If you’ve been paying attention to the production world lately you’ve probably noticed a few new players on the market – the automated mastering services.
Companies such as LANDR, eMastered, and CloudBounce have been offering professional mastering without the human mastering engineer.
The only question is – are they worth it?
This article will discuss the pros and cons of automated mastering so you can decide which side you’re on – the robots or the humans.
What is Automated Mastering?
Automated mastering essentially works through software. Once your track has been uploaded the application analyzes the audio, determines the genre, and picks the tools needed to complete the master.
No human hands will touch your track.
Most automated mastering services have been built by actual mastering engineers. They are designed to emulate the analog and digital processing they do on a daily basis.
The process works by uploading your file to the company servers where they run it through the mastering application. Once complete, a download link will be sent to your email. The process usually only takes a few minutes.
There are a few main players currently in the market:
They offer similar services but with slightly different price schemes. The table below summarizes the price model of each.
|Automated Mastering Services|
|Price||$17.99/song + 3.99/month||$19.99/song||$4.90/song||$12.99/song||$1.99/song|
**Note that the price above was quoted for the HD WAV file. The price/song will be reduced in most cases if you are okay will just an uncompressed WAV file, or a simple MP3.
Each company offers a few options for different mix types. These options will control the final master and give you a few more parameters to play with.
For example, Aria has 5 different mix types to choose from:
- A – Moderate: Good for dynamic mixes and acoustic songs
- B – Loud: (Default Level) Standard mix with moderate compression
- C – Louder: Good for well-balanced mixes that are well compressed
- D – Loud/Safe: Good for ballads and softer songs that need to be loud
- E -Extra Dynamic: For A Capella or very light acoustic or classical recordings. Also great for very dynamic/delicate hybrid film score.
While not as good as actually communicating with your mastering engineering directly, it does give you a little more flexibility.
Here’s an audio comparison of the big players:
So, Should You Use These Services?
I think the first step to answering this question is to compare our options. Doing a recent Google search I was able to come up with the following quotes for actual mastering engineers:
As you can see, the most expensive automated mastering service is around half what the least expensive mastering engineer costs.
What about the end product?
This, of course, is a subjective judgment. However, the general consensus is automated mastering still has some ground to cover before it can completely replace a human mastering engineer.
The good news is the difference isn’t as big as you may think.
Take a look at the video below for a comparison between LANDR and an actual mastering engineer.
Mastering can be a subtle art. With complex songs, you can quickly get into trouble. As you try and fix one thing you often break another. Usually, the only way to get through a complex song is through training and experience.
This is where automated mastering is going to fall short. Each song has its own unique set of problems that need to be solved individually in order to have a polished end product.
I suspect this is one of the main reasons why automated mastering is coming up short in some tests.
The Case for Using Automated Mastering Services
There have been a number of articles that still recommend mastering engineers over automated mastering (here’s one, here’s another). However, in my opinion, there are a few cases where automated mastering wins over conventional mastering engineers. They are as follows:
- You’re on a heavily constrained budget – any mastering will usually be better than no mastering. Even if you were just planning on throwing on a limiter and calling it a day.
If you weren’t planning on mastering at all then this will be an incredibly convenient solution to taking your track up a notch.
- You need a rough master to send tracks to labels – if you’re looking for a quick turnaround time and need a rough master than this is a great budget-friendly option.
- You need something fast – automated mastering takes minutes rather than days with conventional mastering engineers.
- Simple songs – the benefits of a human mastering engineer seem to go down with some complexity. Therefore, if your song doesn’t have a huge dynamic range with multiple instruments and a complex stereo image then go ahead and use automated mastering.
When Not To Use Automated Mastering Services
That being said, for most case you’ll be better off to stick with an actual mastering engineer. Use a human mastering engineer if:
- You’ll be releasing your song directly – If you plan on releasing your song directly through an online distributor you’ll need to have an actual mastering engineer prepare your track for release. This is the safest way to get the exact finished product you’re looking for.
- Your song is complex – if you have a wide range of dynamics in your song with plenty of subtleties than you’ll need a professional to handle your mastering. The mix options offered by automated mastering are a little too blunt to handle complex songs.
- You’re mastering an album – mastering an album requires a little more tweaking than just a single. The volume level of each track must be adjusted with respect to the album as a whole. Additionally, you’ll run into problems if you need to make further adjustments (such as the spacing between each track). You won’t have to worry about these technical issues with a professional.
In the end, it’s really going to come down to cost and professionalism. If you really want to make the investment in your music you still need to use an actual mastering engineer.
However, if you want to test the market with a few of your songs than using automated mastering is a great budget way to have your tracks sounding great.
If you do decide to use automated mastering you’ll really need to have all your ducks in a row when it comes to the premaster phase. This means leaving at least -5dB of headroom at your loudest point in the song (leave the master fader at 0 dB).
You’ll also want to add some pre-roll/post-roll (dead air) in your mix – about 100ms will do.
Also, it’s very important to pre/post-fade your mix exactly the way you want. You cannot run your track back through your DAW after it’s been mastered by an automated mastering application. This is the fasted way to run into quality issues when you send your file out to your distributor.
I think it’s safe to say that mastering engineers don’t have to worry about their jobs just yet. If you are serious about your music than you still need to be using a professional engineer.
However, automated mastering does open the doors for a lot more people to have a polished track.
I think the overall contribution from automated mastering applications will be a positive one. Lowering the barrier to entry will only allow more people to enjoy creating professional sounding music!
What do you think? Let us know what your impressions of the automated mastering services are. Have you used them? What was the result?
As always, if you’ve enjoyed this article make sure to give it a share!
Guest Post: Glen Parry has been creating his own music for over 6 years. He believes too many DIY musicians do things the hard way. He’s on a mission to change that. See how on his website, www.audiomastered.com.