LANDR, if you don’t know, is an online mastering product by a company based in Montreal formally called MIXGENIUS. Unlike other preset mastering software, LANDR claims to use an artificial intelligence to master your mixes. Robot mastering if you will. While I think robots are cool I’m not sure I trust them with my carpet cleaning let alone my music. Hasn’t The Terminator taught us anything?
I’m a mastering engineer so obviously I’m going to fell threatened by automation rendering my craft redundant. My issue with LANDR is not about automating me out of a job however. My concern lies in my feeling that LANDR is missing the point of mastering. The human element is what makes mastering, mastering. It can’t be reduced to an algorithm. Part of my job is listening. Part is figuring out what doesn’t need to be done by a process of elimination. Part is actually making an adjustment. The remaining part is a je ne sais quoi. This is the part of mastering that can’t be explained or quantified. It can only be experienced, through practice and skill. If you’re a musician I’m quite sure you’ll understand this.
My objection to LANDR is not an anti-technology stance. At Lacquer Channel Mastering, we have a whole host of mastering grade no-compromise modern and vintage eqs, compressors and converters. We also have a plug-in and software library that numbers in the hundreds. We use the right tool for the job regardless of it being hardware or software, digital or analog.
Mastering is a skill and an art. It’s a third party, a real human objective ear. There is a metaphysical aspect to mastering. It’s more than just making it louder. A Mastering Engineer is someone who knows how to make your collection of songs an album. Mastering is not just adjusting the way your music sounds but also the way it feels. Mastering helps reveal the ‘soul’ of the recording. Bad mastering can wreck that feeling. Good mastering should be transparent to the listener.
Any audio engineer can make an album loud. It’s about how you get loudness. A good mastering engineer will know the best combination of eq, compression and limiting. Sometimes doing almost nothing is the best thing for the project. Can a robot decide that nothing is the best choice? Can ‘less is more’ be programmed?
LANDR’s developers imply that LANDR can learn. From the website: LANDR is smart and getting smarter. Its true beauty lies in its ability to learn. So the more mastering it does the better it gets? I don’t understand how this makes any sense. What is the control? What is it comparing it to? How does it quantify ‘better’? There is no gold standard of mastering other than well seasoned engineers. With one song and ten different mastering engineers you’ll have ten different masters. Unless there is a technical problem, who is to say which one is better other than the artist and producer? Human mastering engineers learn over time via experience. They know how to use their tools more intimately and they gain knowledge by doing revisions via client feedback. We learn to work more efficiently and proficiently. How does LANDR A.I. do this? How does it improve?
The Mastering Engineer’s job 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. My issue is not with LANDR. It’s not a tool. A tool is something that is only as good as it’s operator. LANDR is an automat. It takes the art and the craft out of our hands. Music is so much more than a song. It’s the microphones, the recording medium. It’s the instrumentation, the performance. It’s the feel and expression. It’s the operator and engineer. A recording is the sum of it’s parts. The fact that we are willing to accept automation to this degree is the problem. The fact that LANDR has received 10 million in funding, (source: crunchbase.com <http://crunchbase.com> ) more than most mastering studios can net in a lifetime of operation, is a real problem for me. Between LANDR, lossy encoding, loudness wars & low-bitrate streaming, its almost as if there is an actual industry wide conspiracy to propagate an anti-quality, anti-human stance on audio recording. In fact, if you submit your song to DMDS, the most popular radio distribution service, there is a button you can click to have your songs automatically LANDRized.
Quality of audio is important to the enjoyment of music. We’re already inundated with lossy encoding formats like MP3 that literally remove frequencies from the audio spectrum and leave us with hollow sound. At the very least, the engineering itself should retain the human element. 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 lets us appreciate it best.