The website for the Loudness Penalty has been one of the most successful and divisive projects I’ve ever worked on.

We were aware that including the term “Penalty” in the name might ruffle some feathers, and we were OK with that. After all, we wanted the site to be both helpful and informative. Why bother uploading your music at -6 LUFS if all streaming providers would reduce the volume by 8 dB? Whatever you think of the term, it certainly isn’t a Loudness Bonus!

However, others have criticized it, claiming that we are creating a problem or scaremongering. And, in retrospect, I suppose we could have named it something like “Loudness Preview” or “Loudness Offset” instead – but (a) they are fairly boring names, and (b) it’s too late now!

But, really, I’m completely satisfied with my choice. We wanted the name to be thought-provoking and challenging, and we think we succeeded. Some songs will sound great even if they’re mastered loud and then toned down online, but understanding what will happen ahead of time is still useful when choosing how loud to master. Knowledge is a powerful tool.

However There are still a few common misunderstandings regarding the site, and here is an excellent place to address them.

1. The values aren’t intended to be used as benchmarks

It’s OK if your song’s volume is reduced by 8 decibels. Personally, I like to compare how a less highly processed version sounds to how it sounds when I post it, and I nearly always like the outcome. But it’s OK if you preview your file on the site and it sounds precisely as you want it to sound when compared to appropriate reference recordings.

(However, be in mind that super-loud masters may cause decoder clipping when streamed.)

2. You don’t have to use the same value for each song

On YouTube, the loudest masters I produce are lowered in volume by 2 or 3 dB, which I don’t mind. It’s OK if the quieter ones are simply turned down a notch. We don’t want our songs to sound same; instead, we want them to sound fantastic.

(Remember to use the Preview feature, not just the numbers, while making your choice.)

3. Spotify is the only platform that uses a limiter, and it’s only when you’re cranking up the volume

When lowering the volume of a song, none of the streaming services apply any further compression or restriction. It’s the way something sounds, not the streaming service, that makes it seem weak, lifeless, or distorted after a large volume decrease.

(Spotify does, however, employ a limiter to avoid clipping when raising the volume of quieter tracks, which doesn’t always sound fantastic.) If this worries you, keep an eye out for positive LP.)

But let’s go back to the headline of this article:

If the LP values don’t have to match, and it’s OK to receive large “penalties” if you enjoy the sound, and the only change is a clear level drop…

Is the Loudness Penalty REALLY THAT IMPORTANT?

YES. This is why.

To begin with, not all streaming providers use the same method for determining loudness. Spotify, in instance, does not utilize LUFS but rather ReplayGain.

As a result, a song may be played back as much as 3dB softer than the LUFS would indicate!

That’s a significant distinction to be aware of, so if you see a significant discrepancy between the YouTube and Spotify Loudness Penalty findings, make sure you Preview and confirm you’re OK with the outcome. If not, the approach I’m going to talk about here may be able to assist.

Second, if your music does get a significant penalty, you may be missing something. There’s a distinction to be made between sounding loud and just measuring loud. Try lowering the raw level and see whether the additional peak headroom enables you to add even more aggressiveness, snap, and bite to your loud music.

Finally, the higher the penalty, the greater the chance that the file will be decoded with more distortion. If the loudness is more than -14 LUFS, Spotify recommends a peak level of no more than -2 dBTP.

It’s playing it safe, but some of the loudest files may decode with peak levels of +3 or 4 dBTP, and in many popular players, all of that is clipped off again. Even if you like your master’s super-dense sound, it’s probably best to tone it down yourself before uploading to guarantee a clearer decoding.

Finally, it’s just common sense to put your music through its paces before releasing it into the world. When I’m working on my masters, I don’t give a second consideration to the statistics since they seem wonderful online.

But, every now and again, something unexpected occurs, and in such instances, it’s much better to be forewarned and forearmed, in my opinion.

The Loudness Penalty is real; it has an impact on how people hear our music, and that has an impact on how they feel about it, which is significant. Loudness normalization is here to stay, and the sooner you recognize it and begin working with it rather than against it, the better your music will sound.

But then again, I’d say that!