Human Mastering

 

 

Quick Answer

Human Mastering is the process of preparing an album for distribution with an human engineer, as opposed to an AI-based mastering system.  With the popularization of AI mastering, mastering studios comprised of human engineers are becoming few and far between, despite having distinct advantages during mastering.

Human Mastering in Detail

For nearly 7 decades, audio mastering has been a passion of many engineers.  What started as innovative techniques used by transfer engineers (the engineers that would transfer an electrical signal to a vinyl record) became an art in and of itself.

Mastering has a rich history, full of innovative and passionate audio engineers.
Mastering has a rich history, full of innovative and passionate audio engineers.

As the engineers behind mastering became more experienced, the knowledge of how to best transfer a signal to a medium became more complex, and the overall sound quality of records increased dramatically.

Mastering has led to a better overall sound, one that can translate well to a multitude of listening systems.
Mastering has led to a better overall sound, one that can translate well to a multitude of listening systems.

Today, engineers are still striving to create the best sound possible and to provide artists with options for they want their album to sound prior and post-distribution. 

Today, many engineers are still striving to create the best sounding masters possible.
Today, many engineers are still striving to create the best sounding masters possible.

With that same mentality, some talented mastering engineers and computer coders have created AI-based mastering services, which can interpret a mix and apply processing to that signal.

Online Algorithmic-Based mastering responds to an incoming signal in a predetermined way.
Online Algorithmic-Based mastering responds to an incoming signal in a predetermined way.

Although the response to this form of mastering has been mixed, it is no doubt a technology that will improve, and will ultimately result in better sounding records once it is fully developed.  Just like mastering itself, as the understanding of the technology grows, the services will become more complex, nuanced and artistic.

Human Mastering, with a creative and inspired engineer, still out-performs online mastering.
Human Mastering, with a creative and inspired engineer, still out-performs online mastering.

With that said, for the foreseeable future, human mastering, or mastering performed by an actual engineer is still the best option for many artists looking to have their album professionally mastered. 

Let’s look deeper into why this is, as well as cover some of the pros and cons of both AI mastering and Human mastering.

We’ll also be doing a cost analysis of each to figure out which is better for an artist on a budget.

Additionally, we’ll be looking at a couple of examples that illustrate what is possible in Human mastering, that isn’t in AI mastering and vice verse.

With all of this information, hopefully, you can determine which of the two routes is the best option for your current project.

If you’d like to understand more about traditional mastering, check out our blog post on the topic:

It showcases what forms of processing are used in mastering, as well as the mentality behind it, and some of its history.

Additionally, if you’d like to learn more about AI-based mastering, check out our blog post on that topic as well:

It details how algorithmic mastering works, and some of the practical ways it can be used.

Lastly, if you’d like to hear your music mastered by an engineer using solely analog equipment, send it to us here:

It’s completely free and is a great way to test out our services prior to making any commitment.

What is Human Mastering?

Human-based mastering includes using equalization, compression, harmonic generation, stereo imaging, expansion, and limiting to a stereo mix, or applying this same type of processing to multiple stems in a stem mastering session.  Human mastering includes utilizing the expertise of actual engineers, as opposed to AI or algorithmic mastering software.

Human Mastering means an experienced engineer will be interpreting your mix.
Human Mastering means an experienced engineer will be interpreting your mix.

Human-based mastering has certainly evolved over the years and has adapted to the technology available at the time.

One example of an immense leap forward in mastering came with the introduction of multi-band compression.  The ability to compress specific bands of the frequency spectrum gave engineers the ability to more accurately affect the signal.

The growth of audio technology directly correlates to the advancement of mastering.
The growth of audio technology directly correlates to the advancement of mastering.

In turn, this led to better-sounding masters that could perform well regardless of the stereo system they were being played back on.

If you master or mix using multi-band compression, check out our list for the top 10 multi-band compressors:

Another example can be seen with the introduction of digital processing that allowed more engineers to become involved in mastering, and also gave engineers the opportunity to mix the great sound of analog equipment, with the flexibility of digital processing.

Digital Processing was a huge leap forward in mastering, as it allowed for added flexibility and the inclusion of more engineers.
Digital Processing was a huge leap forward in mastering, as it allowed for added flexibility and the inclusion of more engineers.

All of this effort, experimentation, and growth have culminated in AI-based processing.  It should be noted that although there is often a delineation created between traditional human-based mastering, and AI or algorithmic-based mastering, the truth is, AI mastering is still very much a human effort.

AI and Algorithmic Mastering are still very much human efforts.
AI and Algorithmic Mastering are still very much human efforts.

The way the algorithm is responding to incoming information is entirely dependent on the incoming signal.  Individualistic processing, or “AI learning” isn’t something that is currently occurring with online mastering services.

In other words, when you have your track mastered by an online mastering service, the master is created based on predetermined rules created by the engineers that coded the program. 

Current online mastering does not have true AI or Artificial Intelligence.  It cannot learn from past masters and respond to new ones creatively.
Current online mastering does not have true AI or Artificial Intelligence. It cannot learn from past masters and respond to new ones creatively.

This is to say, there is no intelligent software that can adapt and learn from mastering multiple mixes or one that can apply techniques outside the realm of what it has been coded to perform.

With that said, what an AI-based online mastering service is, is an algorithm, or a set of rules which pre-determine how a song will be mastered.

Online mastering is kind of like sending your mix to an engineer that can only master a mix in a handful of ways.
Online mastering is kind of like sending your mix to an engineer that can only master a mix in a handful of ways.

It’s almost like sending a mix to an engineer that can only perform certain techniques.  To follow this thought, this engineer would only be able to give a limited number of options for your mix, and could only master to certain loudnesses and with certain EQ curves.

As you can imagine, this would certainly limit the creative aspect of mastering and put a stopper to innovation.

The same can be said about current AI-based mastering services.  Unless they implement a form of learning into the software, the end result will be similar to human mastering, just with a human that only knows how to respond to a mix in a limited number of ways.

So just to recap:

  • AI-Based mastering is still a “Human” effort
  • AI-Based mastering is entirely controlled by a predetermined coding
  • These facts will remain true until a “learning” element is coded into the AI

So again, although the two are seemingly separate, both AI-based mastering and traditional mastering are irrevocably tied together.  At least until the AI program can teach itself and learn from its experiences with other masters.

True AI functionality will need to be coded into online mastering services before it can compare to mastering engineers.
True AI functionality will need to be coded into online mastering services before it can compare to mastering engineers.

With that said, let’s look at the pros and cons of Human-based Mastering and AI-based mastering to better understand both.

The Pros and Cons of Human Mastering

Pros:

  • Individual requests and specific revisions can be addressed
  • The intricacies of your mix can be recognized
  • Unique analog equipment  or digital processing can be used
  • Specific and complex techniques can be implemented
  • A one time cost
  • The overall sound is often more nuanced and more adequately prepared for distribution

Cons:

  • Can take more time to receive a master, depending on the engineer’s schedule
  • Can cost more per master, depending on the engineer or studio hired

Pros and Cons of Human Mastering in Detail

The most important pro of mastering with an actual engineer is the fact that your mix can be addressed with its intricacies in mind.  This means that the mastering process can contribute to a unique sound – one that makes your song stand out from others.

Human mastering allows for a unique and creative master.
Human mastering allows for a unique and creative master.

Additionally, your song can be mastered for specific reasons that online mastering simply doesn’t take into consideration.  For example, if you wanted to release your music on a vinyl record, or on a streaming service, each of these mediums calls for different methods to be used based on the technical limitations of that medium.

Human mastering allows for mastering for different mediums.
Human mastering allows for mastering for different mediums.

So say you want to have your music on Spotify and other streaming services – a mastering engineer will know what will make your music sound best on that service, whereas an online mastering service will create a master that is not specifically tailored for online distribution.

If you plan to master for a streaming service, your master should be tailored for that service.
If you plan to master for a streaming service, your master should be tailored for that service.

Although this may sound more detailed or routed in minutiae that you care for, these things do matter and cause a master to sound better or worse to your listeners.  With that said, these more detailed or technical aspects are incredibly important.

When it comes to the cons, it is true that Human-based mastering can be more expensive – but this does depend on a number of factors, so let’s cover that in greater detail in another section.

Human mastering does often cost more than online mastering, but this does depend on a number of factors.
Human mastering does often cost more than online mastering, but this does depend on a number of factors.

The primary con of human-based mastering is that it does take more time to receive your master than it does when using an online AI-based service.  That being said, if you have a week to wait for your master, this isn’t too big of an issue.

Additionally, many engineers can expedite your mastering process.  Granted this does often cost extra, but if you need your album mastered within a day or less, this can be accomplished.

The Pros and Cons of Online AI Mastering

Pros:

  • Your mix can be mastered immediately
  • AI-based mastering can be less expensive than traditional mastering
  • Allows users to customize their master in real-time (often for a greater cost)

Cons:

  • The intricacies of your mix are not recognized in a significant manner
  • Advanced techniques best suited for your mix will not be used
  • Your mix cannot be processed with particular or specialized equipment
  • Any specific revisions needed on your master cannot be accomplished

Pros and Cons of AI Mastering in Detail

As you probably gathered, AI mastering currently isn’t capable of treating your mix in a unique manner.  Instead, it will analyze your mix, and then apply varying degrees of processing based on your mix’s frequency response, current loudness, and other factors.

Online mastering/Algorithmic mastering does not uniquely process a mix.
Online mastering/Algorithmic mastering does not uniquely process a mix.

With that said, it does alter its processing based on your mix, but in a manner that does not compare to how an actual engineer will alter his or her processing to best accommodate your genre, sub-genre, general style, apparent influences, and so on.

On the bright side, AI mastering is a great and often affordable way to hear your mix mastered quickly. This makes it a great way to hear how your mix may sound mastered, but if you have the means to, you could add this processing yourself to get a rough estimate of how your mix will sound finished.

Putting a limiter on your master output when mixing can help you hear how your mix will sound after mastering.  Be sure to remove this limiter both exporting.
Putting a limiter on your master output when mixing can help you hear how your mix will sound after mastering. Be sure to remove this limiter both exporting.

All-in-all the current state of AI mastering may mean its best to use as a reference than as a means of finalizing your mix; however, that isn’t to say that these services aren’t far from being fully capable of delivering professional-sounding masters.

Online mastering services are getting closer to performing at the same level as talented engineers.
Online mastering services are getting closer to performing at the same level as talented engineers.

Just like mastering itself, the coding behind these AI mastering services are a human endeavor, one that takes a lot of persistence and thought on the part of those that created it. 

As their coding becomes better at detecting nuances in a mix and creating mastering that it is more unique and complex, AI mastering will be just as efficient at creating professional-sounding masters as the best engineers.

AI mastering may eventually out-perform actual engineers.
AI mastering may eventually out-perform actual engineers.

Granted, this may be a little way into the future, but it will be a reality soon enough.

Cost Comparison: Human Mastering vs. AI Mastering

It’s often said that human mastering is more expensive than AI or Online mastering services.  This is certainly true in some circumstances, but like most things, it truly depends on the circumstance.

The cost of Online Mastering and Human Mastering are more similar than you might think.
The cost of Online Mastering and Human Mastering is more similar than you might think.

Let’s take a look at an example and analyze the costs to determine which is more expensive.

First, let’s consider a specific situation.

You have a 10 song album to have mastered and 2 weeks before you need to have it sent to distributors.  You want the album to be distributed on Spotify and other streaming services like Apple Music, Tidal and so on. 

In this example, you're mastering a full album.
In this example, you’re mastering a full album.

So, in order to upload your music on Spotify, you’ll need to have WAV or AIFF files.  This is a requirement of most distribution services, and not something that can be worked around or negotiated.

Online distribution to streaming services requires a WAV or AIFF file.
Online distribution to streaming services requires a WAV or AIFF file.

With that said you will need a “Pro” option from most online mastering services in order to receive WAV files.  This service costs roughly $25 per month or $300 annually.

If you were to have this same album mastered by a mastering engineer that charges $45 a song, your bill would be $450 for this same album.

In this particular example, a traditional mastering service is more expensive than an online mastering service.  However, whereas a traditional mastering studio charges you per song, an online mastering service is subscription-based. 

This means that you will continue being charged even if you do not master any tracks.  As you can imagine, this changes which service is more expensive.

In a second example, say you have a 6 song EP that you need mastered.  Your time frame for releasing your music and the distribution requirements are the same as the previous example.

If you were to use this same online service, which charges $25 a month, you will again be charged $300; however, a traditional mastering service will charge you $270.

Here, the traditional mastering service is less expensive.

The cost of online mastering truly depends on how many tracks you're having mastered.
The cost of online mastering truly depends on how many tracks you’re having mastered.

The value of an online mastering service truly depends on how many songs you plan to have mastered in a year.  If you intend to release 10 or more songs in one year, then an online mastering service will be the best way to ensure a low price for your projects.

But if you’re an artist or producer that releases a few singles a year, it will be far less expensive to hire a mastering engineer.

If you are an artist on a budget, and you’re looking for an affordable mastering service, you can try ours out for free:

This way you can test out our services prior to having your full EP or album mastered.

Additionally, if you are looking for a traditional human studio for your mastering, but don’t know where to start, check out our blog post on the topic:

In it, you’ll find a lot of useful information on what makes a mastering studio ideal for independent artists.

Conclusion

The topic of “Human Mastering Studio” definitely seems a little strange if not off-putting, but the popularization of AI-based and algorithmic mastering services makes it an increasingly relevant topic.

The topic of "Human Mastering" is more relevant now than ever before.
The topic of “Human Mastering” is more relevant now than ever before.

Although there is definitely a separation between the idea of AI mastering and traditional mastering performed by an engineer, AI-based mastering is still a “Human effort” in that it needs to be designed, coded, and realized by engineers.

Just like mastering itself, AI-based online mastering will improve with time.  As soon as AI learning is involved with online mastering, the service will seise to be an extension of traditional mastering, and become something entirely unique.

When that happens, AI-based mastering will be capable of delivering unique and artistic masters just like an actual engineer, but until that day comes, having your music mastered with an actual engineer is crucial to having it mastered professionally.

If you’d like to hear your music mastered by a human engineer, send it to us here:

Have you ever had your music mastered by an engineer?


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Sage Audio Mastering

Nashville, TN

www.SageAudio.com