Below I am sharing something that I send to my mastering clients when they inquire about targeting LUFS levels for streaming services. Months ago I posted an early draft of this in another thread so apologies for the repetition. I hope it is helpful to some readers to have this summary in it’s own thread. Discussion is welcome.
Regarding mastering to streaming LUFS loudness normalization targets - I do not recommend trying to do that. I know it’s discussed all over the web, but in reality very few people actually do it. To test this, try turning loudness matching off in Spotify settings, then check out the tracks listed under “New Releases” and see if you can find material that’s not mastered to modern loudness for it’s genre. You will probably find little to none. Here’s why people aren’t doing it:
1 - In the real world, loudness normalization is not always engaged. For example, Spotify Web Player and Spotify apps integrated into third-party devices (such as speakers and TVs) don’t currently use loudness normalization. And some listeners may have it switched off in their apps. If it’s off then your track will sound much softer than most other tracks.
2- Even with loudness normalization turned on, many people have reported that their softer masters sound quieter than loud masters when streamed.
3 - Each streaming service has a different loudness target and there’s no guarantee that they won’t change their loudness targets in the future. For example, Spotify lowered their loudness target by 3dB in 2017. Also, now in Spotify Premium app settings you find 3 different loudness settings; “Quiet, Normal, and Loud”. It’s a moving target. How do the various loudness options differ? - The Spotify Community
4 - Most of the streaming services don’t even use LUFS to measure loudness in their algorithms. Many use “ReplayGain” or their own unique formula. Tidal is the only one that uses LUFS, so using a LUFS meter to try to match the loudness targets of most of the services is guesswork. Edit: In September 2019 YouTube switched to -14 LUFS. In December 2020 Spotify began transitioning from “ReplayGain+3dB” to -14 LUFS. It’s good that a normalization standard is emerging. It’s also more evidence that they can change these targets at any time.
5 - If you happen to undershoot their loudness target, some of the streaming sites (Spotify, for one) will apply their own limiter to your track in order to raise the level without causing clipping. You might prefer to have your mastering engineer handle the limiting.
6 - Digital aggregators (CD Baby, TuneCore, etc.) generally do not allow more than one version of each song per submission, so if you want a loud master for your CD/downloads but a softer master for streaming then you have to make a separate submission altogether. If you did do that it would become confusing to keep track of the different versions (would they each need different ISRC codes?).
It has become fashionable to post online about targeting -14LUFS or so, but in my opinion, if you care about sounding approximately as loud as other artists, and until loudness normalization improves and becomes universally implemented, that is mostly well-meaning internet chatter, not good practical advice. My advice is to make one digital master that sounds good, is not overly crushed for loudness, and use it for everything. Let the various streaming sites normalize it as they wish. It will still sound just as good.
If you would like to read more, Ian Shepherd, who helped develop the “Loudness Penalty” website, has similar advice here: Mastering for Spotify ? NO ! (or: Streaming playback levels are NOT targets) - Production Advice