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Digital Subscriptions > MusicTech > Ableton Live 2017 > THE NEW WORLD OF IN-THE-BOX MASTERING


Maximising the impact of your finished mix has changed radically over recent years with the intruction of so many new delivery formats. Here, Mike Hillier covers the in-the-box tools and tricks you need to know…

MTF Feature In The Box Mastering

The days of mastering being used to squash the life out of mixes are over – the loudness war has been won, and dynamics are finally coming back.

The process began with the introduction of EBU R128 in 2010, a set of recommendations regarding loudness set down by the European Broadcasting Union. This set of guidelines defined a new way of measuring loudness – the Loudness Unit (LU) – and recommended that broadcast audio be normalised at -23LU referenced to full-scale digital audio (LUFS). This guideline quickly found its way into law in Italy; and broadcasters in many other European countries, including the UK, set personal goals of complying with the standard. A similar law, the CALM Act, was passed in the US, which demanded broadcasters there comply with ATSC A/85, which is based on R128.

These systems, though, only apply to broadcasters – and while mastering engineers began to take note, it wasn’t until streaming services such as Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube all began implementing similar ‘loudness normalisation’ that the war was finally won. The loudness normalisation techniques used by each of these services differ slightly, but the principle is similar in each: the loudness of each track is measured before playback, and each file is automatically turned down so that they play back with the same loudness. Heavily limited tracks are turned down the most, while dynamic tracks are mostly left alone – meaning they now punch louder than the limited tracks.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that mastering is no longer necessary. Mastering has always been about far more than simply making everything louder. And artists haven’t stopped wanting to hear their music as loud and in-your-face as possible. It’s simply that the techniques to achieve loud and aggressive mixes have changed, and the methods we used to use now have the opposite effect, making mixes quieter and less noticeable.

With this in mind, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see many albums from the loudness wars getting the remaster treatment, but this time with their dynamics left alone, or even enhanced.

In this feature, then, we’re going to look at what you can do in your DAW to make your masters sound loud and punchy, without sacrificing the dynamics. We’re also going to look closely at the measurements you should be making to ensure you are listening to your tracks as they will play back on each of these streaming services.


Previously, mastering engineers have used all manner of tools to measure loudness: from PPM and VU meters to RMS measurements, dynamic-range meters, and now the new Loudness Unit. So which should you use in your own mastering sessions?

Before we go on, it’s important to understand the difference between each of these types of meter. Peak meters, such as PPMs, measure the loudest points on the waveform, and are useful for informing you of how much headroom you have before the signal will clip, but do not offer any indication of the subjective loudness of the material. A heavily compressed signal may sound loud while not containing any loud peaks, while a less-compressed signal may sound comparatively quiet, while containing some very high peaks. Peak meters can also be calibrated to oversample the incoming signal in order to determine if the signal contains any inter-sample peaks which may cause problems further along the chain, either when converted to an analogue signal, or when converted to mp3. This type of peak meter is sometimes referred to as a True-Peak meter.

RMS, VU and Loudness Unit meters provide a more useful measure of perceived loudness as they average out the signal over time. This means they are less useful for knowing where clipping may be occurring in your signal, but will let you know how loud one signal will be perceived compared to another. However, even these are not ideal measurements, as our ears perceive volume differently at different frequencies, and have no means of showing how much of the signal lies within the range of human hearing. Two signals with similar RMS and peak levels may still not sound comparatively similar in level, if one of the signals contains a good portion of its energy outside of the range of human hearing while the other is more heavily band-limited. Even within the limits of human hearing, a 200Hz tone will sound quieter than a 2kHz tone at the same level, following the equal-loudness contour, or Fletcher-Munson curves.

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About MusicTech

Ableton Live can truly become the hub of your music making set-up whatever you use, be it hardware, iOS or software. We have tutorials to help you make the most of it in any situation plus features on freeware, mastering and mobile music making. WORKSHOPS: Making the most of the Sine wave - Create with this versatile wave Integrate Live with your iOS devices - for control and music Attack, Decay, Sustain, Release - what ADSR can do for you INTERVIEWS: Highasakite Stoni Apothek