How Loud Should My Master Be? Simple Steps To A Pro Mastering Sound

The best mastering settings are -14 LUFS integrated loudness, with -0.2dBFS True Peak, and a minimum 6dB of dynamic range.

This can vary between streaming services, but -14LUFS will have you covered for the most popular services like, Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer etc.

If you want a professional mix and master, check out our mixing and mastering services page.

What RMS Should My Master Be?

VU meter displaying RMS values mastering

Quick answer:

RMS levels for loud, in your face tracks, should range between -7dBFS and -12 dBFS. For more subdued music, go lower at -16dBFS. The minimum we recommend going is -18dBFS.

Obviously it’s not always this simple, and is dependant on the context of your track. Keep in mind what genre you’re going for, and use a reference track to check the RMS levels.

Aim to stay within your genres average RMS values.

Detailed answer:

It’s easy to get confused in the world of mastering metrics. Whether it’s LUFS, RMS or Peak values, identifying the differences of these is key to the work of any mastering engineer.

Furthermore, services like YouTube, Apple Music and Spotify, all have their own targets of how loud your song should sound

RMS is essentially a mathematical measure of the magnitude or power of values. Unless mathematics was your thing in school, you probably haven’t got a clue what that means. So, to put it simply, RMS refers to the amount of energy in your signal, over a period of time.

Think of it as, your global average loudness level. If you’re familiar with the world of analog hardware, all VU meters are essentially showing RMS values.

Not to be confused with Peak volume, which is the measure of your absolute loudest point in your signal – usually these will be your harsher transients.

The difference between Peak and RMS values is your dynamic range. Say your peaks are at -1.5dBFS (decibel Full Scale) and your RMS value is at -15dBFS. That means, your dynamic range is 13.5 dB.

So what RMS should artists be aiming for, when mixing? Well, there is a reason you might not want to use RMS, but we’ll get into that a bit further along. For now you should just keep in mind that RMS is the mathematical average volume of your signal.

RMS values entirely depend on what genre you’ll be working with. EDM songs will be louder, while acoustic tracks will be quieter, pretty self explanatory. The dynamic range of EDM songs will be lower and acoustic will be higher.

If you’re working with Electronic Music and going for high-intensity and energy in your master. Try for values between -7dBFS and -12dBFS, depending on your individual track. For more subdued music, RMS values of -16dBFS and up, are preferable.

The absolute minimum you’ll want to go is -18dBFS, but this can be a little too much so don’t be scared to experiment.

What LUFS Should I Aim For When Mastering?

Rack EQ What Is Mastering 4

Now, why are RMS values not the perfect metric to master to? Well, if RMS is the mathematical robotic side of volume, LUFS is closer to our, human, perception of loudness.

To put it simply, if you hear an EDM song and acoustic track with the same RMS levels, they’re likely to not feel like they’re the same volume. In contrast to this, two songs at identical LUFS values, should ideally sound like they’re the same level.

LUFS (Loudness Unit Full Scale) are pretty much the standard measurement for loudness, it takes into factor both perceived loudness as well as signal intensity.

LUFS refer to the full scale of loudness (0 being the absolute maximum a system can reproduce) which is why LUFS values are always negative numbers.

LUFS in general are better to master to, because it more closely quantifies what you’ll actually be hearing.

It’s also important to distinguish between Short term and Integrated LUFS.

  • Short Term LUFS – generally look at a shorter period of time, which is great, when you want to measure loudness for a particular section of your song.
  • Integrated LUFS – are the overall average of your audio signal.

Integrated LUFS listen for loudness values over time, constantly adjusting with developments in the music. Essentially, if you measure integrated LUFS and play your entire track, the value at the end will be your Integrated LUFS Value of the entire track.

In general we suggest sticking to values around -14 LUFS to -12 LUFS on your master. Additionally, aim for around -0.2 dB Peak.

It’s also valuable to use reference tracks and match your master to the reference tracks.

Picking a reference track is quite simple. Choose a song from a producer you like, that is similar to your track in terms of energy and genre. Make sure the reference track is as uncompressed as possible, and check if it isn’t clipping.

Why -14? You might ask, since you’ve probably seen that figure being thrown around a lot, when talking about mastering levels.

Since most music nowadays is streamed, we need to focus on optimizing our masters for these streaming services.

All Streaming services have their own loudness correction and limiting in place, so you’re aiming for the least possible difference between your master, and the one on Spotify.

We’ll talk about online streaming services and their loudness correction a bit further on, but in general, taking the average loudness, -14 LUFS is the way to go.

TIP: The streaming loudness target is different from Broadcast. Streaming services will correct for loudness, however, the standard for broadcasting is -23 LUFS, which you’ll have to stick to.

How To Prepare Your Mix for Mastering

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Preparing your mix for mastering is quite straight forward. Make sure everything in your mix sounds good and the way you want it to. If your mix sounds like it’s ready for release, and just needs to be a bit more loud, your track is ready for mastering.

The biggest issue with beginner producers is headroom.

If you send a mix that’s already loud enough to any mastering engineers, they won’t have anything to do. The worst thing you can do for clarity and translation is limiting your master buss during the mix.

We get it, it’s much easier to leave a limiter on your master buss and not worry about gain staging. When mixing however, we’re interested in making sure the music sounds as good as possible.

Limiting your master will mean that, first of all, you won’t get an accurate representation of your individual track gain. Secondly, your dynamic range will be squashed before you even get to mastering.

This means that further mastering will just decrease your dynamic range even more, and you’ll end up with a flat sounding master.

For masters that sound better, make sure to leave at least 6dB of headroom on your mix. Export your songs as 24-bit, 48kHz WAV files. Your engineer might use a higher sample rate, but 44.1 and 48kHz are the defaults.

Lastly, make sure you leave some blank space at the start and end of your master, so that they can be cut down perfectly by the engineer.

How To Measure LUFs in Mastering

youlean loudness metering tool streaming & mastering

When Mastering, measurement is key. While you could forego measuring entirely and mix to a reference track, it’s still important to know your loudness values, if you’ll be releasing your music.

That being said, how do we actually measure LUFS and True Peak Values?

Well, while some DAW’s come with Loudness Measurement as stock, most don’t, and will need a separate metering plugin.

Our favourite, and probably the most well-known is the YouLean Loudness Meter 2.

YouLean’s metering plugin comes in both FREE and Pro options, with Pro offering more detailed measurements, should you feel the need to dive in deeper.

The Free version however, is more than enough for most producers and engineers.

In addition to a few useful tools, you get both short term and integrated LUFS measurements, as well as true peaks and dynamic range.

If you are an owner of the iZotope bundle, you have iZotope’s Insight 2 VST, which is another great measurement plugin.

It features all the measurements you’d need, as well as a 3d spectrum analyzer. It’s also a great option for podcasts and dialogue based projects, due to it’s intelligibility section.

When you have a measurement plugin, all that’s left is to pop it on your master buss, and start metering.

TIP: Always place the measurement device, at the end of your mastering chain.

How Loud Should My Master Be for Streaming?

apple or spotify spotify streams edited
Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

In general, you should focus on getting your music around the –14 LUFS integrated, to optimize it for listening. Most streaming services however have different thresholds of how loud they want their music to be.

To process mixes for playback on Spotify, YouTube and other platforms, artists have to focus on these limits.

-14 LUFS is the loudness level that Spotify corrects to. If you have a louder master, platforms will use their own limiter, to adjust your music to these targets, boosting quieter music.

Any limiting or processing on the side of the streaming platforms, makes your music sound different.

This is the exact reason why we want the meters to be around -14 LUFS, so that what you upload, is what you hear.

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Export settings for SoundCloud are very different for other platforms, but we’ll talk about SoundCloud targets a bit further on.

You may want to choose the platform you think you’re music is going to do best on, and get your master sounding top tier for that service. We usually choose Spotify & Apple Music, since that’s where most people tend to listen.

Check your master with tools like YouLean, or LoudnessPenalty. If it shows between -1 & +1, then you should be fine to release your music with no issues.

loudness penalty mastering levels streaming
Look for something like this.

As you can see we’re generally ok across all platforms, with minor changes on Spotify, Pandora, & Deezer. These minor changes won’t have a huge effect on how your music sounds.

Trying to hit all the targets will simply eat all your time, and take away from what’s important: making music.

Anything above or below (-/+) 1, you’ll want to change your master.

Personally we always do 2 separate masters:

  • For Spotify & Apple Music – not as compressed, or pushed through a limiter, which helps in retaining dynamics.
  • For SoundCloud – pushed harder through limiting, more compression, and generally louder to compete with how loud everything is on SoundCloud.

Dynamic Range & Why It’s Important.

Dynamic Range is simple, it’s the difference in dB, between your loudest peak, and your softest and quietest part.

high dynamic range mastering
High Dynamic Range
low dynamic range mastering
Low Dynamic Range

That’s good an all, but what’s the difference?

Well, if you hear a dry recording, and then hear it again, compressed, that’s the difference.

Not a lot of producers know that compression is short for, DRC or, dynamic range compression. This means that compression literally works by decreasing your dynamic range.

Keeping at least 6dB of dynamic range at all times is preferable, if you go lower than that, your master will start to lose energy.

That means, rather than sounding dynamic and interesting, your master will just be a wall of sound, without much difference between louder and quieter parts.

Usually, the rule of thumb is, get as much dynamic range as possible, within your loudness target, in our case, that’s -14 LUFS integrated.

Dynamic range can also be an artistic decision. A hard Techno track can sound better with a lower dynamic range, while an acoustic track will need as much dynamics as possible.

Dynamic range is vital to your music, because it adds a layer of soul and color to your music. While lower dynamics can feel flat and robotic a lot of the time.

It’s key to remember, that unlike loudness, there isn’t a standard for dynamic range, it can be what you want it to be, and it’s ultimately up to you.

If your track is starting to sound over-compressed, it’s probably due to issues in dynamic range. Fixing your dynamic range can be difficult, so it’s important to have it in mind, when you mix and master.

Proper dynamics can only be accomplished by proper gain staging and good use of compression, so keeping a meter on your master buss at all times can be valuable.

How Loud Should My Master Be for Soundcloud?

soudncloud master levels

SoundCloud is different from most other streaming services. How does SoundCloud manage to get your music optimized and ready for playback so swiftly, when Spotify can take up to 2 weeks?

First of all, it’s their compression. And we’re not talking about dynamic range compression but, file compression. SoundCloud used to stream all music at a lossy 128kbps. That was until 2018, when they changed to 64kbps.

If you’re unfamiliar with sample rates, that’s essentially like watching a movie at 12fps, rather than 60fps.

This kind of aggressive compression rarely comes without drawbacks which is why, if you’re mastering with SoundCloud in mind, you’ll need to keep them in mind.

First of all, loudness:

SoundCloud normalizes their songs to -14 LUFS. The big difference with SoundCloud is Peak levels. With harder file compression, a master with a peak level of -0.2 is too high.

For more compressed audio, leaving at least -1dB of peak headroom, anything above can start to clip and sound harsh.

Another drawback of this kind of compression is that 64kbps cannot accurately recreate your entire stereo field, and songs with more width and stereo imaging will inevitably sound worse.

Theoretically, the best sounding audio on SoundCloud will be a mono track, but for a master in 2021, this is quite extreme.

To compensate for this, we recommend narrowing your stereo field above around 8kHz, higher frequencies require more information, and width increases that amount exponentially.

If you use Ozone 9, you also have a Codec Preview option. You can set this to a 64kbps MP3, to hear the changes in real time and adjust accordingly.

Your export settings for SoundCloud should be 16-bit WAV file at 48kHz.

SoundCloud uses 48kHz, and if you upload at 44.1, your track will go through sample rate conversion. Thankfully, most of this sort of compression has become very transparent, and honestly doesn’t change much.

When uploading to SoundCloud, you’ll have to make peace with the fact that it’s not going to be the highest quality listening experience.

TIP: Just like most other online mastering platforms, SoundCloud mastering is not the best match for getting your final mixes mastered. They’re great for demo’s, but online mastering services rarely create clear and professional final masters.

Finishing Up

To recap the best mastering settings are:

-14 LUFS integrated loudness, with -0.2dBFS True Peak, and a minimum 6dB of dynamic range. It can vary from service to service though, so be sure to check the guidelines.

With all these different loudness targets, meter values, reference tracks and technical know-how, mastering, is based around technique and measurement.

Knowing what to aim for when mastering is key to making your music sound good on any platform.

Keep in mind that mastering can’t fix bad mixes. A good master will bring out the best of your mix, so reaching the appropriate loudness is necessary to have your awesome master, sound just as awesome on Spotify.

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