The most common question that people ask about mastering levels is: “What LUFS should I aim for?” The question seems pretty straightforward, but the answer is not. Some people say that your master should stay at -14 LUFS, but it’s not true. We can’t establish rules and follow them all the time in the field of music. If it were easy to set your LUFS to a determined level, we wouldn’t need mastering engineers.
Send me your mix, and I'll make a free test master for your first song!
Every genre is different, and every song is different. So every record needs special attention. If you set a metal song’s LUFS level to -14, it can sound dull. If you set a classical record’s LUFS level to -14, it will definitely sound over-compressed.
The best solution to set your LUFS is simple but complex: Listen to the track, and don’t look at the meters until it’s necessary.
Sometimes you need a visual representation when you can’t decide which frequency is bugging your ears, or you can’t really understand if there is a phase problem. It doesn’t mean that you don’t look at the meters ever but try to solve the problem with your ears first.
We like rules as human beings because we don’t like uncertainty. So it’s comprehensible why we want to believe these kinds of myths. Also, when everybody talks about a subject, we tend to believe it without any question, especially if these people seem like they’re professionals.
A couple of years ago, I tried to master my own songs because I didn’t have the money to hire a mastering engineer. I searched on the internet, watched YouTube tutorials, and decided to keep every song at -14 LUFS. Everybody said it’s the best for streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, etc. I assumed that my songs would sound better than other songs in the same genre when it’s published. But I was wrong. It didn’t. I analyzed those songs, and I was shocked. Most of their integrated LUFS levels were around -10. Some were even around -7!
I assumed that the problem was my master. But I told you, it’s music, an art form, and it’s not that simple. It wouldn’t matter if I pushed my LUFS levels to the same levels as the other songs because the problem was not the master. I didn’t understand that the problem was my mixes at that time.
If your mixes are bad, it doesn’t matter what LUFS you are mastering. The first thing you have to be sure of is if your mix is good enough to master. But the point of this article is to understand how LUFS works. So let’s understand what it means first.
What is LUFS?
It stands for Loudness Units relative to Full Scale. We usually use dBFS in our DAWs, which stands for Decibels relative to Full Scale. dbFS just shows us the peak levels of a specific audio channel when LUFS shows us the average level adjusted to human hearing. It adjusted to human hearing because we don’t hear every frequency the same way. You can see how we hear in the graphic below.
Think of this graphic as reversed. We don’t hear the sub frequencies well, but we hear more around 4kHz. Again, we don’t hear well after 8kHz, according to the graphic and researches. Also, this is why we like the smiley face EQ setting in our cars.
But why do we use LUFS?
Because we want to keep the audio levels the same for every track on some platforms, this can be a TV commercial or a song. We use LUFS to normalize those audio levels, commercial to commercial, song to song.
What digital streaming platforms do to your tracks to normalize them?
The limit is -14 LUFS for Spotify, according to their website. But an interesting point is that Spotify also has a “loud” preference which normalizes to -11 LUFS. They put a limiter to make your track louder, which means they change your dynamics and tone. I don’t say we have to set our masters at -11 LUFS, but we also have to keep that in mind.
Therefore, people have the option to switch off normalizing on certain platforms. Youtube doesn’t let you do that, but you can do it on other platforms. Moreover, Apple Music’s default setting is off. You have to switch it on to use their Soundcheck feature on that platform.
The long and the short of it, some people will listen to your tracks without normalization. So, you can’t entirely rely upon this feature and set your LUFS level to -14.
What can you do to sound best on every platform?
You have to listen to your track carefully, and you have to decide how loud it should be. You can try different settings and see what will happen. Fabfilter L2 Limiter has a perfect setting for this. When The Unity Gain button is active, your track will be at the same level whatever you do. So you can hear clearly how your track is affected by the parameters you set. Otherwise, your ears will be tricked by the loudness, and you will feel like the track gets better by the gain and compression you add.
How to set up a limiter independent of the genre?
In this case, I will do this by Fabfilter L2, but you can do it by any other limiter. Other limiters don’t have The Unity Gain option, but you can keep it at the same level by the knob of your physical volume level.
First of all, I set on The Unity Gain button on L2.
And then, I set the output level to -1.
This is the level that Spotify recommends, but again it depends on the context so that I can change this afterward. Spotify also recommends keeping your True Peak level at -1, so it will be nice to keep open your True Peak Limiting feature on your limiter. This subject also depends on the music that you’re mastering. So don’t always set your output level at -1, and don’t look back again. Experiment with other settings, but be careful while deciding to keep it at the upper levels than -1 because your song will generate distortion on some systems or some audio formats.
After that, I play the loudest section of the song and crank the gain all the way up.
I do this because I want to hear how attack and release times affect the piece. This is the easiest way to do this because you can hear everything exaggerated.
When you’re setting up the attack time, listen carefully to the transient response of the song. Listen to the rhythmic elements. The song will have more punch with slower attack times and lose details with the fast attack times.
When you’re setting up the release time, you will change the groove. Your song will come closer with faster release times and move away with slower release times.
I set the lookahead feature.
Not every limiter has that feature, but it’s an important thing to consider. The Lookahead knob sets how quickly the limiter responds to sudden peaks in a track. But be careful while trying to achieve a greater loudness because you can get distortion with shorter lookahead times.
Now it’s time to set the style. It’s just about your taste. Try different styles in L2, and decide on one. It’s just that simple.
In this way, you can set the gain while The Unity Gain button is on.
Or you can manually keep the volume at the same level with another limiter if you don’t have L2. While doing this, I close my eyes and take back the gain knob all the way down to 0. And I start to increase the level slowly. After a point, I realize that I lose power in the track, and I stop there. Then I decrease it to a level that feels that it sounds the best. Closing your eyes is an essential step because you don’t give your ears any more references than the sound.
On this track, I felt best at 12.3 gain, and it caused me to set the LUFS around -10. It’s 4 dB more than everybody recommends. But should I decrease the gain, so my track sounds better on digital streaming platforms? Of course not. If you feel that your song sounds better with these settings, let these platforms do their job and decrease your track’s level when people listen to it with the normalizing setting is on. I switched off The Unity Gain button, and I exported my master.
To be extra sure that your song will sound its best on these platforms, you can use Loudness Penalty to listen to how it will sound when it’s published.
It shows that Spotify will decrease it to -3.8 dB. Now I can listen to it like it’s on Spotify and listen to it with my references from similar genres. If my master sounds more compressed and lacks power when I listen to the references, there might be a problem. But my song sounds just at the same ballpark as the songs that I listen to from Spotify, with the normalizing setting is on.
Sometimes you will feel like your master sounds best around -14 LUFS, but sometimes you won’t. It’s important to know that there can’t be a law that tells you the numbers that your songs will sound best because music is a subjective thing. The listeners are humans, not codes in a computer. So, next time take more care while you’re thinking about what LUFS level should your master be, don’t care about the recommendations. The best reference will always be your ears.
If you're not sure you're doing the right thing for your mix, ask for a free test mastering so you can hear what can happen to your song with the help of a professional mastering service.