A word about peak output levels
I mentioned in yesterday’s post that, because I don’t prefer the sound of true peak limiting, I sometimes have actual peak output levels in my masters that are over 0 dBFS. I set the limiter ceiling at -0.1 dBFS, but I push it hard, and sometimes things go over.
And I just wanted to touch on this. Because if your self-education around this has been anything like mine was, you came up with the understanding that if you had a single peak in your song over 0 dBFS, the sky would fall. It would be ruination! You would hear it, and it would sound terrible.
I was never sure exactly what this terrible sound would sound like, but I was given to understand that it would be some sort of extremely audible distortion, not unlike someone taking a knife to a speaker mid-song.
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And then one day, as I was teaching myself mastering, I thought to download some popular songs from the past 20 years on Apple Music and throw them into Myriad to see what their levels looked like. I was expecting everything to have a perfect peak of -0.1 dBFS; that’s how “the pros” do it, right?
And what I saw changed everything about how I thought about mastering. Because these levels were extremely over 0 dBFS! The one that really made an impression was the Matt Nathanson song “Come On Get Higher.” That song has a peak level of like +1.3 dBFS! And literally thousands of clip events. Meaning that not just does it peak louder than digital 0 — the point above which the world theoretically ends — it’s over 0 a lot.
But that song kicks ass! It sounds fantastic! And it was made by some of the best people in the game! Eddie Schreyer mastered that record, at Oasis Mastering; he’s neither negligent nor a slouch.
So I started to dive into this bizarro world that I’d just discovered — and I learned that “the pros” routinely print masters with peaks over 0 dBFS. It’s in fact a common practice, done for reasons of sound. Indeed, mastering engineers who know what’s up intentionally clip their converters on the way into the computer, because it gives the transients a certain definition and edge!
Ever since reading that, I immediately stopped being precious about the idea that 0 dBFS is somehow sacrosanct. To be clear, you shouldn’t park your song at, like, +4 dBFS. That would sound legitimately terrible. There is a line. But that line, despite what the internet is trying to tell you, isn’t at 0 dBFS!
It’s absolutely fine to have some peaks that go over 0. It’s even fine to have many peaks that go above 0. It can give your masters a cool sound that leaps out of the speakers. Just use your ears.
What rules — jamie