Avoiding the Loudness Penalty: Cheat Sheet Guide for Pro Musicians

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Streaming has arguably become the most powerful way to reach new fans and generate revenue in the music business. Whether you’re a musician, a publisher or you represent a record label, you stand to benefit from streaming in a big way through services like Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, YouTube Music, Amazon Music and more.

But when uploading your songs to a streaming platform, it’s important to keep in mind that the streaming industry has guidelines it uses to ensure a listener-friendly experience. As part of these guidelines, it’s vital that your tracks stay within acceptable levels for loudness so that listeners are able to enjoy a consistent listening experience. Failing to do this may result in your music receiving a “loudness penalty” that can negatively impact your work.

So is this something you should be worrying about? Let’s unpack it.

What is a loudness penalty?

Simply put, a loudness penalty turns down audio which exceeds levels set by a streaming service. This is usually done via automation, and the more your music surpasses the streaming service’s guidelines, the more the volume will be lowered. It’s worth noting that even if your music adheres to traditional limits (i.e. 0dB, etc.) used in the recording industry or broadcast media, each streaming service has its own set of rules. This is why you need to have someone with experience working with different sets of streaming guidelines on your side to keep levels in check while preserving the quality of your songs.
Young man listening to music on Spotify streaming platform

How does loudness affect your music?

Aside from simply lowering the volume of a track, a penalty for being too loud can also affect the quality of your music and the listener’s enjoyment. This is because sonic compression is often used to automate the volume, and since streaming already tends to add compression to keep file sizes manageable, you’re now facing double the dynamic-squashing effects of heavy compression.

Also, because most loudness penalties are administered via automation, the changes made to your music often are not carried out by an audio professional. Instead, an algorithm does the work, and as a result, the possibility exists that loudness penalties can make your music sound worse, cheapen your image as a musical professional and even turn away potential fans who are hearing your tracks for the first time. As with anything, first impressions make a big impact, so you always want your audio to sound its best when presenting it on a large scale across the Internet. 

4 Clever ways you can avoid loudness penalties

Thankfully, there are a number of ways you can keep your tracks within loudness guidelines to avoid penalties and sound the way they were intended. Below are some tips:

Use a Professional Mastering Service

In my experience, the absolute best way to avoid penalties for loudness is to have your tracks professionally mastered by an independent, third-party mastering engineer. A mastering engineer has the tools and knowledge to put the finishing touches on your music, and having your songs mastered by an experienced engineer will also keep levels consistent and within acceptable parameters set out by all the major streaming services. As opposed to mixing, which takes into account dynamics and balancing of individual tracks, mastering deals with each song as a whole to ensure cohesion and sonic integrity throughout.

Watch Your Levels

If you attempt to master your own music, you absolutely must utilize meters, compressors and limiters responsibly. This means you also need to know the acceptable loudness limits of the streaming services you plan to use and monitor your mixes for peaks and peaking uniformity. This is a juggling act to be sure, but I usually prefer allowing music to sound its best instead of forcing changes according to numbers.

Proper Loudness Starts at the Source

If you haven’t begun the recording process yet, now is the time to start thinking about gain control. During the recording and production steps, you can help your tracks avoid penalties for loudness down the road by ensuring that all parts are recorded and gain staged as you piece the track together. Having properly recorded source material is one of the best ways to avoid complicated volume concerns later. If you keep your individual tracks within reasonable limits during recording, you’ll find that mixing tends to yield a better result and mastering doesn’t require as much manipulation.

Use the Internet to Your Advantage

Finally, there are plenty of free resources available online that can analyse your audio so that you can see exactly where you may need to make adjustments to your tracks to avoid a penalty. One site I recommend to my clients is loudnesspenalty.com as it allows you to drag and drop your own audio files into a virtual interface for quick, easy and free analysation.

You can also look online for free VST plug-ins that are designed specifically to measure levels against limits imposed by streaming services. In particular, I like YouLean Loudness Meter, but there are others available, many of which are included in popular DAW software that you might already use.

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