Mastering ‒ Online, automated vs. manual, the process, gear

WHAT IS ONLINE MASTERING?

The entire music production industry is undergoing a seismic shift. The most interesting stuff isn’t coming from big-name, million dollar studios anymore. The really fresh stuff is coming from people’s homes – bedroom and basement studios with small budgets and big ideas. But can home studio owners really sound like the pros? Can you go toe-to-toe with a major mastering studio?

A modern mastering studio.

Image by: SGmastering – A modern mastering studio.

Most people see mastering as that one step you still have to outsource to a dedicated mastering engineer. Unless you want everyone (incl. their pet parrot) to call you an amateur, you’ll have to cash-out at this point.

Online mastering services are attempting to bridge that final gap, that keeps the home producer outside of the promised land of chart-topping sound waves.

Right now, there are four types of online mastering available:

  • regular, send-your-files-to-a-studio services,
  • instant, AI driven, software services like LANDR, CloudBounce and eMastered,
  • automated, robotic, analog mastering services like Aria,
  • manual, analog gear sharing services like MIX:ANALOG.

All options have their pros and cons.

At MIX:ANALOG, we offer you access to the same gear the pros use and put the controls in your hands.

For a lot of producers, mastering remains somewhat of a mystery. Before we delve deeper into the topic, we would like to clarify what mastering really is. Everyone knows it makes your songs sound better, but do you know how and why can mastering engineers make your song “pop”?

If your answer is yes, then feel free to skip the next chapter and get straight to the online mastering services.

What is mastering?

Mastering is the final step in the production process. It begins when you’re done with mixing and export your session into a single stereo file. There are two goals.

In essence, mastering means making your tracks ready for release.

You want to enhance the emotional impact of the songs and make sure they sound good on various sound systems. The latter is often referred to as “translation” by audio engineers.

Take into account the technical specifications your song should follow for each distribution channel. CDs are mastered differently than, for example, Spotify or YouTube releases.

It is desirable to unify the sound of a record and make individual tracks work together as an album with a common character. Fine-tune the frequency content, the dynamics and the spatial representation of each track. Unification of the sound will make your release sound like one distinct sonic journey. Making your tracks work together is especially important if they were recorded at different times, in different spaces, or maybe even mixed by different people.

Mastering an album.

Image by: resoundsound – Mastering an album.

Contrary to popular belief, mastering is not a form of voodoo magic that mastering engineers gain access to after making a pact with the devil. The truth is, the industry is keeping mastering mysterious somewhat intentionally. They do it to protect the high status of mastering engineers, their products and the price points that come with them.

Can you blame them?

In the end, mastering actually ain’t mysterious at all. It does take a lot of practice, but the underlying processes aren’t that complicated.

In fact, you can master your first track today!

If you need help, you can get it here.

3 Main Mastering Processes

1. Cut for Clarity, Boost for Character and Balance

Use fully-parametric precision equalizers to cut resonating or over-emphasized frequencies. This is usually done with narrow and (relatively) deep cuts.

Then use broad-curve EQs to alter the general balance of low/mid/high frequencies and gently sweeten the “timbre” or the “color” of a track.

2. Adjust Dynamics, Detail and Loudness

Adjust the overall dynamics and movement of a track, using a single-band compressor. Then, use a multi-band compressor/expander and a limiter, to bring out low level detail and achieve the target loudness as transparently as possible.

For a while, producers were engaged in a loudness war. You’ve probably already heard of it. Everyone was just trying to make their songs sound louder than everyone else’s. Today, with level normalization becoming a norm on the most common music services, loudness is back to being a subjective creative choice.

3. Make Some Room

Use mid/side processing to alter the spatial presentation of a recording and achieve a wider, more balanced and interesting stereo image. Using mid/side processing also helps your masters translate better to mono reproduction devices and FM radio broadcasts.

When working “in the box”, meaning that you are using software, stereo imaging plugins are often used for this step. But stereo imaging is a dangerous thing – if you aren’t careful, it can mess with the phase of your track and ruin your mono translation.

Mixing and mastering process.

Image by: herrbieger – Mixing and mastering process.

That’s it! That’s what the magic is. Of course, it isn’t that simple, as every one of these steps takes years to truly … master. *giggles enthusiastically*

So now that we’ve clarified what is happening to our tracks during the mastering stage (no matter who or what is doing the work), we can look at some shiny new tools the internet has brought us.

Online Mastering

When broadband internet became the norm, mastering started moving online. Being able to easily send files to any studio in the world, made mastering available to almost any artist. There’s an engineer out there for every budget, though the results usually match the price.

When we say online mastering, we don’t really mean sending your music to a studio and communicating through the internet. That is the norm now anyway, so it’s just called mastering.

Online mastering, means using web-based services that either master your music for you, or give you the tools to do it yourself. Let’s talk about the automated services first.

Automated Online Mastering

With the development in AI, it was inevitable that machines would start replacing human engineers. While some still regard it as just a fun experiment, AI mastering is here to stay and will probably only get better. These services work by applying a software algorithm to analyse your track and determine how to make it sound more like the hit songs. It uses a massive library of music as a reference point.

There are a number of automated mastering services available online, each with its own unique algorithm and controls. If you are on a tight budget and just need your tracks to sound a little more like the stuff on the radio, this is probably the most cost effective way to go.

Robots

Terminator – He'll be back to master your tracks!

Image by: Terminator (franchise) – He’ll be back to master your tracks!AI mastering certainly has its uses. There were cases where even some experienced mastering engineers ran tracks through automated mastering services. It gave them ideas they might have not come up with themselves.

In the future, these services will probably get much better, while keeping their low price.

Unlike human engineers, robots don’t need to eat and pay rent. So automated mastering services can offer a price point no self-respecting engineer can match. If an engineer offers you a cheaper alternative, the robot is probably capable of doing a better job.

The problem with AI mastering is that the algorithm can’t really feel your track. It doesn’t understand the lyrics, let alone know what the story of the song is. With all its capabilities, this intelligence is still artificial.

They are trying to solve this problem, by “teaching” (it’s more like tuning actually) the code what do to, based on what thousands of hits sound like. Therefore, we can only get more of the same this way.

A good master will not sound like the current hit trends, but complement the unique character of each song.

Humans

The mastering engineer has an important role to play in expressing the story of your music.

Mastering is an artistic endeavor. Think twice, before turning to another entity for your mastering needs. Especially if it’s an artificial one.

Art is about expressing your feelings. You need conscious knowledge of one’s own character, feelings, motives and desires to do that. AI hasn’t come that far yet. Imagine removing the human element from other art forms like composing, painting, dancing or design!

The human touch will certainly bring more character to your tracks than any AI. Like it’s the case with any art, one has to learn and practice it, to master it.

The quality of your final product also depends on the tools you use.

Top studios are meticulous about their mastering gear, because certain pieces of analog equipment still cannot be effectively replicated with software.

Meme: inserts Ozone – becomes a mastering engineer

Image by: quickmeme

Let’s take mastering plugins like Izotope’s Ozone for an example. They do a great job, but when you compare them to real top-of-the-line analog equipment, you can clearly hear the difference. Try it and we guarantee you, that you’ll understand what all the fuss about analog “magic” is about.

Sending your tracks to a studio is about getting the engineer’s human touch and getting access to their gear. However, the days of having to rent expensive studios just to get access to gear are over. A very cool and affordable alternative is manual online mastering.

Manual Online Mastering

Napoleon Bonaparte said: “If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.”

Mastering your own music can be intimidating at first, but this only means it’s a challenge worth tackling.

Remember that like anywhere else, knowledge is power. Developing your skills will take you on a journey that is both fun and satisfying. There’s nothing sweeter than hearing the results of your own work and seeing how your skills improve with each project.

Manual online mastering means using the internet to get access to mastering tools and doing the work yourself.

Take it one step at a time and you will be putting out killer tracks in no time. Of course, you don’t really need online mastering to do that. Even the stock plugins that come with your DAW of choice are capable of handling the steps needed to put out a decent sounding track.

But mastering is about going beyond “decent”. You want to get into the “awesome” territory.

Plugins are cool, but they simply can’t compare to analog gear. Your knowledge and feel are the most important tools to take your songs to the next level. But without the right gear, you will unfortunately stay stuck in the “decent” territory.

Manual online mastering is now available at a very low cost, so there is no reason not to use the same tools the pros use.

The Mission of mix:analog

Our mission is to level the playing field, by providing affordable access to classic pieces of analog gear. We developed a web application that does and excellent job and is really simple to use.

We plugged analog gear into the cloud!

Meme by: Distopik (mix:analog) – We plugged analog gear into the cloud!

The idea is: you upload your tracks, process them with our analog gear and download the bounced versions.

If you’ve ever worked with plugins, using our platform will be a familiar experience. Minus the compatibility issues and weird artifacts.

Our platform does give an impression that you are looking at a plugin, because they both use a Graphical User Interface. By turning the knobs in our app, you are in fact controlling the real potentiometers of our modded devices. Your audio is actually going through analog gear and back, without losing any quality in the process.

All our converters are top notch and we went great lengths to ensure the entire process is completely lossless. Ensuring that no fidelity is lost, while still supporting real-time streaming, was actually by far the hardest part of setting this up.

Too good to be true? Absolutely not – we’ve almost gone crazy and broke to get this thing running.

It was totally worth it!

Gear matters

Yes, it does. And since all of us at MIX:ANALOG are certified gear-sluts, we select it very carefully. We’re only satisfied with the best sounding, the most prized and the most sought after pieces of analog gear. When we fall in love with a piece, we automate the controls (not the process of tweaking them, that would be sacrilegious) and hook it up to the cloud.

Demo version of our Pultec online control system.

Image by: Distopik – Demo version of our Pultec online control system.

There’s some amazing stuff already online and we can’t wait to expand the list.

When we say we allow you to use what the pros use, we mean it quite literally. We’re talking about the dudes working on Grammy-award-winning recordsPeople like Gregg Wells understand why certain pieces of gear have legendary status. Just listen to him rave about the Pultec EQs:

https://youtu.be/1gclWJCpNnk

This is why the Pultec is on the list of classic machines available at MIX:ANALOG. This unique EQ has been modeled into plugins countless times and they do pretty good. However, when you hear how the real thing sounds, you will understand why people still shell out thousands to buy one.

Comparing the VST version with the real thing is like comparing a hand grenade with an atomic bomb.

You really have to try it to understand the difference real analog gear makes. That is why we are giving everyone a chance to TRY MIX:ANALOG FOR FREE. Mastering is not a mystical art practiced by mythical golden-eared creatures anymore.

We are giving you access to the exact same tools the world’s best engineers use to do their magic.

Skills…

Meme: skills motherf*cker, do you have them!?

Image by: imgflip – Meme: skills motherf*cker, do you have them!?

Well, you’re going need them. Processing with the Rack1 Mastering pack does not guarantee that you will sound like a pro mastering engineer. We are just giving you the tools, the required skills are still on you. Nevertheless, we sincerely believe that adding your own character and ideas is more important than technical perfection.

Music is an emotional journey.

Mastering needs to fit into that journey.

That said, if your skills are inadequate, your product will suck no matter what gear you use or how deep the ideas behind it are. The good thing is, that mastering skills are acquired more easily than you would think.

Learning how to master your own music will undoubtedly make you a better artist, producer, and engineer. It is also really fun, so give it a shot!

 

Learn and experiment with mix:analog![activecampaign form=9]