There’s definitely a bit of skepticism surrounding online mastering, and understandably so. Anyone who’s familiar with the process at a high level understands the amount of experience, expertise, and specialized equipment that goes into it. It’s an audio specialty.
First, understand the “traditional” mastering process.
Mastering is the final step in preparing a song or album for commercial release. This means that it takes place after mixing, so the overall sonic aesthetic should be well established by the time a song reaches mastering. What a mastering engineer does is make final, sometimes very subtle, tweaks which make a piece sound “finished.” You can learn how to master a song or album yourself, but there’s a reason we trust dedicated engineers! Mastering is an audio discipline on its own, so those who specialize in it have incredible ears, the proper equipment, and highly treated rooms.
The biggest thing to remember when differentiating mixing and mastering is that the latter puts polish on the finished product. In mixing, individual tracks are paid careful attention, ensuring that they sit well for the final stereo bounce. In mastering, a final stereo bounce is usually all the engineer is working with.
There’s a great analogy saying that mastering is like Photoshop for audio. You can buy a great camera, learn the art of photography, take beautiful photos, and sometimes things still aren’t quite right. The lighting may be off a bit, or a smudge on the lens can mess up an otherwise great shot. A skilled Photoshop user can touch things up and make sure the photo reaches its highest potential.
In a similar way, mastering engineers “touch up” an already incredible mix. In addition to equalizing track-to-track levels across an album, they’re also listening to songs individually and applying any additional processing that will help an already-mixed track.
So where does online mastering fit in?
If you’re simply wondering whether it’s worth giving online mastering a shot, the answer is “why not?”.
Four years ago, BandLab introduced their automated mastering process. It’s based on a few parameters they call CD Quality, intended to raise the overall level of a track; Bass Boost to give a bit of low-end punch for bass-heavy music; and Enhance Clarity to brighten things up and give your song a pop sheen. It sounds quite reasonable, as those are all things a mastering engineer does.
What really sets BandLab‘s online mastering apart is that it’s FREE. You read that right. It’s unlimited and totally free to use, so there’s zero excuse to not try it. At worst, you won’t be satisfied with the result. At best, you’ll be happy with the result and have a song mastered instantly for free.
The folks at BandLab also respect and understand the necessity of real-life mastering engineers, and do not see online mastering as a replacement:
“Mastering is an art, not a science, and despite the technological achievements of this release, the human ear will always be the most accurate and delicate piece of music equipment ever created. There will always be a need for mastering professionals. We hope this service will bring more recognition and therefore opportunities to the professional mastering engineers who are part of the global BandLab community.”
The other major online mastering players LANDR and eMastered are subscription based. Starting at $6/month at LANDR, you can get a quick and dirty compressed/limited track, while the Advanced and Pro subscriptions promise better results through more features ($14 and $39/month respectively). At LANDR, a free account will get you 2 masters a month — give it a try!
eMastered has one subscription that gets you everything, but its cost depends on whether you decide to pay upfront or month-to-month. They also provide a 14-day money-back guarantee if you’re not happy with their online mastering. Again, absolutely worth trying out if you’re unsure.
Having an open mind is a good approach to take with new tools like these. The great part is each service makes it very easy to try if you’re on the fence.
Remember, you don’t have to love what you get back. But if you do, then it was worth it for you!