What if the future of mastering is here…


Is the future of mastering already here?

I love technology. I love what the digital revolution has brought to me as an audio engineer. The things I can do today that I could not achieve during my early training is beyond mind blowing. I can repair audio easily. I can using some of my favourite tools to remove noise from a recording as quickly as listening to it. I can retune bad parts (if mixing) and I can call upon all the power of nearly every piece of hardware that’s ever been invented right here on the same computer that I’m using to type this – if I wanted to!


I’ve colleagues in mastering who are analogue enthusiasts and most of the them have the CV to prove that they’re not mucking about, and they know their bacon! However, for a million reasons, I’ve chosen to stick digital. I have, I’ll not deny, been tempted with the concept of kitting my studio out with lovely analogue circuitry and I’ve even started early designs on my own Vari-Mu style monster, but not got around to it yet. The reason, for me, is simple, and the future is here now, already. It’s proving me correct, well sort of…


Keeping in the digital domain was not a purist’s view by any stretch of the imagination for me. A few transformers and components can add an edge to a signal, that no one can deny. On paper, at least, staying in the digital domain can make audio degrade less. However there’s probably little in it. I stay digital because of the nature of the work I get. It’s a lot of projects, on at the same time, and competing on cost with those people I see on Fiverr online, I need to recall settings really quickly. Crikey. I’ve 30 years experience nearly of audio as my first passion. I’d like to think my ears still work and hear things people who master a track for $5 cannot. I’ve the monitoring (ATCs are simply not cheap) and the workstation etc… to do the work. You see some of these pictures and they’re claiming to master on speakers that are pretending to be the modern NS10. Worrying.


However, we keep in business, because our clients understand what we do and how we do it. They like how we approach business. They like that we can be contacted, talked to and engaged with. We’ve such long running client relationships we get involved in hearing mixes (when asked) and giving the odd comment to aid the overall mastered version later. It’s cooperative. It’s the greatest way to work.


Things are changing though. The work we get is more and more singles. More and more EPs and believe it or not, most artists are only asking for digital files now. No more CD! Yes we get asked for vinyl and prepare the files for cutting, but we defer to our colleagues elsewhere for the actual acetate. For clients that want vinyl, we work with some people who run off discs from our masters and do a fabulous job.


So no CD – which was once the standard benchmark of un-data-compressed audio. In so many ways, good clients, understand the need to move up to 96k and 24 bit, but even 44.1kHz with 24bit is better than CD and great stuff. We can master all the way up to 192kHz (even 384kHz although rarely asked) if we had to 😃. Many are happy with sending us audio that they only want back as mp3 for upload to whatever place they’re aiming for (Soundcloud, Youtube, etc). “It’s only an EP” they’ll say and they don’t even need PCM level sound. We’ll give it to them anyway.


Ozone 7 Elements

This lack of mastering quality or ’need’ for an incremental release online, feeds straight into the current crop of what’s going on. Landr and CloudBounce persist as online auto mastering solutions. Landr’s work is objectively analysed by Ian Shepherd here. CloudBounce is of a similar ilk.


However the new thing that has landed, which is really really useful for mp3 only artists, would be iZotope’s Ozone Elements. Landr and Cloudbounce might have some serious data about how mastering engineers work, but what iZotope probably have is going to take the online boys to the cleaners. If, and I have no real knowledge to back this prediction up, iZotope had feedback coming back to them from all users of the non-elements versions of Ozone, they could put together a pretty interesting picture of how their plug in is used and how it would therefore ‘react’ or ‘adapt’ to each genre and style of music. In other words, it could gather some serious ethnographic data about how we do our jobs, providing we were using Ozone fairly exclusively. Interesting cynical view, but nevertheless probably realistic now or one day.


Last week Project Voco from Adobe was ‘premiered’ online. If this is true to form and if one day it could be musically enabled, it could, perhaps allow us to obtain deceased best-loved singers like Elvis and Freddie singing for us again. That’s pretty terrifying.


So the future is here. Automated, semi-intelligent DSP is here. Mastering for those who cannot master, is here, sort of. One thing remains. These solutions are not people. They cannot put an album in order using the music, feeling and style to set the optimum spaces between tracks (or a segue if it’s felt necessary). These services, at the moment, can’t go back to you and ask to tweak the vocals a touch in that frequency band on track 6 as it will work better overall. Mastering might be under attack, but until it replaces the human, I think we’ll stay put – call us.