Mastering In The Home Studio: Robots Vs Humans

2017 Oct 20, 2017

Quick story today about how I beat up a robot. Well, not a real robot, but a music robot.

OK, this is sounding weird.

Literally as I type this I’m picturing the Michael Jackson music video for Beat It where those two guys kind of dance fight with knives, only it’s with me fighting some singing robot.

Can’t get enough of that song!

OK, back to my point. The robot I beat up the past few days was actually an auto-mastering robot, and there IS a point to this post.

In fact, today I want to quickly point out my interesting discovery in a recent experiment with auto-mastering and then give you 3 practical strategies you can use to make sure your final masters sound their absolute best if, like me, you prefer to self master your music.

Sound good? Good!

That Doesn’t Sound Better At All!

I was just wrapping up the final mixes for my band’s latest EP and was planning on running them through an online auto-mastering tool I’ve used in the past.

I’ve used a couple of these services in the past with pretty good results so I was feeling confident this “robot” would help clean up my mix a bit more. What I got back shocked me.

The “mastered” version, while loud and punchy, was overly cooked and way to crispy. It sizzled so much in the top end, had an overly scooped mid range, and a reduced low end.

My absolute initial thought was – “This doesn’t sound better than my mix at all!”

But here’s the crazy thing, I started to second guess my ears within minutes. 

Maybe the robot mastering engine was correct.

It analyzed my mix, compared it to thousands of chart topping singles, and compensated for the differences with EQ, compression, saturation and limiting. It did all of this without the “limitation” of a home studio, imperfects speakers (i.e. ANY speaker), and human hearing.

Maybe it was just ME who was hearing things weirdly all along.

I Reached Out For Help

Even after bringing in the master, level matching it to my original mix and comparing the two I was questioning my entire existence.

So I reached out for help. I enlisted the opinion of by buddy Joe Gilder who runs our Dueling Mixes community with me and ill Factor (Grammy nominated producer).

What I sent them was the online mastered version and also a quick EQ only master of my mix. To be fair it was EQ + limiting so they were both at commercial volume.

In essence one was the robo-master and the other was my fine tuned version of the mix (which is how I would have mastered it since the final mix was great to me).

I simply labeled them Master 1 and Master 2.

I asked them to listen to each and tell me which one they preferred and why. I told them that I liked elements of both but I was really losing perspective.

Their responses were a game changer.

The Robot Was Wrong

Both Joe and ill wound up choosing my master over the auto master on the blind comparison.

We went back and forth a bit, even did a second round with Joe.

Here are some of their responses:

Joe’s issue with the online mastered version was that it chopped off the low end, overly scooped the mid range, and was a bit too hyped in the top end.

Here’s what ill Factor had to say:

According to ill, the robo-master brought out the vocal too much. And according to him, even though this tool does a good job (as it truely does in my experience) “sometimes it missed the mark.”

Very interesting.

Backed Up By Other Great Recordings

It wasn’t just Joe and ill who thought my master sounded better than the automaster, but it was other great recordings as well.

When I referenced other professionally mastered songs in a similar style (and I pulled in many) none of them were as bright, as “sizzly” or as scooped as the robo-master.

All of them matched much more closely to my simple EQ and limiter self master.

This to me was the nail in the coffin for the robots.

3 Big Takeaways From This Experiment

In the end, I went with my master.

The EP will release soon and I’ll be sharing more details from this project with you here so stay tuned.

Sometimes I go with an auto master, sometimes I go with a professional master, and sometimes I self master. I do all three.

In fact I did a shootout between a pro master (not my own) and LANDR a while back if you want to check out an example for yourself.

But for today I want to share with you the 3 lessons I took away from this mastering “duel” that will help you if you choose to master your own material like I usually do.

Follow these guiding principles and you’ll be sure to come out with a better product:

Lesson #1 – Get Another Set of Ears On Your Music

Make sure you have at least one other friend who you can trust to give you unbiased feedback on your mixes and masters.

Their second set of ears will be a HUGE boost to your work as they will point out what you might have missed, and get you moving in the right direction much quicker than if you tried to figure it out on your own.

In fact, this is one of the 3 shortcuts to getting good at mixing fast!

Lesson #2 – Reference Other Masters

Your ears will deceive you. Your speakers will lie to you. Your room is flawed.

But none of that matters if you have reference tracks!

Pull one or two into your session, level match them to your track and then flip back and forth regularly. The magic of reference tracks is that they will tell you when your master is good enough, every time.

Lesson #3 – Do As Little As Possible

In the end, the master I went with was my own. And it involved only a bit of subtle EQ and basic limiting. That’s it.

Compare that to the robo-master that had EQ, limiting, saturation, stereo widening, and who knows what else. It actually did TOO much to my mix.

The great news about mastering is this: if you do your mix right, you shouldn’t need hardly anything in the mastering phase!

Yes, You CAN Master Your Own Material

I’ll close with this. If you are self-mastering at home, good for you. Keep it up.

It blows my mind that some people still think this is not possible. It totally is and is happening all the time with great success.

But like recording and mixing, it can go horribly wrong if you won’t know what you’re doing.

So that’s why I talk about Mastering a lot and even include it as one of my 6 Steps To A Radio Ready Song.

If you are just dipping your toes in the waters of self-mastering this guide will really help you. Download your copy, read it, and then begin implementing all 6 steps in your music.

Soon your tracks will start sounding more radio-ready than ever, and isn’t that the point of you reading this in the first place?

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