EBU-R128 : What does it mean to the modern producer/engineer?

There seems to be a lot of questions and misinformation floating around regarding the EBU-R128 standard and its practical implementations. From reading up about it, having worked with it for a few months in different scenarios and noting its practical use, I find it proper to write a short article since it’s causing a lot of confusion out there in the music industry where myself and colleagues find ourselves having to sort out misconceptions from time to time.

What does this really mean to the modern producer/engineer?

The EBU-R128/ITU-R BS.1770 was developed as a broadcast standard together with the LU (Loudness Unit) way of measuring loudness and is a superb tool for analyzing and evening out the loudness of program material ranging from all genres of music to commercials and just all types of audio. This is a great thing since the most dynamic classical piece of music you can imagine suddenly plays back at the same perceived level as Metallica’s “Death Magnetic” without losing any of its dynamics. But implementing this for modern music production, meaning basically anything less dynamic than classical music, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

LU vs. VU!

The EBU-R128 standard has set a reference value for loudness called 0LU (Loudness Unit) which is the same thing as -23LUFS (Loudness Unit Full Scale). LU is a much more accurate way of measuring perceived loudness compared to the old VU-meter (Volume Unit) or in the digital world measuring “dBFS RMS”. Just for reference, 0VU corresponds to -18dbFS RMS which was the old reference for “how loud music should be”. Now, modern commercial music very seldom sits at a level below -10dBFS RMS and depending on if you’re measuring your RMS levels at AES17 or not (which most people still don’t it seems, so we’ll leave that out for clarity) -10dBFS RMS corresponds to a value of 15LU. This means that most currently produced music is AT LEAST 15dB too loud in order to meet the EBU-R128 broadcast standard!

In any type of broadcast situation, most modern music will have to be turned down by 15db or more before it hits the air. So if you would look at the 0LU reference in dBFS RMS terms, you’d have levels sitting at around -25dBFS RMS on your final master which in practice means that you’d pretty much need to half your level, then half that again, and almost half that once again for most currently produced music to end up at the reference level set out by the EBU-R128 standard.

As you can see that’s a pretty darn soft level!!

Setting the standard!

Most Digital Audio Workstations today have some kind of an LU-meter built-in pre-set to the EBU-R128 standard and for most modern production it’s pretty much unusable since you will be going off the charts and pinning the meters from the very first beat! So if you can’t change the reference level of your built-in LU-meter you will need to work at an extremely low-level just to be able to use it properly… and that will be around 15db lower or less than you’re used to. What this means in practice is that the LU-meter in itself is a superb tool for measuring perceived loudness of any type of audio material but implementing the EBU-R128 standard reference level of 0LU for most types of music is pretty pointless before all physical media is gone and all types of online streaming such as Spotify, iTunes, YouTube etc… conforms to this standard playback level without deviation.

Wait a minute, they just did! 😀

Or, they kind of did anyway…

As I said, the EBU-R128 standard is just too dynamic for most types of modern music since it creates A LOT of unused headroom and considering the tiny amplifiers that people tend to listen to music on today, this headroom doesn’t make much sense since you could never get a good level going through your iPhone or computer speakers. The good people at these streaming services realized as much and raised the bar by 6-10db. YouTube for instance has put a constraint on their audio to be played back at around -13 LUFS compared to the EBU-R128 level of -23 LUFS. This makes much more sense to the average consumer and streaming services seem to implement a standard of between -16 to -13 LUFS.

This means that most modern music would need none to very moderate limiting in order to reach this level of loudness.

Keep your resolution!

Fact of the matter is with most types of modern music (house, edm, rock, metal, pop, rnb etc…) that don’t rely on a huge dynamic range like classical music and film scores, you will need to struggle in order to get peak values to read over -10dBFS at the mix bus of your DAW when it’s totally uncompressed/unlimited and conforming to the EBU-R128 standard. In practice, this means that if you would mix and master to conform to the EBU-R128 standard of 0LU, for most modern music productions you will have 10dB or more of unused headroom on your stereo bus.

If you then mix this down to a 24bit WAV or AIFF file, you’re basically throwing away two bits of resolution at the top of your dynamic range, leaving you with a 22bit resolution in practice. This is why you don’t really need to bother with the EBU-R128 standard unless you’re working specifically towards broadcast or you’re doing classical or film, otherwise you are basically throwing away a small part of your sound.

Summary

Just because the EBU-R128 standard for broadcast and now streaming services even out all playback levels, it doesn’t mean you should stop compressing and/or limit your mix or master altogether. From what I’ve seen so far it’s not far-fetched we’ll see the loudness war turning into a dynamics battle! Instead of “how loud can we make it?” it will be “how dynamic can we make it?!”. I might be the first mastering engineer saying this but.. DYNAMICS AREN’T ALWAYS A GOOD THING!

Tools designed for loudness and digital level control has a musical impact, and used in the right amount and with good taste they also offer a musical contribution. Some genres just sound good or right when mastered and mixed for loudness, or to be perfectly clear, a limited dynamic range. What the EBU-R128 enables you do to is that you don’t need to produce, mix and master for any louder than you think sounds musical for any given purpose. You don’t need to compare your work to others and feel you need to put out a louder product. You can finally just choose to go with what sounds good and be done with it since the competition will still be played back at the same levels, which finally opens up the door for better quality sound!

The author is the founder of “The Panic Room” which is a multiple Grammy awarded and gold/platinum selling music production company in Sweden offering Production, Recording, Mixing and Mastering services.

Thomas “Plec” Johansson – Producer / Recording, Mixing & Mastering Engineer

Email: plec@thepanicroom.se
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