Mastering is a tricky subject. The seemingly dark art of turning a mix into a finished record through the use of black boxes, dithering, downsampling, up-sampling, compressing, EQing, limiting etc can leave even the seemingly well educated scratching their heads in confusion. There are countless books on the subject, many experts with conflicting views and with the additional maelstrom of various digital conversions from WAV, MP3, FLAC on top of the requirements for various streaming platforms giving multiple options such as mastered for streaming, mastered for CD, mastered for those horrible tiny little mono bluetooth speakers that have an output little better than 18th century gramophones. Oh how far we’ve come indeed.
So it’s not surprising the popularity of a website when it comes out of the mist like a knight in shining armour, promising to take away all the confusion and expense of mastering an album in return for a monthly fee equivalent to that gym membership you keep forgetting you have. But much like that unloved gym membership you keep paying for, it is not going to give you the best results.
Now this isn’t LANDR slander. Essentially they have a great business model. An algorithm that will turn your track up and sort out some of the EQ issues you may have without the headache of finding a decent mastering engineer (there an awful lot of bad ones), paying the expense for a great result and then that uncertainty of whether or not they actually did a good job (or anything at all other than turning the mix up) is well, quite useful. I can see the value in letting a machine take away that headache. Machines don’t ever get anything wrong, do they?
Online algorithmic mastering software is like the equivalent of self service tills at a superstore conglomerate. Queue up, upload your food order, a machine charges you and you walk away with a bag full of digestible, even satisfactory, but essentially mass manufactured, mass marketed, dull and bland products, most of which will end up in a landfill. No freshly baked goods from a long line of family bakers, no products from well cared for and loved creatures from local farms, no-one to wish you a good day, chat about the weather, share a smile and recommend some incredible new recipe that recently came in. Just, grey, bland, one in one out, wait your turn, here’s your product, why aren’t you satisfied machines. In the immortal words of Will.I.Am “Where is the love?”.
Mastering started off, and still remains, a fairly technically focused area of expertise. From the early days of cutting records, balancing that fine line between a deep enough groove for great bottom end but not so deep you end up with a fragile master and copies ready to snap with the gentlest of breaths to all the digital conversion of today where an engineer has to understand and be certain of many technical requirements to avoid track distortion, both from bad conversions, bad limiting or compressing. In fact, on the surface the whole endeavour looks so technical, it’s easy to forget that it is actually an art.
Listening through a song, understanding the emotional impact and being able to judge how long the listener needs to recover from the whole ordeal before taking them on another rollercoaster of emotions, is an art. Listening through an album and understanding that this band needs to sound warm, mellow and thick like a huge blanket on a winters day, as opposed to that spiky, punchy and aggressive record you did yesterday for the band that just want to “f**k things up” is in fact, an art. Listening through to an album and getting excited because you know they have a killer single, or you think you have a different track listing which could put an entire new spin on the record, riding the master for that perfect fade and cranking up the volume on a record that you know is going to sound amazing whether it’s through tiny bud like earphones or huge sound systems. That is all a human endeavour and indeed, an art.
LANDR and other online mastering services has it’s place. As a cheap mastering facility for your home demos, great. As a producer who needs to turnaround a lot of client mixes for approval before sending it to a mastering house, great. Putting the final touches on to the masterpiece you’ve been slaving over for months or even years on end, nope. Don’t give your creative work to a machine to finish off for you. Give it to another artist. Not only will you be supporting another creative trying to feed their family and pay the rent, you’ll also be giving your record to someone who will give it the love and care it needs.