We recently had the opportunity to sit down with the incredibly talented Warren Sokol to talk about mixing/mastering for streaming release. Some of the main topics we covered are LUFS metering, the different codecs streaming services use to encode masters, and understanding what happens to your single or album when it’s uploaded for streaming. Warren also offers an in-depth breakdown of NUGEN Audio’s MasterCheck plugin and how to get the most out of it!
You can watch the complete live stream here:
In this video, Warren Sokol breaks down many of the myths surrounding mastering for streaming.
For example, we learned that LUFS metering is not the be-all, end-all when it comes to mixing. In the most basic terms, it’s an average level of a song from beginning to end. If you take a sample of a track in 30 second chunks here and there, you won’t get an accurate LUFS reading! With this in mind LUFS really has no place in mixing and should be reserved for the mastering stage. As is the case with every mastering engineer, simply delivering a mix with no clipping is the best bet.
Again, LUFS is just a standard developed to keep things consistent across various streaming platforms, in the same way that CD and vinyl mastering has had their own standards for decades.
What happens when you upload an entire album for streaming?
Very interestingly, Warren S. mentions that you can’t determine loudness levels by watching the LUFS—this is something which has to be done by ear. When submitting a single to a streaming service, LUFS will ensure you’re within the appropriate range. However, when it comes to uploading an album, things get a bit more complicated!
When you submit an album for streaming, the system won’t take the average LUFS reading from every song, but it won’t do each song individually either. What actually happens is that the streaming service will take the highest LUFS reading and adjust every song to that level. This is actually pretty horrific because none of the album dynamics are preserved! That quiet acoustic song in the middle of a rock record will now be as loud, if not louder, than the hardest hitting piece on the album. Yikes!
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Using MasterCheck’s “Offset to match” function shows you how streaming codecs will effect your master.
One of the key functions of MasterCheck, beyond simple metering, is the ability to audition in real-time the codecs which streaming services use. You can use the “Offset to match” button to hear what happens to your master on Spotify mobile or desktop.
You’ll notice right away that the master gets significantly quieter. The reason behind this is that streaming services have to cater to so many different genres. They’re playing back classical music, metal, hip hop, and anything else you can imagine. By turning everything down to a certain level, classical doesn’t need much adjustment, metal will be the same level as classical, and so forth.
Warren really sheds some light on the ins and outs of streaming, and of course how to use MasterCheck to it’s full potential!
About Warren Sokol, Mastering Engineer
We’ve been lucky to work a lot with Warren Sokol over the years, such as in this tutorial where he masters three different songs in three different genres using only plugins. It goes without saying that Warren S. is insanely talented!
He started his career as a freelance recording and mixing engineer at Living Head Audio Recording in Phoenix, Arizona. This eventually led to a contract doing all the recording and mixing for the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, where he worked with renowned solo musicians like Doc Severinsen and Yo-Yo Ma. During this period, Warren sharpened his skills in music production and also taught at Mesa Community College and The Conservatory of Recording Arts and Science in Tempe, Arizona.
Warren then set his sights on becoming a mastering engineer. In 2002, he opened Warren Ross Audio Mastering in Phoenix. It was there where he was able to grow his client list, at the same time perfecting his mastering skills by working on hundreds of different records in various genres.
Warren relocated to Los Angeles in 2010, where he worked as a temporary analogue-to-digital archivist engineer at Universal Mastering Studios. It wasn’t long before he was brought on full-time as a mastering, production, and tech engineer. Since then, he has worked on hundreds of records for artists like The Band Perry, Imagine Dragons, The Colorists, The Moody Blues, Public Enemy, Method Man, and the television show The Voice. Warren was also very involved in the origins of the “Mastered For iTunes” process, helping to streamline workflow and set the standards for MFiT audio.
Warren currently works out of United Recording Studios in Los Angeles.
NUGEN Audio MasterCheck
MasterCheck by NUGEN Audio is a plugin solution for optimizing mixes specifically for today’s digital music services. Streaming apps, online stores, websites, and podcast services all use data compression, loudness matching, or a combination of the two. These are processes which can unfortunately wreak a bit of havoc on mixes. A loud, punchy mix may become quiet and flat, or worse—become clipped or distorted.
Luckily, engineers don’t just have to rely on mixing/mastering for CD spec and crossing their fingers when it comes to streaming release. MasterCheck very conveniently shows whatever issues may arise ahead of time, allowing mastering engineers to deliver masters adjusted for specific playout systems.
MasterCheck lets you mix/master with the listener in mind.
The plugin strives to de-mystify loudness-normalized playout systems, showing the effects of compression so you can find the balance between perceived loudness and dynamics. MasterCheck provides the information necessary to ensure a mix reaches the listener as intended.
So much of what defines a great mix/master is in how people actually listen to it on their own devices. As engineers, we try to make sure we deliver masters that translate well to home stereos, car stereos, earbuds, and more. It’s become increasingly more important to account for how it will sound after it ends up on a streaming service like Spotify, Apple Music, or Google Play. For further consideration are services like YouTube, digital radio, and Beatport.
MasterCheck will show you just that: how a master sounds after being effected by data compression, loudness matching, or any of the various methods used by streaming services to “optimize” tracks for their platform.
Audition Different Codecs
All the major streaming services encode music in different formats, oftentimes at different bit-depths which is dependent on what type of account the listener has. When a streaming service encodes a “hot” mix, this often introduces True Peak overages that will clip on playback.
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MasterCheck detects these errors, allowing engineers to compensate for an overly hot mix. You can also pick up on any frequency masking or artifacts and and correct these errors at the mixing and mastering stages.
Below are some of the common codecs used by major streaming services and digital music stores:
- Ogg Vorbis
- HE-AACv1 (AAC+)
- HE-AACv2 (DAB+)
Streaming services have a “window” through which they deliver your audio. If a master is optimized it can slide through untouched, but if it doesn’t fit within the service’s limitations then they will force it to fit. A heavily maximized master, for example, might sound great on CD, but a streaming service would turn it down drastically. This means you’ve left valuable headroom on the table which could have been used for transient detail and punch in the mastering phase.
When you’re mastering specifically for digital music services, MasterCheck is a great plugin for figuring out potential codec distortion and comparing your loudness/dynamics to some quality reference material.
After recent updates to streaming loudness levels, the major platforms only differ by 3 LU between the loudest and the softest. Realistically, there’s no reason to mix louder than the loudest platform. If you do, you’ll only have all the platforms turning your mixes down when they reach them.
As a mixing engineer, if you if you over-compress the mix then your mastering engineer has no room to work. And if you compress above a platform’s maximum level, transients lost cannot be brought back at mastering. Whatever is lost in the mixing stage, in terms of too much compression, etc., cannot be restored by a mastering engineer!
Using MasterCheck to audition at the streaming level and compare against reference audio at the same level is a great way to hear your mix in context.
The Most Common Applications of NUGEN MasterCheck:
- Preparing mix dynamics for mastering
- Mastering for digital music services
- Ensuring consistency and measuring contrast
- Producing audio to a loudness target
- Measuring dynamic content
- Avoiding downstream clipping
- Comparing dynamics with reference material
- Auditioning loudness matched FX chains
- Mastering for podcasts and digital radio