The Human Element in Mastering

February 21, 2019

When Avid and Landr announced a partnership last week, I wasn’t surprised. Production technology gets more affordable and accessible every day, which has opened doors for countless artists and engineers. I’m glad to see the scope of mastering options widen. And we all have to keep up with evolving technology, or we’ll be left behind.

But at the same time, as a professional mastering engineer, I think it’s vital for artists to understand the differences between these options, and the audience and purpose they serve, and to manage their expectations of the process—whether they choose a professional mastering engineer or a self-mastering algorithm.

First and foremost, music is art, and art is expression. Having a machine do mastering is like having a machine write a song. It’s certainly possible, but how is it going to express emotion?

A song, or an album, can be presented in many ways, sonically, and a mastering engineer provides invaluable insight and guidance on its final direction. Running music through an algorithm to be analyzed and regurgitated is not art. It’s not making music the way it’s intended, from the artist’s point of view.

Context and perspective are key in mastering. For example, you would never make a decision about a microphone, preamp or studio monitor on specs alone, would you? Just considering frequencies would be like arbitrarily making adjustments based on an analyzer telling you which frequencies are there, which levels are there. It has nothing to do with what it sounds like, and nothing to do what it feels like. (And isn’t feeling the whole point?)

Much of mastering is about cohesiveness and translatability of the body of work, not just a collection of songs. Being able to listen and make adjustments to make sure a mix is expressed as intended everywhere it’s played is not something that machines can do; that’s a human touch, and that’s experience.

Mastering is also about quality control. It’s about identifying potential problems and advising clients. It’s being able to notice that perhaps something might be out of phase in the mix, being able to distinguish between pops and clicks and percussion; it’s knowing a track was mixed on headphones so the vocals are a bit down in the center, and how to handle it…it’s being able to catch these problems ahead of time, so mastering becomes the polishing state rather than the fixative state.

All of this collaboration helps raise the bar for future work of the artist and the engineers, and elevate the craft. It makes the client look good, it makes the mix engineer look good, it makes everybody look good. Algorithms can’t do that. Machines can’t do that.

Your art was not created by an algorithm. I believe mastering shouldn’t be, either.


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