Can We Trust Robots to Master Our Music?

Many aspects of music production can be automated which can make our workflow much easier. But for the art & science of mastering, can advanced artificial intelligence replace the human engineer?

The last decade has seen a rapid expansion in audio technology making it possible for virtually anyone to write and produce music for a fraction of what it would have cost before the advent of DAWs. To say that the fog over the once mysterious world of audio production has cleared would be an understatement, except when it comes to the art of mastering. While there is art and skill involved in all the stages in the production process, even to some of the best producers mastering is something that only a select few can do well.

Should We Leave It To The Robots?

We live in an increasingly automated society, so it was only a matter of time before attempts to automate one of the key steps in the music creation chain was too handed over to artificial intelligence. Services like LANDR and Wavemod offer what seems to be a completely hassle free drag and drop mastering service that doesn’t require an expensive studio or an expensive studio engineer. These services, noticing a gap in the market place, have taken advantage of the quick fix, DIY nature of technology and filled that void with a product that provides instant results and gratification to an ever increasing group of music producers, DJs and label managers.

Robots mastering music? Will they be singing for us next? ;-)

Was this a gap that needed to be filled? Slade Templeton of Influx Studios, Bern, Switzerland says that services like these are, “a great idea…(but) until an algorithm has a heart and soul to put into a song, it will remain incompetent.” While automation has seemingly made our lives easier, it has also contributed to a throwaway consumer culture, one where quantity of output has become more important than quality. The largest shortfall of cloud mastering is removing a human from the mastering process. There are simply some things that need not be automated.

Slade Templeton: Not a robot

Slade Templeton: Not a robot

The Proof Can Be Heard

Ask.Audio previously did an extensive breakdown of LANDR’s service and its sound quality using examples that were mostly rock music.  LANDR claims to have garnered popularity within hip hop, and with recent funding from Richie Hawtin’s Plus 8 group, it's clear their aim is to cash in on the EDM explosion.  With that being said, what do the results look like with electronic music? 

Below you will find three examples of tracks that were both professionally mastered and run through the LANDR engine. In all cases, I acquired the same mix down that the producer sent to be mastered by an engineer. I then ran those mix downs through LANDRs engine. When LANDR was contacted for A/B, I was only given those comparing their old sound engine vs. their “New and improved” one. To make the results as even as possible I paid the $9.99 fee for a .wav master. Why LANDR suggests MP3 mastering as the first option is a mystery to me. 

Editor's Note: Due to some restriction of streaming audio via this site these .wav examples have been converted to .m4a. You can download the .wav versions here.

Example 1:

Sychosis – Lorax (LANDR Master):

Sychosis – Lorax (Studio Master):

Example 2 :

Bloodshot – Primal Instinct (LANDR Master):

Bloodshot – Primal Instinct (Studio Master):

Example 3:

Whitney Fierce – The Night Air (Eric Sharp Remix) (LANDR Master):

Whitney Fierce – The Night Air (Eric Sharpe Remix)(Studio Master):

The results are OK, but they are by no means in the same league as what you would get from a professional. 

What we can pull away from this example is as Dan Smith stated “It should be looked at as a pre-mastering tool.  Mastering is an alchemy, it goes way beyond automated algorithms.” These services aren’t being completely upfront about what they really are. Yes the results are OK, but they are by no means in the same league as what you would get from a professional. 

Dan Smith

Dan Smith: very much a human

The Quick Fix

While Mixgenius’ (LANDR’s developer) Thomas Sontag told THUMP in a 2014 article, "The bulk of the creativity, let's face it, is in the performance, the mix, the stuff that goes in up to the point of mastering. Mastering is the last 5%, the polish and balance." LANDR says it does not see a benefit in getting rid of mastering engineers. 

However as house producer Alex Calver insists, “This service seems like a sign of our times in a music industry that feels like a heartless, perpetual production line.” And, what we continue to see is moves by companies to exploit what many amateurs fall victim to, the quick fix.  “At best these services can be used as a reference, something to get a new WIP ready to test on the dance floor for the weekend, not something that is release ready." 

Alex Calver

Alex Calver: "at best these services can be used as a reference... not something that is ready to release."

We are living in the age of instant gratification it is the very nature of many of the most recent innovations in “on demand” technology. This can be most felt when you take the EDM movement as an example. At every turn, you can pay to have someone else do something for you, reducing the need for young artists to learn like so many before them did, by paying their dues. 

What Is It Good For?

Is there a place for cloud-based mastering? Besides being used as a reference tool, it could be offered up as a great tool for mastering DJ mixes. Since DJ mixes are generally offered up for free, and are used as an easy promotional tool, it's not entirely necessary to have them professionally mastered. Also, most mastering engineers would rather avoid doing them anyways.

Mastering DJ mixes using online, automated services could work best.

Where's The Love?

As more and more music is made on machines, the age-old adage that drum machines have no soul still can be heard loud and clear. So why would we further remove a human that can feel the music from the equation? The relationship that many engineers establish with artists allows them to understand and interpret their music in a way that is becoming of the producer. This sentiment is reflected on both sides.

The relationship that many engineers establish with artists allows them to understand and interpret their music.

Oftentimes what a producer is looking for in a song can’t be quantified: “I want this section to feel like summer and that section to feel like autumn, or make it sound like it's raining. Can it be a little more green in colour?” These are actual words that Dan Smith has heard. He goes on to state that, “What does that even mean? Only a human has the ability to decode meaning out of phrases like that.” 

Where's The Value?

Oftentimes the first barrier to entry for young producers, or even old ones is the cost of mastering. Yes, good mastering costs money. However, you get what you pay for. A solid mastering job can run into the hundreds of dollars, and that can seem scary at first. For this reason, using a cloud-based service may seem like a great option. 

Time and money is put into making your music. Why not spend the same on mastering too?

However, as the following story from Slade Templeton suggests, it may be even scarier when you are on a deadline, and you are struggling to make a good impression to a new record label or just represent yourself in the best way possible.

“I had a client hire me on to do a professional mix down. I did the mix down and was curious why he wasn’t using me for mastering as he always had. I assumed he would be using a friend or has the hook up somehow. I did the mix down and sent to him, and he then wrote ‘The mixdown sounded great until mastered. It sounds horrible now. Not sure what I can do to fix this!’ My first question of course was ‘Well, who mastered it? ’ He said to me ‘LANDR’. I nearly fell out of my chair. He paid for a professional mix down only to be sent through that failure of a mastering service. I then felt bad for him and did the master free of charge and he replied ‘This is exactly what I wanted it to sound like! Thanks!’ “ 

What it all comes down to is that even at what seems like a great value, $9.99 per track or up to $299/year for a PRO account, is far from that. Mastering is an art that takes years to perfect, and even the best engineers will continue to work their entire careers at perfecting their craft, as every producer should do as well. There are no shortcuts for that. A robot will not provide the personal touch that is necessary when dealing with someone’s creative work. 

Music is created to inspire emotion, whether your music is intended to illicit feelings of intense euphoria or just make you want to rage face on a Saturday night, losing the human touch at any point is detrimental to your process. Just because our music is made on machines doesn’t mean it has to be devoid of soul, and Klaus Hill has some of the best closing words on the subject, “I've said this before, but LANDR has never been at Fabric in Room 1 at 3 a.m., munted and trapped in Craig Richards' kick drum!”  Understanding how music should feel and translate is very possible a human thing!

Learn how to master music (in a very human way) with these video tutorials.
 
Synthesis 101
The Filter
by Bob Moog Foundation

"Alexander Dias is writer, producer and A&R for Punks Music. As a writer he has covered music tech, Dj and dance music culture, and event coverage. As a producer, whose weapon of choice in Ableton, he has released music under the name Sychosis for several years specializing in bass heavy breakbeat. When Alex isn’t writing about music, m..." Read More

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