Mastering: AI vs Human
Posted by Esteban Miranda on
When I began learning Music Production, Mastering was always spoken about as a dark art which mastering engineers had to train for years to learn. And even then, it wasn't always something you could teach. It was intuitive; it changed with the times. It was a gift you either had or you didn't.
But over the past decade or so, something quite interesting has happened.
There's been a huge uptick in AI Mastering sites and plugins, and a focus on DIY Mastering.
I'll admit I was skeptical about this at first, which may have just been my internal bias. If I'd always been taught that mastering was this hugely skilled discipline done by grizzled veteran engineers, the idea of an AI doing it seemed quite cheap.
But what's the truth behind this view?
Well, that's what we're going to dig into today.
The landscape for mastering in 2022 is wide, with many options available to the average music producer.
So, let's explore this.
We're going to cover;
- What mastering actually is.
- Why it's necessary.
- Some DIY plugin options
- Some AI options
- And more!
What is Mastering?
Simply put, Mastering is the last stage in the audio production process. Once you've finished writing your track, and then you've finished mixing it, the final stage is mastering.
Mastering takes the track to a new level, in both a literal and metaphorical sense.
It's what gives finished music that polish and clarity that makes it radio-ready (or in today's case, streaming-service-ready) and it also makes sure it's as loud and dynamic as it needs to be to sit comfortably amongst the rest of the music out there.
In theory, if you have achieved a good mix, the mastering process shouldn't require a ton of work to get things up to scratch. In fact, in an article on iZotope's blog, they talk about how you should start mastering with only three things; EQ, Compression and Limiting.
(iZotope are a huge name in the mastering industry these days, and we will talk more about them later.)
There are other tricks up a mastering engineer's sleeve, but the theory stands that it's possible to get a good master with very few tools.
But, as with anything, there are a huge variety of specialised plugins and options available to really tailor a master to a specific taste. After all, the style of a master can vary greatly between genres.
In general though, Mastering is a necessary part of your music making process. If you release music that hasn't been mastered, it will sound quiet and dynamically flat compared to the rest of what's out there.
Mastering really is the final polish you put on your track before you unleash it on your audience. It's the cherry on the top of the cake.
And as we discussed in the introduction, there are now a tonne of options out there to help you master your music at home.
So let's dive in.
AI vs Human Mastering
AI Mastering is a process where your master, or a part of it, is done automatically.
In general, becoming a great mastering engineer can take decades of work and experience. As such, this makes finding a truly great mastering engineer a time consuming and expensive endeavour.
The benefit of AI mastering, then, is that it's done automatically, is relatively low cost, and has a quick turnaround time. It's also usually running a lot of powerful processes, which are often designed by top level mastering engineers.
You're going to achieve consistent results with AI mastering options, but there is an ongoing debate in the industry as to whether or not this is the best way to go.
AI algorithms will not pick up on small and subtle nuances that a human mastering engineer will, and this is often one of the biggest reasons people speak out against AI mastering; purists will believe that the best masters come from human ears.
But with its popularity increasing, there must be something there that is getting customers coming back again and again?
Let's look at some of the biggest options in online AI based mastering.
I've spoken often about BandLab. Founded as a social media network to help musicians collaborate, it's grown into a fully fledged online DAW, collaboration network and more.
It's also got a Mastering option available.
BandLab's mastering is 100% free, which is a huge benefit. You don't even have to create an account to use it.
It features a dedicated suite of mastering tools, and gives a smooth result every time.
There are some drawbacks, like not being able to edit or bundle your uploads, meaning you have to do one track at a time, and there's definitely a limited range of tools available compared to some other services, but for a free option, BandLab Mastering is a great choice.
Masterchannel was founded with the aim of democratising the mastering process; offering a premium service at an affordable price.
It also lets you master per track, instead of locking all their mastering behind a paid subscription like some other services do. (Though Masterchannel does offer a subscription, too)
This flexible option for mastering was designed with smaller labels in mind, and for independent artists who may have budget considerations, but need to get studio-level mastering for their music.
Some of the best features of Masterchannel are:
- AI which mimics the thought processes of a human mastering engineer, rather than algorithmically comparing the music to existing songs or genres.
- Requires no user-adjustments. You get a studio quality master automatically.
- You can master several tracks at once, making it a good option for an EP or album, to achieve consistency across the board.
Masterchannel has a free trial, allowing you try their service for free.
Pricing-wise, you can either pay per master at $11 per track, or use their subscription service for $25 per month, allowing you unlimited masters at Lossless quality.
This is a solid service, offering really good results. It's also relatively affordable if your budget is tight!
CloudBounce is backed by a lot of big names in the audio industry. Focusrite and ROLI, Abbey Road Studios and more. If this doesn't lend them some credibility, then let's explore a little more.
Using AI algorithms, CloudBounce applies a variety of effects to enhance the quality of your audio. As with all mastering, the key is providing the service with a suitable mixed track, and providing you do this, you'll get a result you're happy with.
You can upload multiple tracks at once, and even master a whole album or EP in one go. As well as this, you can choose from different genres. This is great because it helps optimise the master to your selected genre.
You can also choose a track as a reference, which is a good feature.
In terms of pricing, they offer three different subscription plans:
- Pay-as-you-go - this is a plan where you pay a price per track, currently at $9.90.
- Infinity monthly plan - For $19.90 per month, you are able to master an unlimited amount of songs on this plan.
- Infinity annual plan - This is the same as the one above, but billed at $199.99 per year. You are able to master an unlimited amount of songs on this plan, too.
eMastered is another option, offering a blend between AI mastering and user input.
Founded by Grammy Award-Winning engineer Smith Carlson and EDM singer/producer Collin McLoughlin, this is another service which gives professional quality AI mastering.
You can have a master in seconds using their AI powered engine, which is built on automation and will provide the best tools to enhance your track based on a detailed analysis. They're quoted as saying your track will be 'more full of life.' when mastered using eMastered.
What's cool about this service, though, is that there are several opportunities for you to control how intensly effects like EQ, compression, volume and stereo width are applied. You can also tweak the overall 'strength' of the master.
Plus, there's a simple 3-band EQ that you can use to boost and cut for each track you're mastering.
The features I really like about this one are that you can upload a reference track, which is great for if you're going for a really specific sound. Also the customisation and ability to tweak settings is a real plus too.
The pricing is done simply, there's one plan that you can pay for in three different ways.
When you subscribe, you get unlimtied access to their mastering tools, shareable library page, cloud storage, and track statistics.
The three ways to pay are as follows:
- Yearly (billed monthly) - $24 per month. A one-year commitment is required with this plan.
- Yearly billed upfront - $168 billed upfront, but this works out at $14 per month, so may be a more affordable option long term.
- Monthly (billed monthly) at $49 per month this works out at the most pricey, but you can cancel any time.
LANDR is one of the most well known names in online AI mastering, with over 20 Million songs mastered using their AI engine. Their service is described by some as 'the closest to a mastering engineer's take on a song' as well 'the most natural sounding' master.
They offer many services other than just mastering, and allow you to upload and get your master going in no time at all.
You can hear a 30-second real time comparison, which is great for hearing your track with and without the master to get an impression of how it's going to sound. You can also hear free master previews without signing up to a subscription, so you can hear how you track will sound before you commit to a purchase.
Features include referencing, unlimtied revisions and album mastering.
Their subscription service comes in a few different options, with the best value being LANDR Studio.
Billed at £108 upfront, for an equivalent of £9 per month, you get access to all of LANDR's products, which includes FX suites, unlimited MP3 masters and 36 WAV masters per year, as well as distribution, sample credits, collab tools and more.
There are other options available for the subscription though, so be sure to check out their site for all the details.
So, there are a few of the options for some AI mastering services that are available. They differ slightly in their features, and some are definitely more cost effective than others, but in general, you're getting solid masters whichever service you choose.
The main drawback of all of these though, is that you're just not getting the human touch. Mastering trends and traditions have historically been established by human engineers, and this is the crucial thing that can shape a master.
The potential issue with using algorithms to get your masters is that they could potentially sound too sterile.
But on the other hand, they're generally affordable, offering plans for mastering which are much more suitable to the budget of the average music producer than would be hiring a professional mastering engineer.
Also, the quick turn around, as well as being able to master several tracks in one go (on some services) is a huge plus too. It offers a huge time advantage, and being able to have the tracks from your EP all mastered in the same go could seriously help bring some consistency to the sound of your music.
So as with everything, there's pros and cons to AI mastering, so let's look at the other end of the spectrum and see what's on offer in the DIY sphere.
The DIY Approach
We can all agree that finding a mastering engineer takes time and money, two resources that are in short supply when you're a busy working musician.
It's arguably this issue that created the gap in the market for online mastering services such as the ones listed above, but there's also another option out there, which is the DIY focused market of mastering plugins.
Many companies out there offer plugins whose aim is to help you master your track to an industry standard, being in control of the entire process yourself.
If you're someone who likes to have the final creative control over your music, this may be a better option for you.
iZotope Ozone 10
I mentioned iZotope earlier in this guide. They're an industry standard when it comes to mastering plugins, and Ozone has been great since version 1.
Now on version 10, Ozone is always on the top 5 lists of mastering plugins.
Ozone is a great tool for mastering, because it puts all the modules you'd need in one place. It's a standalone mastering suite which works as a plugin, and you load in different modules for different mastering purposes.
With Ozone 10, the focus is on AI. Much like the online mastering options, Ozone 10 uses AI technology to suggest starting points for your master; the Master Assistant analyses the audio and offers a place to start your master from. This, in theory, means less time tweaking and more time being creative.
There are a tonne of new features in 10 compared to version 9, with new modules such as Stabilizer and Impact, as well as new settings and mode being added onto existing modules.
Ozone has been lauded as a top product in the world of mastering, and version 10 is no different. It offers a state-of-the-art solution to mastering, and comes with all the tools you'd need to get a fully professional sounding master.
Ozone 10 is available in 2 versions;
- Ozone 10 Standard - $199
- Ozone 10 Advance - $299
The Advanced version comes with more features bundled than the Standard version, as you'd expect. But considering this is a complete mastering suite, the price is fairly reasonable.
IK Multimedia - T-RackS 5 MAX
IK Multimedia is another household name when it comes to audio plugins.
Their T-RackS series is a huge bundled of mixing and mastering plugins, 38 in total, which are high-end processors emulating some of the most legendary pieces of hardware gear in music recording history.
Though the T-RackS 5 MAX bundle is more than just mastering tools, it's got some really amazing tools in there, so it's getting a mention.
You can see in the image above the way T-RackS works; you build your channel strip configuration from the range of plugins available, and some of these are absolute powerhouses for mastering.
There's Master Match, which is a great tool which allows you to match your master to a reference track.
There's also One, an all-in-one mastering and mixing processor, with an EQ, Compressor, Harmonic Exciter, Low-End Enhancer and Limiter all built in.
Plus, the UI is stunning. You can see it below.
IK Multimedia offers a range of dedicated, high end audio plugins on their site, several of which are dedicated to mastering. I could easily do a guide on just their products, but we'd be here all day!
T-RackS 5 MAX is currently on sale for $199.99, which is a huge saving of $300.
It's well worth the investment for such a comprehensive suite of plugins.
This is an intuitive and user friendly offering into the mastering at home world; you follow a clearly defined workflow and pre-tuned processing chain to get masters easily and quickly.
I'm an advocate of doing music production in whatever way suits you, and I believe that if you don't have the time, energy or even desire to learn the absolute ins and outs of a specific process, you don't have to.
bx_masterdesk echoes this philosophy, by giving you the option to get a good master quickly. You turn a few knobs and use your ears; it's an intuitive and simple process.
But that's not to say that it's lacking in features. As you can see from the image above, there are plenty of controls to tweak so you can adjust your master to your liking. It just does a lot of the back end work for you.
It adds a lovely vintage analog warmth without having to try too hard, and has all of the tools you'd expect from a mastering plugin; four different modes of compression, resonance filters, de-essing and more.
It's a plugin that gives good results for anyone using it; you don't need any prior knowledge or advanced know-how on the ins and outs of mastering, you can just jump in and get a solid master quickly and efficiently.
bx_masterdeck currently goes for $149.
Have we mastered Mastering?
The purpose of this guide was to shed some light on the vast process of Mastering. It should be clear by now that there are a wide range of options out there for you.
It remains an essential part of the music making process if you're wanting to release your tracks for public consumption and have them stand up to the rest of what's out there.
But gone are the days where the only ones who could do this job were seens as wizards of their secretive craft; Mastering has become far more democratised, with AI solutions and both online and DIY mastering suites out there.
The online services and plugins listed above are just a small taster of what's out there, and if you're in the market for some solutions to mastering your tracks, I'd recommend trying as many as you can.
As we saw in the guide, many of the online services offer free previews, and many of the plugins also offer free trial version so you can try them and see if they're right for your music before you commit to making a purchase.
So, hopefully this helped shed some light on mastering, and gave you a few pointers if you're looking for inspiration when it comes to mastering your tracks.
If there are any plugins, sites or resources you use for mastering, let us know down in the comments!
Thanks, as always, for checking in with us here at Top Music Arts, and while you're here, check out some deals on our Ableton Live Project Templates. We have an international team of professional producers who recreate top tracks from the EDM scene in Ableton, up to a fully industry standard. These are a great learning resource, as they allow you to really delve into the intricate details of what makes a successful track, so be sure to grab some while you can!