Does The World Really Need Automated Mastering?

Mastering ConsoleIt’s here – Today – you can get your song “mastered” by a computer. and it’s heralded as a breakthrough for starving artists and the reviews all sound something like: “It sounds great for free.”

It’s an, albeit, very sophisticated computer algorithm. That means that someone created a program that analyses the music and makes many thousand of assumptions about what would sound good. And then it chooses a few of those parameters to adjust your music without you having to even think about it.

Funny, as musicians making records, we don’t use free guitars or free drum sets (usually, except for the odd Junk Band 🙂 ) We don’t re-use free bass strings, and a free bass player is just a bad bass line waiting to happen. So, why should we expect free pro-audio services to be anything better than the toy surprise in a cracker jack box? We know it’s not good or even fun, it’s just free. But we want so baldly for it to be good, so we call it good. And a whole lot of people then assume it must be good. It’s loud. But if you never hear what a really good mastering engineer can do, then is it good enough?

For any of you who have worked with me, you totally get how automatic-anything is just not the way I roll. I work on such culturally- and genre diverse-projects that nothing can be repeated.

I’m not saying this from the “the machine is going to take my job” point of view. I mean, how could the machine know what I’m hearing or feeling? If my thoughtful, enlightened mastering can “beat the box” every single time—and it does or no one will pay my fee—then, what we are doing is lowing the bar,every day, on the quality of our collective art.

So what’s so bad about automatic processing? We can match some of the recording parameters to known “good” masters, and, if it differs in some significant way, then make changes. And then ask the engineer or artist if it’s better or worse. Woa.. wait a second… that’s not automatic, you still need human decision making.

Or, you can send off a master to several different cheap or free mastering sites and see what you get back. That’s really just simple trial and error. That’s “I don’t know what to do with this recording, so I’m going to let the machine try something. And if i like it, then i’ll keep it.”

But how would you know it’s good if you don’t know what it should sound like? Did i hear someone say, “it’s good enough?

We as musicians emulate the rock/classical/blues legends from our past experience. We also create brand new art that is a blend of all that we know, and are striving to contribute and communicate. Do you really think that Eric Clapton, or Miles Davis, Mozart, Pavoroti, or Sting ever said, “That’s good enough”? I seriously doubt it.

So are we living in the shadows of legends, or just posers, doing the minimum we have to to make a song? Don’t you sweat the details when you arrange a song, and practice it, choose who best to play the parts? Isn’t that all done with great pride in the outcome? Why do we not consider the potential loss from a poorly executed master?

Because we have been conditioned to believe that it doesn’t matter all that much.

I think it is seriously past time for us to re-name the ubiquitous term “mastering.” The word master is so overused, and improperly applied. Mastering, done with care and professionalism, incorporates so many more elements than just making a mix loud or bright. Communication with the artist/producer is so important. Making expertly crafted masters, repeatable EQ settings, and a work flow that doesn’t rely on happy accidents. That’s Mastering and that deserves the term Master. Like, in it takes 10,000 hours to Master anything, or, as in a Masters degree.

The word mastering also has to be followed by the desired format and or configuration. Mastering for cassette, for CD, for download, for iTunes, and, now once again, for vinyl. But the term mastering doesn’t apply to the mix engineers finalization of the mix. You might think of that as “mix-plus,” when the plus isn’t a thoughtful or reflective decision, but one of “Is it loud enough so the artist won’t complain?”

Some mix engineers who have their own rooms that they have worked out of for some time, can and do Master in the classic sense. But I contend that on the projects that these engineers mix, it is nearly impossible for the mix engineer to be truly objective. This is not really what Mastering is about.

Mastering isn’t a commodity, there isn’t any equivalence when comparing $50 mastering with $300 mastering. They are different—as different as the individuals (or computer algorithm) themselves.

A young band member recently told me of his band finishing their record. “We were talked into using the name-brand guy who charges over $4,000 to master an album. We really shouldn’t have spent so much on mastering.”

There was no mention of the sound. Did it come back sounding a lot better? When they questioned the results did the mastering engineer offer to try again? Was advice given regarding how the mixes sounded? Did the experience feel like the M.E. (mastering engineer) was part of the team?

My guess is this mastering engineer didn’t do ANY of these things. So the only way to describe the mastering was by complaining about the cost. Since expensive is generally good, then this should have been great. But when the experience isn’t great, you complain about the price when you should be complaining about the quality of the service.

So, is automated mastering (or even mixing) coming to your project soon? If you really can tolerate the bar being that low, and you are convinced that whoever you are making music for won’t care enough to justify the difference, then I think you should go for it. It’s cheap and fast and there is no messy communication with other humans to screw up your virtually isolated day.

But, if you do care about the art, and you are curious about what mastering really means, then send in your track for an eye opening experience. If I can’t beat the box, you win…