I'm a big fan of DistroKid for releasing music. It's what I point most artists toward if they're serious about making a career out of music because of the rapid release strategy you should be using in 2021. But the DistroKid Loudness Normalization upsell is a TERRIBLE idea. As a mix engineer, I'm literally begging you to not waste your money on it.
When you select this optional extra, DistroKid will automatically adjust the level and headroom of your audio to Spotify's recommended settings, -14dB integrated LUFS with -1dB true peak maximum. Your newly adjusted audio will be sent to all streaming services you've selected.
Let's unpack this a little bit.
Background on the Loudness Wars
Without getting too nerdy about it, here's a plain-English TLDR on the history of the Loudness Wars and how this “feature” came to be.
During the era of CDs and into the start of the streaming/piracy era, everyone wanted their masters to be louder than each other. This is so when your song/album comes on after another artist, your music quieter – and thus less exciting. Because humans have a bias to thinking louder sounds better, more exciting, etc.
Because of technical limitations, after a certain point, you can only make a song sound “louder” by processing the mix with compression, limiting, clipping, etc. When you start pushing your music too hard with these tools for the sake of just sounding louder than the last song, you can quickly damage the fidelity of your song in a way that's NOT cool. Sometimes loud/clipping is an aesthetic (see Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy), sometimes it makes no sense and just sounds bad.
Still, even though it can easily sound bad, everyone doesn't want to be 8db quieter just in case they come on shuffle after a loud song – so artists/labels/etc kept pushing to go louder.
Enter Loudness Normalization
Because of this, the audio community created a new way to measure how loud a song sounds: LUFS (we've had similar measurements before, but this one is about perceived loudness). With this measurement, you can compare how loud one song sounds compared to another. A quiet song might have an integrated LUFS of -16, while a loud song might be closer to or -6 LUFS.
We can take those measurements and know how to adjust the two songs to sound the same volume to the listener upon playback. If we turn down the loud song example I just gave by 10db, it will sound like the same volume as the quiet song when played back to back.
Now, streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music use LUFS or similar measurements to “normalize” the loudness upon playback by default within their apps. When you scroll through a playlist, it has a nice consistent volume from song to song – no matter how loudly it was mastered.
Overall streaming services defaulting to loudness normalization is fantastic for most people. Artists don't feel as pressured to be as loud as Metallica, and users don't have to constantly adjust volume when just putting on music in the background.
Plus in the app, you can always turn it off so you hear how loud each song was mastered (I do this as a mix engineer for referencing).
Why DistroKid Loudness Normalization Is The Wrong Place to Normalize
HOWEVER, what makes this great is that it's done in the streaming service app itself upon playback – not done destructively to the file before sent out to different services.
This is important because every service has different loudness targets (in fact, Spotify lets you choose between different levels of adjustment) and they can possibly shift over time. Just because a service might normalize to -14 LUFS today, doesn't mean it will be that forever.
Let's look at the description again:
When you select this optional extra, DistroKid will automatically adjust the level and headroom of your audio to Spotify's recommended settings, -14dB integrated LUFS with -1dB true peak maximum. Your newly adjusted audio will be sent to all streaming services you've selected.https://distrokid.zendesk.com/hc/en-us/articles/4406027837587-What-is-Loudness-Normalization-
There's a lot of ambiguity in what this means technically, and honestly, I don't like any of the outcomes. (DistroKid: if you're reading this, please clarify and/or update this feature).
Possible Outcome #1
If you upload a loud track with this option that hangs out at -7 LUFS, will it get turned down by 7db (leaving 7db+ plus of peak headroom in the file)?
If that's the case and someone has loudness normalization off and you're in a genre where everything is loud…. you're gonna be 7db quieter than where your mixing and mastering engineers made it – and possibly 7db quieter than every other song on the playlist if the listener disabled loudness normalization.
If this is what the option does, I understand why they might want to ensure songs don't get clipped during the service's transcoding process – but I've never lost sleep over it as long as the file doesn't go over 0dbfs. I usually leave 0.5db of headroom or something just to be anal.
Possible Outcome #2
The other thing this might mean is only if your song is too quiet and it tries to beef it up to level. That's terrible too! If you're below the target, it would likely need MORE limiting or compression to hit -14 LUFS with a -1db of headroom – applying processing you or your team didn't want!
(And no, this isn't “cheap mastering” lol)
Just Say No to DistroKid Loundess Normalization
In either case, the streaming services know how to adjust your music to their target level. Why would you want someone else to adjust it to meet the current arbitrary targets they're using today? Plus the fact they want to charge $2.99 for this PER SONG is wild.
As a mixing engineer, if someone adjusted my work to be different than I intended, I would be livid – especially if it was 7db quieter than I intended.
If you've worked with legitimate mixing and mastering engineers for your music there is ZERO need for this service. We know what we're doing to make it sound good, loud enough, and understand that if someone wants their music played back at a normalized loudness, that the option is right there in the playback settings.