative loudness for the quiet track(s), but if it's a single you might just want to normalize it (and let the listener adjust the volume) or you can try to match the loudness of other quiet-songs in the same genre.

Quote:
Recently I've had the idea, listen to some music, decide what volume it sounds good to me through my DAC/Amp/headphones, and then use that volume on the final export stage. Is there something wrong with this method?'

...Should I just find an ideal recording to set my levels to?
Using a good-sounding reference is probably the best approach.

Quote:
Should I rather increase the final limiter's input level until I have an RMS of at least -10ish? How quiet is too quiet?
If your chosen reference track is at -10dB, that can work. But, an EBU R128 loudness plug-in is better, and your ears are probably better yet. But again, you are unlikely to achieve -10dB RMS with the quality that a mastering engineer can get (and IMO the pro is over-doing it at -10dB too, but that's a matter of taste)

You might also want to read the K-system paper. With the K-System, you calibrate the acoustic loudness (with an SPL meter) and then use your ears to adjust loudness. (That's probably not practical with headphones.) But even with the K-System, you'd probably want to check against a known-good reference, if for no other reason than to "keep your ears calibrated".

Quote:
Actually, I don't know if it's my new DAC/amp/headphones, but a lot of recordings are sounding bad to me now... maybe I'm just going nuts.
If there's anything wrong with your headphones it would probably be frequency response (too much bass, too little bass, etc.) and it should be identifiable. It's highly unlikely that there are any audible defects in your DAC unless there is noise or unless you are driving it into clipping. You might just be getting bored with those un-dynamic -10dB RMS recordings.



P.S.
Quote:
if my music is 1db louder than the next person's, all else being equal people will prefer mine.
That might not be true if the loudness comes at the expense of compression. I'll often turn-down highly compressed tracks. Plus, I'm normally using ReplayGain or SoundCheck so all of that loudness-war compression doesn't make it any louder, it just makes the music more boring.

It's my understanding that iTunes Radio and Spotify are applying similar volume-adjustment techniques, so again, loudness-war recording isn't any louder, just more compressed. (Broadcast radio does the opposite, further-compressing everything.)

Last edited by DVDdoug; 03-20-2017 at 10:03 AM.
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Old 03-20-2017, 04:11 PM   #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mr. PC View Post
So recently I've been thinking, I want my music to be a 'good level'...

I know, seems like an obvious and somewhat stupid conclusion.

What I mean is, I've heard tale of this "loudness war" taking place in music I don't really like, and so doesn't affect me. But there is something to the psychology, if my music is 1db louder than the next person's, all else being equal people will prefer mine.

But then personally, I find there's a threshold, where it doesn't sound good too loud (I mean literally, if I turn the volume up too much. I'm keeping my headphone amp at 10%ish).

But there's more... if I write a quiet piece of music, it sounds better quiet, rather than normalizing it so the peak is at -0.1db. I'm exporting some tracks, and looking at a tiny waveform, and thinking it's wrong.

Recently I've had the idea, listen to some music, decide what volume it sounds good to me through my DAC/Amp/headphones, and then use that volume on the final export stage. Is there something wrong with this method? Should I rather increase the final limiter's input level until I have an RMS of at least -10ish? How quiet is too quiet?

Here are a couple tracks I'm referencing, maybe there's something better, or maybe it doesn't matter. This track sounds good with my volume at '10'
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-21AtiWV3TE
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SACeGmvxE1A
https://youtu.be/65af3-HIT-w?t=3m43s


This sounds a bit too loud for me at 10
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UmU4KX7nxYs

Actually, I don't know if it's my new DAC/amp/headphones, but a lot of recordings are sounding bad to me now... maybe I'm just going nuts.

Should I just find an ideal recording to set my levels to?

{edit}
Listening to some of my past recordings,
https://albertmckay.bandcamp.com/

Some are a touch quiet, and some a touch loud, but overall better than average what I'm hearing on YouTube. Now I think I'm just overthinking.

There is actually quite a bit of data produced by in depth studies to disprove the effectiveness of "loudness" in the "loudness wars". These range from psychological studies, all the way to poll-type studies. A quick Google search should produce quite a few results, that way you can weigh the pro's and con's yourself.
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Old 03-20-2017, 06:59 PM   #6
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Besides which, the most common playback systems are quickly becoming ones like Spotify and Google Play, or are already ones like iTunes or Windows Groove, which all have forms of loudness matching going on, usually by default.
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Old 03-20-2017, 07:29 PM   #7
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It's prolly all incorrect, but I use a visual and auditory method to set the level of my final mixes. When rendering to wave or MP3, if I don't see some air space in visual image of the wave being rendered, I cancel and make some adjustments until I do see some significant variation.

Likewise, if the wave image has tons of whitespace, I'll cancel and go the other way until I have a wave image that looks both like it is hitting the fringe, and also leaving a fair amount of breathing room.

Finally after getting a full render that looks OK visually, I'll listen to it, and compare it with both commercial media, and my own previous mixes to see if it seems in line volume wise. I like slamming mixes, but not to the degree that they have no space left in them and feel crowded.
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Old 03-21-2017, 06:55 AM   #8
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Thanks guys. I must have been unclear. My problem isn't that I can't get my mixes loud enough (I know this is what many people are aiming for).

My problem is that if I produce a quiet piano recording (pianissimo with a soft pedal), and increase gain, even to the point where the loudest point doesn't touch -5db, it still sounds "too loud" relative to what I think it should be.

If I have music played at Forte is no problem - I'll make the loudest peak -0.1, and keep the dynamics natural.
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Old 03-21-2017, 07:01 AM   #9
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There is an entire sub-field of audio engineering called mastering that is dedicated to this.

YouTube does it's own loudness normalization so it's likely that what you're hearing is not how the artist, producer, or mastering engineer signed off on. This is especially true if it's older material that was uploaded before we started to become aware of YouTube's loudness normalization practices.
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Old 03-21-2017, 07:36 AM   #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mr. PC View Post
Thanks guys. I must have been unclear. My problem isn't that I can't get my mixes loud enough (I know this is what many people are aiming for).

My problem is that if I produce a quiet piano recording (pianissimo with a soft pedal), and increase gain, even to the point where the loudest point doesn't touch -5db, it still sounds "too loud" relative to what I think it should be.

If I have music played at Forte is no problem - I'll make the loudest peak -0.1, and keep the dynamics natural.
If it sounds too loud when played with your forte stuff, then I'd say trust your ears and set your levels accordingly.
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Old 03-21-2017, 08:36 AM   #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Mr. PC View Post
Thanks guys. I must have been unclear. My problem isn't that I can't get my mixes loud enough (I know this is what many people are aiming for).

My problem is that if I produce a quiet piano recording (pianissimo with a soft pedal), and increase gain, even to the point where the loudest point doesn't touch -5db, it still sounds "too loud" relative to what I think it should be.

If I have music played at Forte is no problem - I'll make the loudest peak -0.1, and keep the dynamics natural.
Don't be afraid of dynamics and quiet parts!

What are you listening too that makes you worry you are making your masters too quiet? Are you comparing to other 24 bit (not CD!) masters of similar genre?

Take advantage of the current format situation and bump up the volume on the CD version if you are worried about that audience and leave the master pristine.
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Old 03-21-2017, 09:10 AM   #12
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I guess I'm just really worried about seeing a tiny looking waveform in the export window.
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Old 03-21-2017, 09:20 AM   #13
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I guess I'm just really worried about seeing a tiny looking waveform in the export window.
Then do it blindfolded!
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Old 03-21-2017, 12:12 PM   #14
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I never consider anything 'finished' until I've burned it to CD and played it on the cheap sound system in the old van. Then see if I can turn it up full without anything burping, farting or squeaking.
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Old 03-21-2017, 01:16 PM   #15
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I never consider anything 'finished' until I've burned it to CD and played it on the cheap sound system in the old van.
It's the ultimate test of any mix.
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Old 03-21-2017, 07:57 PM   #16
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The last I've seen is that YouTube normalizes all videos' audio to -13 LUFS, integrated.

If you have quiet parts, then they should be quite. But, is the entire song quiet? I doubt it. Bring the loudest part up to -16 to -13 LUFS and call it done. Much of the acceptable loudness and compression amounts will be genre-specific. But, even classical symphonic material is being released louder than it ever was.

Consider this: What listening environment will the consumer be in?
It won't always be their dead-silent, home listening room at 2:00 AM when no one is outside making noise. More often than not, the environment will be less than ideal and likely with a lot of unwanted background noise. If your quietest parts fall too low then your listener will have to constantly be fighting with the volume knob to keep your track audible. No user wants this. Hence, the reason for limiting the dynamic range in distributed audio recordings (not to mention that vinyl, the 1st mass distribution media, has a very limited dynamic range).

Consider the difference between loudest and quietest moments in a movie. It's extreme. To the point where I pretty much always place my home theater receiver in "Night Mode" which compresses the loud parts to reduce the dynamic range. That way I don't have to crank it up during whispering scene and crank it down during explosions. These soundtracks were mastered to be listened to in a movie theater with a controlled environment and high quality sound system. Distributed music, on the other hand, is quite the opposite.
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Old 03-22-2017, 01:37 AM   #17
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If you have quiet parts, then they should be quite. But, is the entire song quiet?
Yes, that is exactly what he's saying.

I'm not sure if he's written any songs, but he's talking about, for example, piano pieces where the piano is never played forte.
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