The ABCs of Mastering for Streaming Platforms

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Ready to make your music sound stellar on all those popular streaming platforms out there?

With giants like Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube reigning over the music landscape, you’re going to need to become a wizard at mastering your music to suit this new playground. 

In 2022, streaming services accounted for 84% of US recorded music revenue, with paid subscription service revenue increasing 8% to $10.2 billion.

So, how about we dive into the nitty-gritty together?

Getting Friendly with Streaming Audio

Before we make a start, let’s clear the air on how streaming audio works, shall we?

When we talk about Spotify and similar services, we’re talking about the use of lossy audio codecs like Ogg Vorbis and AAC.

Now, don’t be scared by the technical jargon! Essentially, these are methods to reduce the size of your audio files. 

There’s a bit of a compromise here—shrinking files does mean sacrificing some sound quality, but if you do it right, your tunes can still sound amazing on streaming platforms.

Here are a few things to keep in mind about streaming audio:

  • It’s compressed with lossy codecs (like Ogg Vorbis, AAC, MP3), which shrinks the file size by discarding some audio data.
  • These codecs are smart—they throw out less audible data to keep the quality intact as much as possible.
  • Streaming services level the playing field by normalizing audio. This means all tracks are adjusted to play at roughly the same loudness level.
  • Bitrates (how much data is processed per unit of time) can change based on your internet connection speed and the streaming quality setting. Higher bitrates equate to less compression and better quality.

Got it? Great! Let’s move on to how you can optimize your settings to fit these codecs and keep your track’s punch and dynamics.

Sampling Right and Going Deep with Bits

Remember how 44.1 kHz/16-bit audio was perfect for CD masters? Well, streaming’s a different ball game. 

Going higher with your sample rates and bit depths helps reduce artifacts, thanks to the extra resolution that gives lossy codecs more data to play with.

Here’s what you should consider for streaming masters:

  • Sample Rate: 48 kHz or 96 kHz. Going higher than 44.1 kHz allows for extra high-frequency information for codecs to hold onto, enhancing sound quality.
  • Bit Depth: 24 bits. This gives you headroom above 16-bit audio while preserving low-level detail that often gets lost in compression.

In a nutshell, aim as high as you can, but at a minimum, use 48 kHz/24-bit for masters that are heading for streaming services.

Keeping Peaks in Check with Your Limiter

Brickwall limiters for CD masters typically sit at -0.1 dB FS to prevent clipping. For streaming, you want to lower your limiter ceiling to -1 dB FS or even less. 

Why? It’s all about keeping those nasty inter-sample peaks that can push levels above your pre-encoding mix at bay. 

By setting your limiter lower, you avoid post-encoding clipping. Plus, keeping your limiter at -1 dB FS gives your track some peak headroom, allowing it to maintain its dynamic sound.

Using LUFS Meter

LUFS meter

Here’s the good news: You don’t need to crank up your mix to the max to match loudness levels anymore. No more battling in the loudness wars!

But, of course, you want your tracks to hit the ideal loudness for the streaming platform and your music genre, right? And that, my friend, is where LUFS (Loudness Units relative to Full Scale) comes to the rescue.

LUFS offers us a standardized way to gauge loudness as our ears perceive it. This means no more guessing games! 

With LUFS, you can find the perfect loudness for different genres. For instance, folk and classical can hang around -18 LUFS, while EDM can go all out at -9 LUFS.

Here’s something else to consider: Different streaming platforms have varying LUFS requirements.

Apple Music uses a reference level of -16 LUFS and allows for both track and album normalization.

Spotify opts for a default reference level of -14 LUFS but provides additional levels of -23 and -11 LUFS and also supports both track and album normalization.

On the other hand, Amazon Music, Tidal, Deezer, and Pandora all use a reference level of -14 LUFS, but each has its unique approach to normalization. YouTube requires -13 LUFS.

So, while mastering your tracks, don’t just aim for dynamics over sheer loudness. Also, consider the platform where your tracks will be streamed. This way, your tracks will sound full and punchy on any system and any platform.

Multi-Band Processing: Your Ticket to a Clear, Loud Mix

Looking to increase loudness without going overboard on compression? Enter multi-band compressors and limiters. 

These tools divide your audio into separate frequency bands so you can manage peaks in each one.

You want to add just 2-3 dB of light, transparent compression/limiting per band. This helps smooth out peaks while keeping your track’s dynamics and punch intact.

Remember, subtlety is key here. You want to gently control peaks, not crush the life out of your music.

Making Magic with the Stereo Image

A little bit of stereo width enhancement can go a long way in turning a narrow mix into a big, immersive sound. 

But be careful – drastic widening can sound unnatural and mess with mono compatibility. Instead, sprinkle a bit of subtle enhancement, just a few dB, to broaden the soundstage. 

Usually, 10-30% widening on most processors should do the trick.

And don’t forget to check your mixes in mono. You want to make sure the main elements don’t vanish when audio is combined into mono, which is often the case on mobile devices.

Just a touch of enhancement can create a more immersive mix without ruining the mono playback.

Verifying Your Masterpiece

You’ve poured your heart into mastering, but the job’s not done yet! You need to verify your work by listening on real-world systems like headphones, earbuds, laptop speakers, car stereos, and more.

Why? Because what sounds great on your studio monitors might not translate as well to everyday devices.

Taking the time to listen on multiple systems allows you to fine-tune your master so it sounds its best on any playback device.

This is particularly crucial given how streaming services use data compression and level normalization. 

So, always make sure your mastered track delivers on the most commonly used systems.

Mastering Plugin Recommendations

LUFS meter Izotope Insight

In the digital audio workstation (DAW) environment, plugins have become an indispensable part of the mastering process. 

While hardware outboard gear was once the norm, mastering plugins now provide high-quality sound along with the flexibility of recallable settings.

Here are some of the most popular and useful mastering plugins available:

  • Equalizers: EQ plugins allow for surgical control over the frequency balance of a mix. Top choices include FabFilter Pro-Q 3, iZotope Ozone, Waves Q10, Universal Audio Maag EQ4, and Brainworx bx_digital V3.
  • Compressors: Look for compressors with easy-to-dial ratios around 2:1 or 3:1 along with flexible Attack and Release times. Top plugins include Universal Audio Precision Multiband, FabFilter Pro-C 2, iZotope Ozone, Brainworx bx_opto, and Waves API-2500.
  • Limiters: The limiter controls peaks and prevents digital overs, allowing for hotter perceived volume. Top choices include iZotope Ozone, FabFilter Pro-L 2, Universal Audio Precision Limiter, Waves L2, and Sonnox Limiter.
  • Metering: Accurate metering is crucial for optimizing levels and loudness. Leading options are iZotope Insight 2, Blue Cat Audio Blue Meter, T-RackS Metering, and Waves WLM Plus Loudness Meter.
  • Dither: When reducing bit depth, quality dither adds low-level noise to mask truncation artifacts. Try multiple dither types like POW-r Dither Me Timbers and iZotope MBIT+ Dither.
  • Imaging: Some mixes need width adjustments. Good options include iZotope Imager, Waves S1, Flux Stereo Tool, and SoundToys MicroShift.

By following these plugin recommendations, you’ll have the primary tools to achieve professional mastering right within your DAW.

Wrapping Up

Well, that’s it! Follow this streaming-focused mastering workflow, and your mixes will truly shine on today’s streaming platforms. 

Remember, dynamics and punchiness are the new loudness in the streaming world.

What are your own tips and tricks for creating quality masters? Share your insights in the comments below!


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