Expert Music Career Advice For DIY Musicians

Is Instant Online Mastering Worth It?

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Guest post by Jay Heiselmann, a sound engineer with over 15 years of experience working in studios of all sizes. Jay is also a musician who plays in various bands including Grooms, The Immaculates and French Miami. He currently works in Brooklyn's Death By Audio and specializes in mixing and mastering.

A quick fix for your mixes or a scam?

Want to master your tracks for almost free in just a few minutes? Well, companies are popping up claiming to provide "intelligent" or "instant" mastering using complex algorithms to analyze the waveform and create high quality masters. We saw this technology a couple of years ago in audio plugin format, but these new companies are upload-and-go – all you need is the file. Some are free and others cost only a couple of dollars a track, which is very inexpensive especially if you consider that professional mastering can cost hundreds of dollars. But how good are these "instant" masters? Is it worth cutting corners on this piece of the process? Is the difference noticeable?

I decided to test two popular instant mastering sites against a professional mastering job and review the results. One of the companies making the most waves (get it?) and touting the newest technology is LANDR, a product from MixGenius. I also tested out WaveMod, which has a less flashy site than LANDR, but the easy-to-access examples on the homepage sounded pretty great.

Here's an un-mastered track from my band Grooms, to give you a starting point:

LANDR

Pros:

  • Navigation was very easy and an all-around excellent design. 
  • Free for MP3 output.

Cons:

  • Masters sound a little over-hyped. I ran a couple of different songs through the engine and they all had some artifacts I didn't like (for example, some hyped frequencies and widening that sounded artificial).
  • There is no ability to master a whole album and have the engine even out songs to make it a complete project.
Cost: Free, with the option to pay a monthly subscription fee for uncompressed masters

Verdict:  In the end, it falls short to the professional master.  

WaveMod

Pros: 

  • Sound was even and natural. Full disclosure: I picked medium on the compression setting, which was fine, but I think if I had picked high it would be up to snuff. (However, it would have cost another $4.30 to do that.)
  • They offer "project mastering," which, according to them, is "limited" but does master an overall album. When I asked about said limitations, Tom Metz at WaveMod says, "[WaveMod] mildly does [project mastering], but not drastically if songs are way off. We usually encourage working on the mixes more if that is the case. But we are working on making [the product] do that better! For now we suggest working on the mixes or hiring an engineer to master the album [if you encounter this issue]." 

Cons:

  • The site was hard to navigate, and I wasn't sure where my completed track was for couple of minutes after submitting. 
  • I couldn't try the platform out for free. 
Cost: $4.30 per track (without trying additional settings – see above)

Verdict: This one sounded better than the LANDR version to me. However, compared to the professional master, it sounded a little weaker, less 3D and the drums didn't pop quite as much.

Professional Master

Mastered by Brooklyn-based engineer Heba Kadry at Timeless Mastering

Pros:

  • This one sounded more 3D to me and the drums hit harder. 
  • I did notice some hyped frequencies, but ultimately this was the most exciting master to my ears.

Cons:

  • Getting tracks professionally mastered can be pretty expensive.


Cost: approximately $300 per track

I asked veteran engineer Mike Wells, who has been running a mastering studio and putting the final magic on records for 10+ years, to compare these tracks and give us his objective opinion on the quality of the mastering.

"At the end of the day, you get what you pay for," says Wells. "Sure, I can see the initial appeal of low-cost, quick-return. However, as an artist and an audio engineer, I can't imagine anyone with a serious investment in their music giving final control of their art over to an algorithm. As a professional mastering engineer reviewing these tools, I can say with confidence that I'm not worried about being outsourced to automated tools like these. The proof is in the results."

So the end result is what you might expect: These new instant mastering technologies are exciting, and they could be a great tool for someone without the experience but who still wants to get tracks out into the world quickly and cheaply. If you're looking to take your finished product to the next level, though, it's still worth shelling out the cash to hire a professional.

For more information on DIY mastering, we recommend this article by Resident Advisor. For more information on where to source mixing/mastering engineers or studios in your area and price range, we recommend checking out SoundBetter.

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