Is LANDR worth a punt?

It has been an interesting experience trying out the LANDR mastering service. For those of you who don’t know (and are interested in what is admittedly a bit of a home production music nerd subject), LANDR is an online mastering tool. If you want to understand more about what mastering is then look it up now. I’m about to waffle on enough as it is without getting into that. When I first heard about LANDR I was immediately both cynical and curious. Cynical because we live in a world where people exhibit an increasingly cookie cutter approach to life from stock filters on photographs to…errr…cookie cutters and LANDR relies on a computer rather than a person to master. My chief reaction was this can never be as good as a really good mastering engineer (which the company freely admits) as to some degree it has to come down to a one size fits all approach. But I was also curious because, despite at the same time deploring how we increasingly rely on technology sometimes to our detriment and increased laziness, I am also someone who is alive to and excited by the possibilities new technologies offer. And also it comes at a very affordable price which is always good for scoring brownie points with my wife at a time my caffeine addiction is spiraling and liking for coffee beans is proving too costly (in her opinion). Affordable enough for me to keep an open mind and try it out anyway.

For my last release, the EP ‘Tish’, I thought I’d give mastering a go myself. I think I did a good enough job for my purposes and did enough to finalise the songs without ruining them or maxing out the volume to the expense of the sound quality or dynamics. Due to not having any expertise however it was a draining and very time-consuming process. Listening again and again to songs kills your enthusiasm for them and can make you lose all perspective. It’s very easy to make wrong decisions too and ruin the final result so it also requires a high level of concentration. With my son now a toddler rather than a baby, having the time and space needed to master a whole album just wasn’t going to be an option and would have been unrealistic to take on. Just mixing the damn record has been an onerous enough task in itself. With the pro LANDR account I can download as many masters as I want and then downgrade to the free account when I’m done, hopefully before my next billing date (if I understood what the friendly person from LANDR told me correctly), so I didn’t see that I had much to lose really other than $39 and perhaps my sanity.

The first time I uploaded a track I was spooked out by the result. The track was mastered in seconds with a link for download emailed instantaneously. Can mastering really be this fast? My first impression was the track sounded OK. Not knock you off your feet WOW but somewhere near as good a first impression as you might get if you got something back from a modestly priced mastering engineer and gave it a quick once-over. LANDR has 3 options, ‘quiet’, ‘medium’ and ‘loud’. I will be honest here. Although I actually resent the so-called ‘loudness war’ which has subsumed a lot of modern music production, my first inclination, as someone who produces my own music, is that I want it LOUD. It’s just that competitive streak in me. When my song plays next to another artist I don’t want it to sound weedy in comparison. It’s stupid I know. Maybe a male insecurity thing? Anyway I was about to re-learn a valuable lesson. Across an album’s worth of songs the LANDR loud setting rapidly set about coldly obliterating all my painstaking work. Generally it just sounded plain horrible. That’s not to say it won’t work for other types of music. For stuff that is straight down the middle hard hitting and punchy and where a good mix has been provided I’m sure it can work out. In fact I’ve heard it work fine regarding at least one other person’s music, though how much that was to do with it simply being an awesome track which had already been prepared really well rather than the final mastering is of course open to question.

Back to my latest material though, and I felt like someone who had spent weeks slowly and deliberately painting a large wall an understated shade of GRAY (sorry), only to have someone walk by and spray it luminous pink, before walking off again without giving it a moment’s thought. ‘Without a moment’s thought’. Hmmm. Unintentionally a very accurate description that, as, of course, LANDR relies on a computer algorithm rather than an actual person to do the job. And herein lies the rub. Whilst LANDR might be able to get it right enough first time for a certain type of mix to satisfy a person’s expectations, I’d assert, from my experience anyway, that it is highly unlikely anyone will be able to upload an album’s worth of material and then be 100% satisfied with every track they get back.

Next I tried the medium setting. This was closer to giving me what I wanted. Loud enough to stand next to latest releases without too noticeable a drop in level but not bludgeoning the music beyond recognition at the same time. However it didn’t take long for closer inspection to reveal that once again the process had often been detrimental to my music. This time, rather than it being a case of someone completely defacing my wall in a horrific act of vandalism which could easily be seen from quite a way off, it was more the case that you had to get closer to the wall to see that the freshly applied paint someone, who might have meant well, thought the wall required, whilst seeming OK initially, had actually begun peeling in places and, overall, hadn’t been applied well enough to cover the wall in its entirety, thus undermining the um appeal of the wall as a whole. Maybe this wall analogy is starting to wear thin but, you know, you get the gist.

Anyhow, there was no way I could settle for this so, finally, I went for the quiet setting. And though some purists who are anti-loudness, and they have a point, will assert it’s still too loud, actually this level, for me, seems OK. The dynamics haven’t been too badly affected and, at least to my ears, it doesn’t seem overly treated in an obvious way which tampers badly with the feel of my work. It’s still just about loud enough in comparison to other commercially released tracks from artists I like, I think, and, although I haven’t compared the tracks at length with Tish, which I mastered myself, I still think it’s better than I could have done in a realistic time-frame, despite certain people out there in Internet land saying anyone can master as well as LANDR with some basic software. Again, there’s no WOW factor (other than how utterly fantastic my music is already of course ahem), but you shouldn’t really expect that anyway arguably, as mastering really should simply be about getting tracks ready for release without screwing them up in the process or altering them in a way that messes with the creator’s vision of what they are supposed to sound like.

I’m sure if it’s the best mastering engineer in the world who puts their state of the art equipment to fantastic use on your material then there will maybe be a pleasing wowiness to close out proceedings but for us rank and file musicians I think we can be satisfied with just getting something back that does what is needed. That is not to say I was satisfied with the quiet setting in terms of the tracks being ready for release. Most, if not all of the tracks, I have in fact, since settling on this setting, continually remixed in a bid to upload something the LANDR software will be capable of processing satisfactorily. This has at times been stressful. But although in some ways it has been a pain, in another way I actually see it as a positive because it has made me think a bit more about my mixes and how to hone them more. Thus even if I now just choose to send them to an actual person to master, for the poor sod that has to listen to my music, the mixes will hopefully be in a far better state, so that person can spend less time fixing issues and more time concentrating on achieving the right overall feel. Fingers crossed. And that’s worth spending the money on from my point of view. Also, with this project I am considering playing live with a sampler so I can also experiment with LANDR and see what it’s like at mastering my loops for live use.

Another LANDR positive is you might send your tracks to a mastering engineer and not be satisfied with the result but with LANDR you can keep tweaking and downloading at no extra cost if you have the pro account. Whilst most reputable mastering engineers I’m sure will consider your feedback and perhaps give a song a second and maybe even a third go, they are not, quite rightly, going to just give you endless versions like LANDR will. Pretty soon you are going to have to fork out a relatively sizable chunk of money if you want them to repeat the process, and so you should – you’re asking for a skilled person to put time aside for you and exercise their craft for your benefit. So my conclusion is, as I initially suspected, LANDR is no substitute for a real expert. Unless they are a real con merchant or have taken temporary leave of their senses, no mastering engineer would ever send back some of the versions of my tracks LANDR did. They would either tell me to improve the mix or they would creatively utilize their talents to drill in on the problem areas.

However I also think the service doesn’t deserve some of the negativity it has received online. I think potentially if you have the right mix then it can do a good enough job, and, if you value the process of working hard to improve your mixes, it can be good experience learning to hone things to achieve the best end result. I also suspect that the technology will improve in years to come and might one day be creating better end results, which will be a real bonus for people strapped for cash just as the advent of home recording has proven. And you can’t really blame LANDR alone for the loud at all costs mentality. That phenomenon preceded the company which simply operates in the same world we all do. I’d argue they should focus on leading the charge towards quieter tracks and better dynamics but I don’t run the company and perhaps they’d go out of business if they didn’t ensure there was plenty of loudness on offer. And to be fair, I’d be disappointed if I didn’t get a significant volume increase for my money too, as long as it’s not too much at the expense of sound quality. You can get sucked into the whole loudness thang whether you have misgivings about ‘slamming’ being right for your specific type of creative output or not. Thankfully there have apparently more recently been signs the tide is turning and many of those turning out music are now finally getting over the fixation on volume. Funnily enough, in the way it has worked out, LANDR has helped me to do just that. I always knew loud didn’t mean better but, until now, found it hard to fully submit to that notion.

Will I use my LANDR mixes for release? I’m not currently sure. I think I’ve pretty much gone as far as I can go with the tracks now but I need to let the dust settle and get some feedback from different listeners. I don’t know if people generally would be able to tell the difference between these versions as they are now and what a mastering engineer I can afford to employ would do (this would be interesting to test). I presume a mastering engineer might be able to achieve a louder volume more effectively than LANDR and generally the tracks might have more finesse. What it boils down to really is whether I can live with these versions. Do they sound good enough to fulfill my end vision? Are they a good enough culmination of my efforts during this project? It’s not as though I use a lot of state of the art equipment or paid lots of money for studio time. I’m amazed I’ve progressed to a point that I can get this quality of sound at times to be honest. But the other side is these songs are my creations and I’ve poured a lot into them. Perhaps they deserve the very best possible end result? I’m quite enjoying listening back to my LANDR mastered tracks, though I do keep hearing sticking points. After all the distressing moments and WTF expressions on my face on hearing some of the results LANDR has provided me with, there is a chance perhaps in the end, rather bizarrely, they will, somehow, give or take a few more tweaks, end up being good enough. It’s too early to say. Time will tell. In a way another initial prediction has been confirmed though, that if a mix is approached in an effective enough way, then LANDR can potentially do an effective enough job.

Whether second-guessing a computer is really the best way to achieve a satisfactory end result when it comes to finalizing mixes is open to debate and the concept will trouble many. It could potentially hamper an artist from creating the mix they want. I have to say though I don’t think it has in my case. In my case I feel it has encouraged me to improve my mixes and made me not over-complicate things as well as hammering home the message less is often more. It has been a valuable experience if nothing else. I don’t like dismissing things out of hand and it has re-taught me A) I am not a loudness at all costs kind of a person so shouldn’t get drawn into that and B) It’s always worth taking more time over your mixes because that’s what it all hinges on once it’s been through the mastering process, and you want your end result to do justice to the hours you’ve invested writing and recording. Whether it’s LANDR or a fully fledged expert mastering engineer, you’re not uploading your music to a miracle worker. You get out what you put in.

To sum up, try LANDR out if like me you are curious but, depending on your aims, if you want a decent enough end result go for a pro account and be prepared to put some serious hours into fine-tuning your mixes, more than you’d have to if sending it to someone who has the knowledge and expertise, for example, to instantly spot which frequencies need zeroing in on and then reducing or boosting them in the mix. If you simply want the best quality you can get with minimum effort and to leave your mixes as they are then don’t use LANDR. Surprise surprise, you get what you pay for.

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