If you’ve got a discerning ear, it doesn’t take much to tell that a song streaming in your web browser isn’t the highest quality method of listening. All kinds of social networks and sites like SoundCloud and YouTube can absolutely destroy a mix when it runs through their compression algorithms (the kinds that make files smaller, not the ones that make your kick drum punchier).
As download rates become faster and Internet providers upgrade bandwidths, the streaming issues get better, thanks to less (or no) compression when streaming in HD. Unfortunately, that approach relies on having listeners that have those speeds; something you have no control over.
So instead of trying to fight the impossible, focus on the control you do have when mastering a song that’s going to be on these streaming services. Sites like YouTube and SoundCloud have HUGE user bases and communities that share music. Make sure your mix is clear and polished no matter what your listener’s Internet speed is.
The key to any good mix is to give yourself some headroom while working. Loud can be great, but only within a context that has dynamics. A mastering engineer should know this all too well – it’s the basis of the ongoing loudness wars that destroyed Metallica’s Death Magnetic album (which is still being used as the prime example of something that was mastered “too loud” more than 10 years after its release).
Leave yourself some breathing room on everything you master. Do you think your listener is going to miss that extra 1-2 dB when you’ve properly mixed and mastered your song to those levels? Absolutely not. There are plenty other solutions than a mix that borders on clipping. If they still don’t think it’s loud enough, let them turn it up!
I’m not saying to cut everything to extremes either – too much headroom can result in some messy noise problems when the algorithm normalizes your song. The 1-2 dB is a sweet spot where you don’t have to worry about any service adding too much gain to compensate, or worse, crushing your audio by reducing the gain when it’s too loud for their platform.
Keep Track of Transients
Your transients are the key to remaining dynamic while leaving headroom for the streaming algorithms to work with. I say this, because a great sound kick and snare can still be clear and punchy without compromising themselves at a reduced overall volume.
Use tools like Transify to process transients on a one-by-one or group basis. If you’re someone that mixes and masters your own songs, you can control the various frequency bands independently, adding both low-mid punch and treble attack at the same time on something like a snare drum.
These multi-band transient processors are also a golden goose for mastering engineers. Even if you receive a mix that’s been printed down to a single track by the mixer, Transify can inject some life into a mix by creating a tighter low-end, improved sustain & clearer transients – even in a dense mix.
From a mastering perspective, this let’s you dial back a loud mix without compromising the punch the mix engineer was going for in the first place.
Glue, Don’t Crush
By the time you’ve reached your master fader, everything should fit together nicely. The master bus is a great place to add some shine to your final mix, but don’t go crazy with it or you risk wasting all of your hard work.
I say this because bus compression can add some sweet harmonic distortion that glues everything together, but too much of it can tear everything apart.
The file compression techniques used by major streaming sites are extremely good at what they do (though there’s obviously room for improvement on their end or you wouldn’t be reading this). They analyze your audio file and determine where compromises can be made with the smallest impact to the quality of your sound.
Thousands of these calculations happen every time you upload. It’s why videos uploaded to YouTube in HD can sometimes take hours to process. If you’ve got too much saturation happening on your master fader – you’re gumming up the works.
There are plenty of places to add saturation to your tracks from individual vocals to guitar and drum busses, but your master fader is rarely at the top of the list when trying to create a great, mastered track. By adding harmonic saturation here, you’re using up some of that empty space YouTube would’ve otherwise seen as a good spot to compromise.
Am I saying you shouldn’t compress at all? Of course not, just be logical when you do it. If your mix session is the creative place to put everything where you want it in a mix and making everything sound the way you want it to, your mix session should be the quality check before you ship it out the door. Use bus compression to glue things together and keep things in line, but proceed with logical and technical proficiency.
Good Mastering Is Universal
While we’ve been focused on streaming platforms, it’s important to note that a well-written, well-recorded, mixed & mastered song is going to sound good regardless of the platform. Mastering for streaming isn’t really anything new for mastering engineers – they’ve been focused on building universally accepted tracks for decades (just look at how many studios keep a pair of junky speakers around).
If you’re following a process and seeing good results – keep it up. If your mixes seem to get crushed time and time again, maybe dial things back just a bit and try a few of these steps. Once you’ve had a chance to try them out, come share your results with us over in the Joey Sturgis Tones Forum on Facebook.