What type of individual does it take to be a mastering engineer? Is it more important to be a musician, an audiophile with golden ears or a highly skilled audio engineer with extensive knowledge of audio hardware and software systems? When I’m counseling incoming audio students at the university, I try to layout some of the career opportunities available to audio professionals and I always ask how much musical training they’ve had in their lives. Did they take private lessons or maybe they played clarinet or trumpet in the junior high school band. If they answer that they’ve always loved music but have had no formal training in it, I try to steer them towards audio careers that don’t require knowledge of music. In our program, the students have to augment their audio studies with a “minor” or 12 additional units in digital graphics or music. Almost all of them choose digital graphics because it’s easier.
It’s not essential that a mastering engineer know what a key signature is or the notes of a dominant 7th chord in the key of E major but it sure doesn’t hurt (B D# F# A). However, the ability to carefully listen to a selection of music and identify individual timbral characteristics AND make adjustments to change them is essential. It takes lots of experience to know what makes a bass guitar “tubby” or “tight” or how to pull a male vocal forward slightly using the formant inherent in the male voice’s harmonic structure. Being a musician lends certain credibility to a mastering engineers resume and does provide a degree of sensitivity.
A mastering engineer’s primary job is to listen with the ears of musicians and makes adjustments with the skill of audio engineer.
So I was very intrigued when I received an email from a new company called LANDR, which sells a subscription online “mastering” service. They define mastering as, “Mastering is the art of refining and polishing finished stereo mixes by making subtle adjustments to equalization, selectively adding compression, limiting, stereo enhancement, and other psycho-acoustic tricks like aural excitation. Are you excited yet?”
MixGenius did the development of the site and the service. They claim to have, “incubated and refined algorithms developed over eight years of university research, testing and tweaking based on feedback from trained audio experts. Our team is composed of music industry veterans – award winning mixing engineers, top-level DSP programmers, musicians, producers and label owners – who know exactly what the mastering process needs to deliver.” Clearly, this company believes that the way to better sound is to let their algorithm work its magic.
If you want your tracks to sound punchy, louder and fatter, then LANDR may just be the cost effective way to achieve your goals. If you purchase the professional level service, you get to choose between “Light”, “Medium” and “High” level of mastering. In my analysis of their service (yes, I signed up for the profession plan) and the results of their processing, each successive level increases the amount of compression applied.
We’re headed in the wrong direction with regards to mastering. Suddenly, all you have to do is drag your mixed track over their drag-and-drop site and in a few minutes you can download the finished master track. “LANDR revolutionizes the mastering process with drag-and-drop simplicity, achieving results that rival professional studio work in minutes.” I’m not sure that Bob Ludwig, Steve Hoffman or Steve Marcussen would agree that an algorithm could accomplish mastering tasks with the same quality they do.
But this trend does take us one step closer to having every piece of music we hear sound dynamically flat and juiced in the low and high end. It doesn’t have to be that way.