Mix loudness varies on a case by case basis, but most mastering engineers recommend around -6dB Peak loudness, with an average of -18 LUFS integrated.
While we're on topic, check out our article all about: how loud your master should be.
How Loud Should My Track Be Before Mastering?
If you want to send your mix off to get mastered, you should aim for around -6dB Peak, and anywhere from -23 dBFS RMS or LUFS to -18 dBFS RMS or LUFS average.
That's the quick answer, but as usual, it's a bit more nuanced than that.
One of the first things you'll learn as a mixing engineer is, don't cheat with a limiter on your master bus.
It's attractive, it's easy, you can mix how loud you want, and turn it down to proper levels with a limiter. Overusing limiters however, will reduce your dynamic range, while introducing clipping and other digital sound artefacts in your track.
Mixing, contrary to popular opinion, isn't about extracting as much loudness as you can from your track.
Mixing is about clarity and balance across the board. Clarity is the sole reason we do any levelling, panning, stereo adjustments, compression etc.
By putting a limiter on your master bus, you're essentially reducing the dynamic range of your mix.
If your track mix is really hot (really loud), putting a limiter on the tail end of it, will leave a lot of unwanted clipping and digital distortion artefacts.
Add to that a very compressed dynamic range, and your songs will start to sound like a mush of sounds, rather than a fully realized mix and master.
That being said, limiting isn't actually a bad thing in some cases.
Mix engineers like Steve Albini have long been intentionally squashing their dynamic range with limiters, to create louder and punchier mixes. These decisions very much depend on genre and intended output.
A jazz track will be mixed and mastered quieter than a hard dubstep track would.
Dynamic range is a very important consideration when mixing and mastering. A lot of emotion, and forward movement in music, is dictated by the level of dynamic range. Going from quiet to loud increases energy, and makes music more impactful.
Dynamic range is the difference between your loudness peaks and troughs.
Say your loudest point is at -6dB, while your quietest moments are around -18dB. This gives us a dynamic range of 12dB.
After mastering, your dynamic range should be between 10dB and 16dB.
So when mixing, focus on getting the best clarity, with a large dynamic range. A mastering compressor will decrease your dynamic range, so compensating for this during mixing is a good idea.
Optimal Master Loudness For Streaming
Streaming services are tricky to master for. The fact of the matter is that you can't please everyone.
Spotify and YouTube adjusts loudness to between -13 and -15 LUFS, while Apple Music and Deezer corrects to -16 LUFS. SoundCloud levels everything at hotter levels, at -8 to -13 LUFS.
While the differences between -13 and -16 are usually negligible, we can't overlook one of the newer additions to Spotify – the custom volume normalization levels.
Premium users can now adjust the loudness of Spotify through the app settings. Spotify offers 3 loudness modes:
- Loud (-11dB LUFS)
- Normal (-14dB LUFS)
- Quiet (-23dB LUFS)
This has been integrated to compensate for sub-optimal listening conditions, for example, a noisy environment, or a quiet library.
Obviously, for the best translation, we want to take the average loudness and work within that. The usual number you'll hear is -14 LUFS overall, but for us, the best masters are actually a little louder.
A -12dB master fits the best for streaming, in our opinion. A figure of -12 LUFS integrated, with a peak of -8dB means that most streaming services will be either in exactly your loudness range, or below.
Turning a master down tends to sound better than boosting it up, so even for Spotify's Loud mode, a 1dB boost in this case wouldn't make much of a difference.
To keep track of your loudness values during the mastering process, as well as mixing, we suggest YouLean's Loudness Meter.
It's a free loudness metering VST that displays Loudness, Integrated Loudness, True Peak, Loudness Range, Dynamic Range and Peak-Loudness Ratio.
Alternatively, loudnesspenalty.com offer a great online service, which will tell you exactly where your master stands for streaming loudness.
It'll tell you exactly how much normalization streaming services will apply to your audio file. This service is a great tool for double-checking your loudness levels.
Don't be too worried about going over on some of the services here. If you're (+/-) 1db, that's fine – anything over, change your levels.
TIP: Don't master too quietly. Some streaming services like Amazon, turns louder songs down, but doesn't currently boost quiet songs louder. Try to keep your overall loudness at -16dB LUFS integrated, or louder.
Some Mixes Are Too Loud
In the modern era of music production, with Limiters being more available than ever, most inexperienced producers tend to mix too loud.
What is too loud, you're asking?
If you struggle separating mastering and mixing in your head, you'll end up creating a mix that's entirely too hot. Essentially, if a mastering engineer needs to reduce the gain on your mix, you're doing it wrong.
If your mix needs to be turned down before mastering, you're losing essential dynamics, and you'll end up with an arguably worse sounding mix than you started.
More volume tends to be construed as a synonym of more energy. Mixing too loud however, is a sure fire way to prevent proper level balancing.
This is because when you turn your volume up, you're instantly receiving a more energetic, and dynamic sound. When these “faux” dynamics get confused with the actual mix dynamics, your mix will suffer.
If your mix bus is too loud, you're more likely to misjudge your levels. Try listening to some of your favourite mixes at a low volume.
You'll notice the mixes sound just as dynamic and full when they're quiet, just as much as they are when they're loud. That's exactly what proper balancing is.
Mastering is after all, a process that deals with normalizing audio to work over a large spectrum of listening environments. You don't want the only way to listen to your song. be on max volume.
TIP: If you're struggling with mixing at a lower volume, turn your headphones or monitors up louder than usual. This way, you're scaling your volume perception and will end up mixing a much more well-balanced track.
Best dB Level for Mixing – How Loud Should I Be Mixing?
As we stated earlier, the best headroom levels to prepare your mix for a mastering engineer are -6dB Peak level and -18 dBFS RMS or LUFS integrated. Mixing with that exact goal in mind is the best way, to get a good master.
If you're mixing without a proper loudness goal in mind, you'll inevitably have to do extra levelling work at the end of the mixing process, to get your mix levels balanced.
Best way to start levelling your mix is by starting with the loudest elements first. For example, we'd usually start a mix by levelling the kick, bass and other main focus elements. The main element of your track should dictate the loudness.
If your song is based around the kick rhythm, start off by adjusting the kick level in your daw to hit the loudness target you want to achieve.
Continue going down the list from most important audio channels, to least important. This way, you're ending up with a mix, that is balanced, and focused on the elements you want to be in focus.
Gain structure, and final mixdown levels are extremely important for the mastering engineer, since their work is very much dependent on how good the original mix is.
A mix that is too low will introduce some noise, as well as make your dynamics worse, while a mix that is too hot, will still affect clarity when mastered.
A mastering engineer needs room to breathe. Give them a hot mix, and other than turning the whole mix down, there's not much that can be done in terms of mastering.
Engineers around the world will thank you, if you just leave enough head room and don't squash your dynamics with limiting.
To summarize: before sending a mix off to a mastering engineer, make sure you leave around -6dB Peak volume, and -18 LUFS integrated in headroom.
If you're mastering for streaming, focus on around -12 LUFS integrated, but be careful not to mix too loud or not loud enough to not sacrifice any necessary dynamics.
All that being the case, trusting your ears is still the most important thing if you're going to do your own post production.
Hopefully this article has helped you get some clear guidelines to follow, when mixing and mastering music and sound for streaming.
Toms is a music producer & DJ, born and raised in Post Soviet Latvia. Currently based in Brighton, Toms has had over 6 years of experience with all things production and in that time, he's done a tonne of cool stuff! He's played multiple festivals, had experience in the field with mixing & mastering and even become a freelance journalist in the music industry.
Toms currently creates music under the alias Sovereign. Producing music that's intimate and subtle, while full of edge and energy, the young producer combines the artistic sounds of Trip Hop artists like Massive Attack, with the energy and youthfulness of producers like Flume, Jamie XX and Yaeji. You can check his stuff on Soundcloud.