With the rise and ever-developing scope of cloud computing, the mastering engineer’s work is increasingly being offered by several online services through the power of algorithms and server banks.
In this post, we will compare LANDR vs. eMastered vs. Cloudbounce vs. BandLab vs. MajorDecibel.
Each service uses a slightly different algorithmic setup which will produce a different result in the final mix. So, how effective are these new technologies at producing a compelling mix-down? Are they cost-effective? Could they replace a human engineer? What can you use them to master; a single song or a whole album? What about different mixing styles? You can pick the best service for your next production.
LANDR’s cloud-computing software is based on research done at the Queen Mary University of London into automated audio mastering algorithms.
It boasts that the software is always getting better thanks to behind-the-scenes learning algorithms. So far, so high-tech, but what can an artist do with the tool?
Well, relatively little, in all honesty. LANDR asks the artist to relinquish most of its control and trust that the AI knows best. The whole point of the software, after all, is to make the mastering process more straightforward by letting the computer do the hard work — but how much creative decision-making do you have to give up for LANDR’s ease of use? Rather a lot.
- Custom style options that you can configure, but the range of options is the choice of two sets of three buttons: warm, balanced, or open, and low, medium, or high intensity. Not exactly a wide range of options for the artist looking for a unique sound.
- It’s undoubtedly an easy piece of software to use, though. Its minimalist GUI is certainly a simpler beast to operate than even something like Logic Pro X.
- Its options for bulk-uploading files are handy, it offers an online collaboration function, and there is even a feature to allow you to master a whole album, ensuring the mastering is consistent throughout.
- LANDR’s master itself leaves a little to be desired, and many have noted that whilst it has a nice body to the lower end of a track, the upper register feels thin, even reedy, and really out of balance with the lower end. I suspect I know why, but we’ll get there a little later…
Price should be a major sticking point for the discerning music producer. Considering the limited customisation options and the overall lackluster result, the idea that you’d pay £49/y for the most basic plan (where you have to pay extra to download particular file-types) is… I’ll be generous and call it audacious.
The Pro plan, which will give you some of the features I mentioned, like volume matching (because, of course, they don’t come as standard), will cost you £299/y, and frankly, I just can’t see any way to justify that kind of price tag.
So, what about eMastered? Well, they immediately earned my respect by putting their money where their mouth is; they have samples of the mastering results on their front page, which you are free to compare against the original mix. This was something of a double-edged sword, as it would turn out, however.
Of the three tracks on offer, the EDM track (White Flag — Remix by Collin McLoughlin) and the Hip Hop track (Beam Me Up by Prolific) both showed the mastering in a rather positive light; an expansive middle range in the Hip Hop showed how effective the mastering was at creating a sound space that could be filled with reverb and delay to give a sense of scale to the track.
In the EDM, the substantial boost on the bass gave the drum machine a suitable kick to it, and the stereo-work was sufficient to provide that characteristically EDM sense of sound coming at you from all directions. The Rock track (Young and Free by Walk with Wolves) really showed up the software’s shortcomings.
In a genre that needs its lead vocals to be foremost in the sound space, instead eMastered pushes the vocals behind a wall of piano chords, synth ostinatos, and a huge amount of reverb; the mid-range utterly dominates, and the vocalist sounds like he’s trying to shout the lyrics from the room next door.
When you listen to the original, whilst the general mix obviously needs work, you can see that the vocals were originally much better balanced with the ensembles, and it seems as if the algorithm just didn’t both lifting the vocal track’s volume to match the massive volume-boost on almost everything else.
What is frustrating about this is that, unlike LANDR, eMastered claims to offer genre-specific styles of master available for the listener, but the results say differently, with the same boomy bass and middle and the top register left high and dry.
This is perhaps more frustrating when you realize the team behind eMastered have worked with some very notable artists — Beyonce, Snoop Dogg, Seal, One Republic — and whilst they’ve claimed to inject that experience into this software, the results don’t live up to their pedigree.
But other aspects of eMastered do endear me to it more than LANDR at the least. The range of options available to you as an artist are much better for a start, with the possibilities for stereo-width, compression, and EQ all customizable by the user, not just left in the hands of the algorithm.
The pricing is arguably a significant improvement too, with only one plan that comes out to £112/y (there is a monthly plan too, but it’s such poor value at £35/m it’s hardly worth considering unless you want a month to try before committing to a year).
What about the mix itself? Well, like eMastered, CloudBounce are willing to let their algorithm speak for itself. The results were the best I’d listened to throughout the course of this review, with both the EDM and Hip Hop samples given (TJH87 — Wait For Us and TMSV x Digid — Gates) providing a good mid-range boost but without sacrificing the top register like the other algorithms had, with the result being a very crisp-sounding track that wasn’t swamped in sound.
What surprised me was how well the algorithm worked on a much smaller-scale folk/rock song called I Like You by little-known (and seemingly defunct) band Little Savannah. Unlike the other algorithms so far, the vocals stayed up at the front, and the mastering instead brought out some of the little guitar licks that had been hidden in the original mix-down.
Cloudbounce is an interesting case. Whilst like LANDR it will charge you about £7 for a 24-bit WAV master; it does so without you needing a subscription. They do offer a subscription at £144/y, but unlike some of the other options, this will give you unlimited masterings of your tracks and lifetime cloud backups of your files.
That being said, the pay-as-you-go style option CloudBounce offer should be attractive to those looking for quick and simple masters of their tracks, and especially for the hobby music producer who might be uploading too infrequently to make a subscription worth their time.
BandLab Mastering is the only free service on this list, and considering what you get for your money (or lack thereof), the results are truly something to be impressed by.
Now, that’s not to say there aren’t issues here: there is a little lack of depth to a master put through BandLab’s cloud service, and once again, most of the artist control is ceded to the algorithm here, with only options for “CD quality” (whatever that means), “bass boost,” and “enhance clarity.”
In terms of usability, though, BandLab shared CloudBounce’s user-friendliness with a simple drag-and-drop workflow. BandLab also has the advantage of having a free online DAW tool, capable even of live collaboration, which makes it easy to collaborate on your music all within the same environment.
However, it’s worth pointing out that this DAW is rather primitive — impressive for a browser-based DAW, no doubt, but still overly simple even by the standards of other free DAWs like Audacity or GarageBand.
MajorDecibel is similar to CloudBounce in its business model and interface, a simple drag-and-drop affair to a webpage, but has the bonus benefits of providing 2 tracks for free every month, which might be appealing to the more casual producer looking for a quick master or someone looking for a quick mock-up for sharing to others.
For those without a subscription, you will only be given three options for mastering intensity, with the highest intensity sacrificing some dynamic range for overall track volume. For those with a subscription, there are also 5 EQ settings on a spectrum from bright to warm, which prioritizes the higher or lower frequencies of your tracks, respectively.
However, the free masters are only given in MP3; if you want a more advanced lossless format like FLAC or HD WAV, you will need to go for one of the paid options available, like the other services available as a monthly or yearly subscription. One advantage of MajorDecibel is that they offer one of the most reasonable subscription plans of all the options discussed here, with a yearly subscription only costing £18 for individual artists or bands.
These services are a testament to the increasing power of cloud computing and processing. Of the five options presented here, my choices would be CloudBounce or Mastering by BandLab, based on whether I want something to present as a decent finished product, or just want something to quickly bounce together as a demo or to use as part of a collaboration with other artists.
However, advanced as these pieces of software are, and while some of them attempt acknowledging and catering towards different mastering styles, they still lack a little individuality to their masters. It makes sense; a lot of these algorithms are making decisions based on machine learning, which requires a lot of learning input to produce something that actually sounds good.
If these systems have been trained on one style of music, therefore, they’re going to struggle when presented with something different. Plugging a recording of a wind quartet into this software produces some truly awful masters because although they don’t explicitly this, the software is designed to work best on a particular style of music: overwhelmingly pop, EDM, or hip hop.
If you are an indie music producer working in a niche style, or a classical or jazz artist, I’d steer away from software like this and leave mastering your work to a human audio engineer. That being said, these are still very potent tools, and for the right producer, they offer some quick, powerful functionality for creating a professional-sounding final mix.