One might think, that I might think, that an iPhone mastering app is a total contradiction of everything I stand for as a mastering engineer. You might also think that the fact, that it’s released by one of the most respected engineers in the business might make me say that he’s a complete sell-out to the profession and art? If so, you might be right but I paid the $2.99 and downloaded the Howie Weinberg Mastering App and put it through its paces so you don’t have to.
First off, the sell. It’s apparently very ‘ultimate’. Can’t get better than ultimate.
Upon opening the app, the first page just has instructions. Actually, it’s four pages of instructions. Like you’re going to read them? I didn’t and then I couldn’t figure out how to upload a song to the app and stop the Crystal Method song that was pre-loaded from playing.
After some fiddling I figured out if you went back to the beginning instructions and then went forward again, there is a download screen. You can download from dropbox or from your iTunes library.
I put a 24bit/96khz unmastered file into my dropbox and downloaded it into the app. To my surprise, it supports the high bit and sample rate file. Kudos!
Next, it asks you what genre of music the file is. They are divided into; Acoustic, Electronic, Hip-hop, Pop, Rock and Spoken Word. I was a bit surprised about Spoken Word. After 16 years of mastering I’ve never been asked to master spoken word but I’ll tell you if
Art Garfunkel Malcom Galdwell ever asks me to master up one of his audio books, colour me excited.
Frankly, I feel that more thought could have been put into the categories. If it were my app I think I would have done it this way: Laugh Tracks, Music For Robots, Polka, Kanye West, Autotune, Lambs Saying “Yeah”. I believe this would be a lot more relevant and more appropriate for this app.
Howie’s Choice Noah’s Choice
Once you choose your genre you are taken to the setting pages. This is where the mastering magic happens.
The settings are separated into four EQ pages; Bass/Low (or Bottom/Thump for Electronic, Pop and Acoustic), Midrange/Presence, Grit/Push, and Air/Ultra-highs – and one compressor page. This all makes sense to me except Grit/Push. Having never used those words for mastering before I can only wonder why 3k-10k is considered gritty or pushy. I’m going to let your imagination run wild on that one.
I loaded in my song. “Small Fires” by my old band Noah’s Arkweld. This song features Simon Wilcox on vocals and co-write. On each setting page there is a Howie Helps button. When you push it you get a little pop-up bubble on Howie’s face telling you different words of encouragement and then it does an EQ curve or compression setting for you. I don’t really know how it comes up with the results but I’m guessing Howie is not sitting in a cubicle waiting to audition the file and then giving suggestions.
I ran Howie’s recommended settings on the song. I mean, this is “what Howie would do” and he also “Thinks it will sound great” so, how can I go wrong? This guy has 40 years of experience. In fact, he actually mastered my band’s 2nd album in the 90s and did a great job.
The compressor page was a little more tricky. Howie only gave a starting point. He also mentions that a compressor is not always needed which might suggest some sort of integrity built into the app but in reality is probably there because they are expecting people to put in already loud-as-possible music and adding a compressor will just distort the hell out of it. So saying “It is often not needed” is the same as saying if it makes it sound worse, just take it off. I left it on. I don’t want to fuck with greatness here.
The last page is the “render” page. Here you can upload to soundcloud or send to email or text. The send to text doesn’t actually do anything. It just sends the people you text a message that you’re using the app and a link to download the app from the iTunes store.
Unless it’s a really short song, the email link doesn’t work either. Most email servers don’t accept a file over 25megs.
As a last resort I tried soundcloud. I kept getting the message “Ok, that went wrong”. So here I was with my mastered file and no way to get it off the phone.
Then, I was able to figure out that if you went back to the first screen where you picked the song to master, you could pick the song that’s already mastered and instead of clicking “Start Mastering” you could click an upload button and send it to dropbox. Whew.
How did it turn out? Could $2.99 rival $300 an hour? (Or whatever Howie is these days). Well… it sounds pretty much how you’d expect, unlistenable garbage but it could be worse.
Howie Weinberg is one of the best mastering engineers ever. The list of classic and amazing albums he’s mastered is almost endless. From his days as the main guy at Masterdisk in NYC to now running his own studio in California, his career is aspiring and to be envied. This is why it boggles my mind that he would risk this reputation of excellence and release this app. If not for just the possibility of monetary gain what purpose does it provide? It’s not just innocuous it’s damaging and here’s why;
As technology progresses, the art of mastering will change. No doubt there will be more plug-ins, digital tools and even automated processes that will be used in the mastering process. I’m not holding on to old ways for the sake of tradition or stubbornness. We all know that an automated app cannot replace a real mastering engineer and I don’t think this Howie Weinberg Mastering app intends to do that. My issue is of what this app represents. Which, to me is irresponsibility. Our job, as mastering engineers is not only to take your unmastered tracks and make them sound as best they can but it’s also to educate the listening public on how important sound quality is. The positive experience of listening to well recorded, mixed and mastered music is evidence unto itself that quality audio matters. The more steps we take towards lifeless robotic engineering – even as a novelty, is the closer we get to taking the very thing out of music that helps us appreciate it.