LANDR

Can LANDR Replace Your Mastering Engineer?

Drag-and-drop online mastering is here, and it’s free to try. LANDR provides unlimited 192 kbps mp3 masters of your tracks in seconds.

If you like what you hear, you can pay for uncompressed 16-bit .wav masters. Pricing is very reasonable at $9 for four or $19 for unlimited masters per month. Paid users also get to select the “intensity” of the mastering: low, medium (the default), or high.

Their algorithms were refined over eight years of university research, and they even have a resident astrophysicist. An astrophysicist!

Guess this mastering engineer is out of a job, right?

To find out, I selected tracks from three recent mastering jobs, to compare my results with LANDR’s.

LANDR

Three notes before we get our hands dirty in this mano-a-microchip match-up:

1. Am I biased? Perhaps, but who’s more qualified to evaluate a mastering service than a mastering engineer? Let your ears be the judge.

2. Louder pretty much always sounds better to the human ear. While differences in volume are important for the purposes of this evaluation, you should try to match playback levels when comparing the examples for sound quality.

3. This is an apples-to-apples comparison. I paid $9 for four uncompressed 16-bit .wav masters, to compare to my uncompressed 16-bit .wav masters. All files were encoded to mp3 at 320 kbps using LAME at the highest quality setting.

Wideband Network “Reach”

Wideband Network - Reach

I was asked to give it “the full EDM treatment,” which I interpreted as, “make it loud!”

Here’s a taste of the chorus, unmastered:

Reach (unmastered)

Here’s LANDR’s master at the default (medium) intensity:

Reach (LANDR medium)

And here’s my master:

Wideband Network "Reach" (Resonance Mastering)

Is it just me, or does the LANDR version sound like it was mastered by an astrophysicist?

To my ears, the biggest problem is the lack of low end. The result is thin and narrow and just “off.”

Keep in mind, LANDR uses the same algorithm for all genres of music. This tonal balance might be perfect for folk or classical, but it doesn’t cut it for EDM, hip hop, or even pop.

On the plus side, I appreciate that LANDR doesn’t win the Loudness War by default. There’s plenty of dynamic range. Unfortunately, the track would be the quietest in any EDM playlist. It’s simply not club-ready.

Let’s turn it up to 11 and try again at “high” intensity (a paid option):

Wideband Network "Reach" (LANDR high)

Louder? Check.

Better? Not to my ears. There’s more of everything I didn’t like in the previous version – the thinness is more pronounced and the lows are even more lacking.

It’s easy to trade low frequency energy for volume. The challenge is achieving both.

Worse, this version is even more compressed (as opposed to peak limited). You can see visually how little dynamic contrast there is, compared to my master at pretty much the same volume.

Broke for Free “Summer Spliffs”

Broke for Free - Petal

Tom Cascino’s tracks feature a characteristic richness and warmth, with plenty of deep bass. Within days of mastering his album, the lead track was #1 on Hypem:

Broke for Free on Hypem

Here’s the unmastered mix:

LANDR at high intensity:

And my master:

Maybe I’m reading too much into the song title, or maybe it’s the fact that Tom and I both live in California, but to me “Summer Spliffs” captures that feeling of cruising down PCH with the top down in August.

Does that character come across in the LANDR version?

London Exchange “When Doves Cry”

London Exchange - Re-Mix/Re-Model 25YRS

This cover was pulled off an old DAT recording for a rarities and remixes release.

Unmastered:

LANDR at high intensity:

My master:

In this case, I find the LANDR version to be ridiculously bright, edgy. and essentially unlistenable.

Also note the break at 0:13 where it’s supposed to drop off in volume and build back up. The “quiet” part sounds just as loud, if not louder, than the “loud” part!

This track might have sounded better at the default medium intensity, but I ran out of credits. Regardless, LANDR has no way of knowing that it’s a ballad, and therefore doesn’t require the same RMS level as a club track on the same release.

Speaking of which, try playing the three LANDR high intensity samples one after the other. Would they sit together nicely on the same album? No way!

There are huge tonal and volume differences between masters at the same intensity level, relegating LANDR to one-off singles.

CONCLUSION

To be fair, LANDR is an incredibly ambitious project! It’s amazing that it performs as well as it does.

The algorithm will get better over time, but it can never replace a professional mastering engineer, because it lacks musical understanding.

It can’t know whether occasional high frequency bursts are vocal sibilants that demand de-essing, or cymbal crashes. It can’t tell if the excess energy at 200 Hz is the characteristic warmth of a rich fretless bass, or vocal mud that needs to be cut. It doesn’t even know what genre your track is in. One size fits all.

Most importantly, it can’t tell you to go back and fix your mix!

When I hear a problem best addressed in the mix, I ask the client for changes. That applies to everything from excessive sub bass to thin guitar tone to ultrasonic synth spikes to questionable vocal intonation. Maybe it’s coincidence, but my clients’ mixes tend to get better with every release.

Your mastering engineer can be, as Chris from London Exchange puts it, The Fifth Beatle. We are partners in releasing the best records possible, which often extends into areas beyond mixing, like promotional advice and track sequencing.

I think my job is safe for now.

Have you tried LANDR? What did you think? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

35 thoughts on “Can LANDR Replace Your Mastering Engineer?”

  1. Ugh, I heard about this and assumed there is no way it could work properly… Sadly now there will be 509 more mastering companies who utilize this.

      1. Ah yes of course this is just like a MC Donalds ‘cheap and bad’ … has absolutely nothing to do with mastering and music. Just fast and cheeeeeap bullshit whahahaha and then the ‘Provides unlimited 192 kbps mp3 masters of your tracks in seconds. “What a funking bullshit !! Everyone knows that this quality is to cry. !!!! ??? Decent mastering costs money. Consider alone that the power consumption of a mastering studio costs lots of money du the analog gear ….. we are not even talking about the engineer who work at your track etc. Think people!!!!, keep it real and the quality up!!!

        1. To be fair, the 192 kbps mp3 is just to audition the master. Most people are happy to pay a little for the uncompressed version, but this way they can try before they buy.

          Haven’t been to McDonalds in years. I’m with you on that one! :)

  2. I can’t say I’m even a little surprised.

    Although I *am* a bit surprised that it wasn’t a complete trainwreck.

    Right now, this is going to be the kind of service used by “some kid who wants to make a demo.” But I say in about 10 years, these algorithms will be getting a lot smarter. It’s not a huge leap to say that some sort of intelligent software algorithm will be able to find common trouble spots like sibilance or frequency balance problems.

    And with R128 and similar loudness standards being implemented more adequately across platforms, it’s going to get easier for systems to analyze integrated loudness and adjust accordingly.

    More than likely, though, this sort of stuff will trickle down into the tools that project studios use. Gosh, why send your tracks out for mastering or learn how to balance your levels and dynamic range when you can buy a $249 iZotope OzoneAutoFix or whatever?

    (And Sonny Moore will still drive his tracks too hard)

    This is just the first shot in a looooong battle. It’s going to be up to mastering engineers to position their services as something people *need* that they can’t get with a button push.

    1. Spot on as always Eric!

      Professional mastering tools will require less and less input as services like LANDR offer higher degrees of control, until they converge and become standard in the render options of our DAWs.

      God help us all if there’s a Skrillex preset. ;)

      1. Shrillex? You mean the -3 RMS blast of RAW 0’s and 1’s, dreadful. This new technology might be amazing, but you’re right, you can’t replace us ear people, we mix and master and no software can ever do it as good as human ear.

  3. Wow, I must say that it’s interesting. Yet, it’s still “robotic” to my ears. The subtleties and nuances of music, I still enjoy, and yet must realize that competitive level wars are still present. So, thank God for the mastering engineers who understand both to deliver the best of what music needs!

    1. If guitars sounded that bright I would turn off the music in 20 seconds, very fatiguing. There is so much more to mastering than this software, what about the strange phasing problems that occur, mid/side mastering, things that no software can correct? I would say this is basic for people who just want to get their cut on the radio, or a quick fix, but its not professional, not by any means.

      1. True, things like mid/side processing and multiband compression can introduce weirdness, even when used properly. As for the brightness, I just saw an interview today where the head Mix Genius said music today should be mastered for laptops and SoundCloud, not for hi-fi systems. That explains a lot!

  4. This is the fist time i listened to these comparisons in my studio.

    I am quite impressed by the capabilities of Landr. For the quick brightening up of a track its great. And for the speed and the fact you can keep doing it over and over for very little cost is fantastic.

    That said. It does brighten up the track as a WHOLE, it still remains flat sounding and lacks some stereo fidelity, which less noticeable on headphones.(Which i use a lot)

    As for the 11 max intensity, I don’t think i would need that for a whole track i can kill it myself! But it may be a great application for mastering individual tracks within a track.
    ONE Track which may of been mastered on MAXX OVERKILL setting is Twinkle – Tu as Perdu . Which i play in a set at about 14 mins 30 if you wish to listen to the application of overkill to a track.
    https://soundcloud.com/joncoopermusic/jon-cooper-lexis-mix

    It is clear, and i don’t want to blow your trumpet Brian, but the trumpets of all sound engineers and producers. You cannot get the human touch from an algorithm on a computer.(yet)

    In your mastering its clear that there has been some mindful focus on key elements on the tracks. You have focused on the Low end drums and the rhythm and also the vocal where you can really notice the difference in stereo fidelity and clarity brought about by you i assume.

    As you know Brian, i am mastering 3 versions of a song at the moment and I’m interested to know, in your final master what is an acceptable level of clipping?

    Im at 4.5 over 6 mins ( down from 11 LOL) and it is starting to sound “ready”. At what point do you say done? I wonder if any writer, producer is fully happy with something.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Jon!

      Personally, I don’t think LANDR is acceptable for professional use in any application – even a track within a track (apologies, but I didn’t click through to your link because I’m not in the studio, and because audio quality is hard to judge through SoundCloud’s encoding anyway).

      As for clipping, some mastering engineers will clip a little off the top right from the start. I don’t do that, and set a -0.1 dB ceiling in my limiter, with 4x oversampling, so I never get clipping or intersample peaks.

      Rather than counting the number of clicks, you might look at average RMS level. It’s closer to how we perceive volume, but not perfect. -12 is pretty dynamic for masters these days, but -8 or even -6 isn’t unheard of.

      1. Thank you Brian,

        As ever extremely useful tips. Maybe my music is closer to the Skrillex genre where RED is GOOD! ;)

  5. Take musicians with no money – either for hardware to properly master on, or to pay $$$ for pro masters. Now they have a fighting chance to produce a demo that can pass as commercial quality. Internet music is compressed to death so 192bit just worx for soundcloud and such. If we go commercial release, the uncompressed will go a long way but ideally everyone hopes to get a pro at one stage. Truth is, small artist starting out, no pro, so what can you do. :) As for the sound quality: A/B-ing shows you deficits, yes, but the point is would you have sincerely noticed them WITHOUT A/B-ing, or would the everyday listener buying songs would have figured it? So, this is all about starting out, once you hit big you dont need it anymore I suppose.

    1. I don’t think the examples I presented in the article can pass as commercial quality.

      More to the point, I’m not sure these “musicians with no money but have tracks ready for mastering” really exist. They either have gear and a room to record in, or they are paying someone else to record and mix their tracks.

      Whatever the situation, $99 to master a track (my rate, obviously prices vary) is far less than what it costs to record and produce said track.

  6. To me, it sounds like the “thin” sound some are mentioning is probably a deep cut in the middle somewhere around 1500 to 2000 Hz. That can sometimes bring more clarity to a mix whilst taking away the warmth and leaving the bright only. It might work great for some tracks and kill others. Overall though, I really think landr could be quite helpful if you mix with it’s mastering approach in mind. Just my 2 cents. :)

    1. I’m not sure if you can really compensate for the lack of warmth. My guess is that it will enforce its desired tonal balance, regardless of the starting point.

      Either way, if you’re a good enough engineer to second-guess LANDR into a good master, you’d probably be better off mastering it yourself.

  7. Checked the article because I’ve met the guys from Landr and was interested to see the debate… Then just noticed your example of summer spliffs… Our BANKS remix is the #3 spot in that pic you have there…you can see it just cut off.

    Summer Spliff kept us out of #1… Must have been that human touch ;)

  8. wow…I’m astonished. I mean, I knew it would sound bad, but I didn’t think it would be THIS bad. It sounds phasey, overly filtered, like a much lower quality mp3 than it says it is. Its just straight-up garbage. My guess is landr will disappear once they’ve exhausted their marketing budget.

  9. I agree with your closing conclusion. Even with the best programs it does not add up to having your sound professionally mastered. Maybe someday that will change with technology just not yet.

  10. It’s true that LANDR is not really an option yet.

    BUT i would never pay for ITB mastering. Anyone can be ITB mastering “engineer”, but every full time mastering engineer that i know or have heard about work OTB. Many with custom/self-built equipment.

    There is loads and loads of ITB mastering services these days. I do all my ITB mastering of my self, but when i’m doing anything that’s join to be released i will pass it on some mastering house.

    Last album was mastered here: http://virtalahde.com/virtalahde-mastering-en/ 60€/track and less for album.

    I also like to attend to the session if possible. Sadly not possible too often as budgets don’t allow plane tickets to New York anymore :)

    LANDR kind of things will be good someday. Sometime ago we still thought that it’s not possible to edit individual notes of chord. Now there is DNA and such. Gotta love technology :)

    1. I have no problem with the all-digital aspect of LANDR. Some things, like linear phase EQ and brick wall limiting, can only be done in the digital domain. I also find that client attendance produces lesser outcomes. :)

      1. But then again you are not a pro ME.
        You are one of the many, many hobbyist ME’s.

        None of the “real” ME’s i know make music, none. It’s a funny fact. Mastering is their main and only income. They make living with it as people trust their ears so much. Hobbyist’s are the ones that ALSO do mastering among other services and hobbies.

        There is nothing bad about as long as they don’t charge more than “real” ME’s. Many do. They can do it as they sell themselves as ME’s “that know the genre” while most pro ME’s make banging EDM masters. There is really no reason other than price to use non-pro ME.

        When mastering album the pauses between songs make world of difference in the outcome. It’s really hard to do that if client is not attending. When mastering demos to SoundCloudBandCamp it’s probably ok. Even on Spotify album release pauses make huge difference on how the album plays out.

  11. I grew up in the days of hi-fi and, poor student that I was, trying to get a great sounding system on a budget. That was then, when you had to go out and buy a physical thing, be it vinyl or cd or, god forbid, cassette. mp3 is a lossy format. Streaming sites, like Soundcloud, colour the music anyway, usually not in a pleasing fashion. However, this is where the great majority of humanity are now sourcing their music from. (Neil Young’s Pono is never going to be mass market surely?) Mastering is undoubtedly a black art, and at it’s best, the differences to a mix are staggeringly good! Not everyone is an audiophile though. Even back in the day, most people were content to listen to music on crappy AM radio stations, that often sounded like they were being broadcast from deep space. There will always be a market for craftsmanship and skilled artisans. And there will also be the mass market, which really doesnt care about loudness wars, poor encoding or any of that. These are strange times indeed. :)

    1. Hey Colin!

      You are absolutely right that many listeners, perhaps the majority, don’t care one way or the other. SoundCloud and YouTube are good enough for them, and the difference between LANDR and professional mastering may not matter, at least on a conscious level.

      While SoundCloud and YouTube provide poor audio quality, Pono provides no benefit over CD. 44.1 KHz is able to capture any audio signal perfectly. At least he’s getting people to focus on sound quality though!

  12. Freeks, your comments are absurd on so many levels. I suspect you’re just trolling me, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt.

    Of course mastering engineers make music. Bob Ludwig, the best of the best IMHO, played principal trumpet in the Utica Symphony Orchestra. Pick a mastering engineer and Google their bio.

    I’ve been mastering full-time since 1999. 90% of my income comes from mastering, but because I find time in my mastering schedule every few weeks to work on my own music, I’m not a “real” ME? My pathetic release schedule speaks for itself. ;)

    As for the pauses, that only applies to physical releases, which are becoming an endangered species. The process is simple: I supply the client a single mp3 of the entire release, and if requested, adjust the gaps based on their feedback.

    What’s actually really hard to do is to make a good master with the mix engineer in the room! If you knew anything about the biases involved in human hearing, you’d understand what a terrible idea that is. The mix engineer should think the mix is perfect, and therefore should have nothing to say. Instead, their comments mislead and misdirect from the true deficiencies of the mix.

    Hearing is built on expectation. We hear what we expect to hear, or in the case of client attendance, what we are told to hear. And then we tell the client what to hear in return.

    Worse yet is the idea of mastering an entire album in a single session. I fine-tune over at least a half dozen short sessions. Sure, it makes client attendance impossible, but it results in a better final product.

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