SAE Institute Glasgow Conjure Up "Club" Loudness Spec For Dance Music
The guys at Signum Audio asked me to write a short blog post on my thoughts and experiences with mastering electronic music for club environment.
With loudness standards for film and broadcasting firmly in place at -23 lufs for Europe and -24 lufs for most other regions, maintaining consistency in loudness has become quiet straight forward. However, for music as a standalone product things are a bit different.
Over the last couple of years or so online streaming platforms have been setting the trend in terms of music loudness, with almost all streaming services normalising music to -14 lufs integrated. This results in streamable music having a nicely consistent loudness.
Mastering music to -14 lufs ensures that your music has a nice dynamic range and consistent loudness levels. As a result, less limiting is required and better sound quality is retained.
Music that is intended for Dj’s and clubs is a bit different.
Often these tracks are mastered with no regard of loudness standards, with loudness values often reaching -6 and sometimes -5 lufs.
These kind of loudness values would sit very comfortably amongst mainstream music from around 2005. However, there’s not really any benefit in mastering music this loud. All you do is making it sound squashed and you essentially significantly degrade the quality.
I have experimented a bit with delivering masters for Dj’s with more conservative loudness values ranging from -14 lufs upto -8 lufs (always with -1db true peak.)
The feedback I have received from Dj’s after they have played the quieter -14 lufs masters in a club is that it can be quiet difficult to blend them nicely into the Dj set. This is because the quieter tracks have more dynamic range and will sound quieter when set at the same peak output level on a Dj mixer. The Dj´s have also reported that tracks that sit around -9 lufs (1 lufs of tolerance) fit nicely in with tracks that have been mastered at higher lufs values, whilst generally sounding better than their louder equivalents.
The main challenge here is to try to deliver masters that have a nice dynamic range but can sound comparably loud as their ‘full on -5 to -6lufs loudness war masters’ but at the same time retaining as much of the dynamic range and sound quality as possible.
It’s worth noting at this stage that in order to master something to a loudness war standard there need to be considerable adjustments done to a track through eq’ing. Low end needs to be reduced and the tracks will generally sound more harsh and aggressive.
After speaking to a few professional mastering engineers who often do Dj and club music, there does not seem to be any consistency in what kind of levels engineers go for.
Some have stated that they master ALL Dj and club music to -7 lufs, where as other go for around -12 to -10 lufs.
After experimenting with different loudness values, speaking to other mastering engineers, as well as doing some good old research I’ve concluded that the ideal lufs values for music that is only intended for Dj use is at it’s optimal at -9 luf integrated (with 1 lufs of tolerance) That means the tracks can be set at -10 to -8 lufs and sit quiet comfortable amongst louder tracks with a higher integrated loudness, but also sit quiet comfortable with music that has been released in vinyl (generally around -12 lufs, although this can vary a bit and sometimes goes a bit higher for vinyl)
However, after having said all that the ultimate goal is always to make music sound better and music will only sound worse when the loudness values are being hammered.
On a personal note, I feel that most of the time I’m not really comfortable pushing tracks any louder than -9 lufs as beyond this loudness value the music is being degraded too much in quality and will only sound worse as the levels go up. Having said that, even at -9 lufs the music is still being limited a fair bit, and to ensure that there is minimal distortion the frequency range needs to be restricted, but it feels as it is a good midway point between the levels generally found on vinyl and the levels that are common for digital Dj stores.
In an ideal world all music would be set to -14 and everything would sound at it’s best.
Finally, the main point and purpose of this blog post is to raise the issue of loudness values for Dj and club environment and try to start a discussion and raise awareness on the topic.
Audio engineer and Audio Production Educator at SAE Institute, Glasgow