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Updated: Free Plugins and Competitive Loudness on YouTube

It has been a while since my last post, mainly because I’ve been busy brewing beer, studying, and recording. I’m glad to report that my first beer was a hit. I’ve also recorded some awesome sessions, but more on that  later – this post is about free plugins and competitive loudness. Updated with audio at the bottom.

Though primarily a technical and mix engineer, I’ve recently begun to wear the hat of amateur mastering engineer. At WFUV, we record and prepare audio for many destinations, including terrestrial broadcast, web streams and YouTube. Each format has specific requirements for optimal audio levels.

This is gross. No one wants this.

Program Levels and Competitive Loudness

Our program levels for broadcast are considered optimal at line level; over-modulation is generally frowned upon by the FCC, and downstream products (such as radios) are designed to receive transmissions which adhere to this limitation. While your local pop station sounds like the audio was compressed to death, were you to digitally record your radio’s output, you’d likely find a brick-wall limited waveform peaking around -12dBFS.

Our YouTube content, however, competes with audio that was professionally mastered for commercial release; indeed, the waveform you’d observe from a rip of your favorite VEVO video would probably look a lot like the waveform you’d see from Britney Spears’ latest album – a brickwall peaking around full scale. As WFUV began focusing on YouTube content, we realized that simply using our broadcast audio would yield a video that was quiet relative to videos on VEVO… and pursuant to generally accepted psycho-acoustic principles, our audio would sound “worse” to our viewers in comparison. Thus was born the need to master the audio for our YouTube products, in order to ensure they’re competitively loud compared to other content.

Tools

As I continue to train my ears to work with 2-track sources, I stumbled across some really great, free plugins.

Tone Projects: Basslane

This subtle but critical plug allows you to control the stereo width of the low frequency content in your mix. While [subjectively] good mixes tend to keep very low frequencies in the center (think of mastering for vinyl – there’s a pretty good technical justification for planting kick and bass dead center), not all of them do so well. This tool lets you tighten it up. “Key Pre” lets you monitor the signal component to be processed, and “Key Post” monitors the same component, but post processing. Selecting “Difference” and playing with gain can also produce some very cool, out-of-speaker phasing effects, which could be cool to abuse one in a while. Source: http://www.toneprojects.com/products/plug-ins/basslane/

Sir Elliot Master Limiter

While I’m just getting my feet wet with this plugin, it strikes me as a professional-grade mastering limiter. Rather than try (and fail) to explain its operation, I’ll direct you to the designer’s website here: http://sirelliot.blog.com/2010/10/29/sir-elliot-master-limiter/. The site contains a lot of info on typical operation, as well as videos of exaggerated application and proper employment. The former I find very informative, as abusive use shows the nature of the unit when truly pushed to its limit.

Need Color and Character?
 

I can’t speak highly enough about the free software from Variety of Sound. From the award-winning FerricTDS (which I raved about in a separate post) to the charismatic Rescue swiss army knife, they’ve really delivered a stellar array of tools, some of which are sure to find a spot in your effects chain. Check out the whole suite here: http://varietyofsound.wordpress.com/vst-effects/.

Give these a shot – they’re free, after all. And post a comment about your experience with them, if you feel so inclined.

Update: Results

To put some of this gear to the test, I pulled up a familiar tune – our live recording of Gary Clark Jr.’s “Bright Lights.” Here’s the audio, followed by some screens of the waveform and the effects chain used. Note that the amplitude statistics were measured having selected a portion of the processed audio. And that paragraphic EQ, which appears to be doing nothing, is just providing 4dB of trim on the input. While I’m just starting out with mastering, it’s clear that tools like these could find a lot of use.

As always, any comments are welcome and appreciated!

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