As you’ve probably figured out, these tips document something I needed, and the solution. If you’ve ever put together an album or collection of songs, you know how difficult it can be to match levels—which I was reminded of all too clearly while preparing the album Joie de Vivre for upload to my YouTube channel. It’s rock-meets-EDM, and is done as a continuous mix that includes not just songs, but transitions. So, all the levels had to be matched very carefully. Fortunately, Studio One’s Project Page made it easy.
The key was using the Project Page’s LUFS meter readings; for a complete explanation of LUFS, please check out the article I wrote for inSync magazine. In a nutshell, it’s a way to measure audio’s perceived level that’s more sophisticated than the usual average, VU, or peak readings. If two songs have the same LUFS reading, they’ll be perceived as having a similar (if not the same) level.
This measurement standard was created in response to issues involved in broadcasting and streaming services, and also in part as a backlash against “the loudness wars.” For example, YouTube doesn’t want you to have to change the level every time a video changes, so they’ve standardized on making all audio -13 LUFS. It doesn’t matter if you squash your master recording until it looks like a sausage, YouTube will adjust the perceived level so that it can slip into a playlist with something like a live acoustic jazz recording.
In Studio One’s Project Page, the Loudness Information section for each song (Fig. 1) shows a song’s LUFS as well as readings for the RMS average level (somewhat like a VU meter) and True Peak, which indicates not just peaks, but whether any peaks are exceeding the maximum headroom on playback, and by how much. The Loudness Information can come from before or after the track’s effects, so to see how editing these alters the LUFS reading, choose the Post FX tab.
Now that we know how to measure levels, here’s one way to tweak them for consistency. We’ll assume you want something fairly compressed/limited, but not enough to become collateral damage in the loudness wars.
For each track (likely all of them) that needs to be set to a certain LUFS measurement, insert the Tricomp compressor followed by the Limiter. The screen shot shows my preferred Tricomp settings, but note that the optimum Compress knob setting depends on the material. You don’t want to compress too much, because the limiter will do most of the leveling anyway. If the gain reduction peaks reach the last “s” in “Compress” on the Limiter’s Reduction meter, you probably won’t hear too many artifacts, but you might not want to go any higher.
Next, decide what your target LUFS reading should be. As a very general rule of thumb, most rock songs are around -8 to -10 LUFS. -11 to -14 LUFS is considered as having a decent amount of dynamics, while classical music hangs out around -23 LUFS. Of course, this is all subjective—you can choose whatever level sounds “right.”
Now turn up the Limiter’s input control. The Loudness Information label will change to “Update Loudness.” Click on this; Studio One will analyze the track, and show the LUFS reading. (Note: You can force a reading by right-clicking on the song in the track column, and choosing “Detect Loudness.”)
Adjust the limiter Input level, then update the loudness. If the LUFS is below your target, turn up the Input. If the result is higher than the desired LUFS, turn down the Input. It takes a little trial and error, but eventually you’ll hit the target.
With the Tricomp and Limiter, once you get much above -13 LUFS you can “hear” the limiter because it’s stereo. With a phase-linear multiband maximizer like the Waves L3 Multimaximizer, you can push for higher LUFS readings while still sounding reasonably free of artifacts. Still, I wouldn’t want to go much above -10 LUFS—but as always, that’s a subjective call and there are no rules. If you like the way it sounds, that’s what matters.
However, be aware that even slight tweaks can make a difference, especially with the Tricomp. The Tricomp and the Limiter work together, and you can fine-tune the sound by fine-tuning each processor. For example, having Knee up all the way on the Tricomp gives more perceived loudness, and a narrower dynamic range…which may or may not be what you want. Turning on Autospeed also makes a difference.
When you listen to Joie de Vivre, I think you’ll hear that it benefited considerably by being adjusted in Studio One to a consistent LUFS reading. There’s a decent amount of dynamics, but the average perceived level of all the cuts is very consistent…and that’s what this tip all about.