Wide variations in average (Program/Integrated) Loudness are common across all forms of audio distributed on the internet. This includes audio Podcasts, Videocasts, and Streaming Media. This is due to the total lack of any standardized guidelines in the space. Need proof? Head over to Twit.tv and listen to a few minutes of any one of their programs. Use headphones, and set your playback volume to a comfortable level.
Now head over to PodcastAnswerMan.com, and without making any change to your playback volume – listen to the latest program.
I rest my case.
In fact, there is a 10 LU difference in average loudness between the two. Twit.tv programs check in at approximately -22 LUFS. PodcastAnswerMan checks in at approximately -12 LUFS. I find this astonishing, but I am not surprised. I’m not signaling them out for any lack of quality issues or anything like that. In my view both networks do a great job, and my guess is they have sizable audiences. Both shows are well produced and it simply makes sense to compare them in this case study.
With all this in mind let me stress that at this particular time I am not going to focus on discussing Program Loudness variations or any potential suggested standard. I can assure you this is coming! I will say that I advocate -16.0 LUFS (Program/Integrated Loudness) for all media formats distributed on the internet. Stay tuned for more on this. For now I would like to discuss True Peak compliance that will be a vital part of any recommended distribution standard.
What surprises me more than Program Loudness inconsistency is just how many producers are pushing files with clipped, distorted audio. In many cases Intersample Peaks are present in audio files that have been normalized to 0 dBFS. (For more information on Intersample Peaks please refer to this brief explanation). Producers need to correct this problem before their audio is distributed.
One of the most useful features included in Adobe Audition is the Match Volume Processor. This tool includes various options that allow the operator to “dial in” specific average loudness and peak amplitude targets. After processing, the operator can examine the results by using Audition’s Amplitude Statistics analysis to check for accuracy.
Notice in the snapshot above I set the processor to Match To: Total RMS, with a -18.50 dB RMS average target. I’ve also selected the Use Limiting option. I’m able to dial in custom Look-Ahead and Release Time parameters as I see fit. Is there something missing? Indeed there is. Any time you push average levels you run the risk of clipping the source. In Audition the Match Volume/Use Limiting option lacks the capability for the operator to set a specific Peak Amplitude Ceiling. I’ve determined that in certain situations Peak Amplitudes reach a -0.1 dB ceiling resulting in possible clipped samples and True Peak levels that exceeded 0dBFS. Keep in mind this is not always the case. The results depend on the Dynamic Range and available Headroom of any source.
So how do we handle it?
Notice above the Match Volume Processor offers two Peak Amplitude options: Peak Amplitude and True Peak Amplitude. The European Broadcasting Union’s EBU R128 spec. dictates -1.0 dBTP (True Peak) as the ultimate ceiling to meet compliance. Here in the states ATSC A/85 dictates -2.0 dBTP. Since most, if not all audio formats distributed on the internet are delivered in lossy formats, it is important to pay close attention to True Peak Amplitude for both source (lossless) and distribution (lossy) files.
I advocate -1.0 dBTP as the standard for internet based audio file delivery. True Peak Limiters are able to detect and alleviate the possibility of Intersample Peaks from occurring. It is recommended to pass audio through a True Peak compliant limiter after loudness normalization and prior to lossy encoding. Options include ISL by Nugen Audio, Elixir by Flux, and (the best kept secret out there) TB Barricade by ToneBoosters. If you are running Audition, Match To: True Peak Amplitude and you should be all set.
The plugin developers mentioned above as well as Waves, MeterPlugs, tc electronic, Grimm Audio, and iZotope supply Loudness Meters and toolsets that display all aspects of loudness specifications including True Peak alerts. Visit this page for a list of supported Loudness Meters.
If True Peak detection and compliance is not within your reach due to the lack of capable tools, a slightly more aggressive ceiling (-1.5 dBFS) is recommended for Peak Normalization. The additional .5 dB acts as a sort of safety net, insuring maximum peak amplitude remains at or below -1.0 dBFS. One thing to keep in mind … performing Peak Amplitude Normalization after Loudness Normalization may very well result in a reduction in average, program loudness. Once again changes to the processed audio will depend on the audio attributes prior to Peak Normalizing.
Below I’ve supplied data that supports what I noted above. The table displays three iterations of a test file: Input, Loudness Normalized Intermediate, and final Output. For this test I used the ITU-R BS.1770-2 “Match To” option in Audition’s Match Volume Processor. I pushed the average target to -16.0 LUFS. As noted, this is the target that I advocate for internet and/or mobile audio. This target is +7 LU hotter than R128 and +8 LU hotter than ATSC A/85.
After processing the Input file, the average target was met in the Intermediate file, but True Peak overs occurred. The Intermediate file was then passed through a compliant True Peak Limiter with it’s ceiling set to -1.0 dBTP. Compliance was met in the Output with a minimal reduction in Program Loudness.
Producers: there is absolutely no excuse if your audio contains distortion due to clipping! At the very least you should Peak Normalize to -1.5 dBFS prior to encoding your lossy MP3. Every audio application on the planet offers the option to Peak Normalize, including GarageBand and Audacity. Best case scenario is to adopt True Peak compliance and learn how to use the tools that are necessary to get it done. If you are an experienced producer or professional, and you come across content that does not comply – reach out and offer guidance.