If you’re anything like most musicians, you probably don’t have more than a vague idea of what mastering really is.
Once you attempt to produce your own recording, however, you learn quickly that quality mastering is essential if you want to end up with a professional-sounding track.
While recording equipment and software has become increasingly more affordable and easy to use, mastering has remained an elusive and expensive final step in the recording process. To successfully master a track, you either need to download and learn how to use a pricey plug-in or bite the bullet and hire a professional.
LANDR, an online mastering tool, is looking to change all that.
Here’s how it works: You simply upload a .wav file to the site, and within minutes the cloud-based application masters your track and makes the file available to you for download. The system is built upon a dynamic algorithm that "listens" to your recording and reacts to its musical properties in real time—utilizing mastering tools, including compression, EQ, stereo enhancement and limiting.
It’s not just independent musicians who benefit from using LANDR. When Bob Weir—rhythm guitarist and founding member of the Grateful Dead—needed to master more than 200 hours of live recordings, he got in touch with the LANDR team.
Dating back to his days with the Dead, Weir has long been a proponent of new musical technology. His studio, Tamalpias Research Institute in northern California, serves as a personal sonic laboratory equipped with state-of-the-art tools like the Meyer Constellation Acoustic System, a software-based technology that utilizes specifically placed microphones and speakers to alter the acoustic properties of a room.
When TRI’s chief technical officer, John Harkin, was tasked with figuring out how to master the bevy of live recordings for a release on Rdio, he found it would take a professional engineer an average of 20 minutes to master each track. Seeking an efficient and affordable alternative, he turned to LANDR.
“On this project I was looking for a consistent sound throughout the catalog," Harkin says. "The LANDR treatment equaled what my engineer could do in 20 minutes.”
LANDR’s software is very responsive to different genres of music, a huge plus for Harkin and TRI, who have recorded live in-studio performances for artists ranging from rocker Sammy Hagar to Americana/folk singer Jackie Greene. In addition, LANDR utilizes a "learning algorithm"—meaning the more tracks that are uploaded into the system, the better it becomes at listening to and analyzing different types of music.
“My experience is that when started, it did a nice job of generally making it louder," Harkin says. "That's always an engineer’s first impression of LANDR, just that it's louder. In the past few months, I've noticed they don't just pull everything up in the mix ... it's gotten a lot better at recognizing different types of music, whether it's a rock band or acoustic.”
Another important factor in TRI’s decision to use LANDR was its ability to master at a high sample rate. Describing Weir’s feelings on digital recording, Harkin says, “Bob believes the lower sample rates mask some of the experience we have listening to music and people respond to it by not wanting to listen as much.”
Like Neil Young, Weir has become an outspoken advocate for increasing the quality of digital music. After using LANDR for the Rdio release, Weir spearheaded the Artists for Quality Initiative, a joint venture between Rdio, LANDR and TRI to convert the entire Rdio catalog to an AAC format streaming at 320KbPS.
In making the case for higher sample rates, Harkin says much of what is lost in a digital recording are the high frequencies that exist in the upper-harmonics of different tones.
“My theory is that what we perceive at much higher frequencies is transience," he says. "I think of it in terms of survival; if I was out in the savannah, what I’d really want to hear and locate is that tiger’s footstep. It’s not the steady state tone that is interesting, it’s that transience. That low-level high frequency stuff… There’s part of our brain that’s real aware of that stuff and gets disconcerted when it’s missing.”
Weir is perhaps the highest-profile musician expressing his support for LANDR; and as more people discover the possibilities of online mastering, it’s easy to imagine artists and recording engineers throughout the music industry joining him. Professional mastering is expensive for everyone, and an easy, affordable and high-quality service like LANDR is a welcome option for professional and independent musicians alike.
Whether you’re a savvy Pro Tools engineer or just tinkering around on GarageBand, it’s more than worth your time to give LANDR a try.
For more information, visit landr.com.
Ethan Varian is a freelance writer and guitarist based in San Francisco. He has performed with a number of rock, blues, jazz and bluegrass groups in the Bay Area and in Colorado. Follow him on Twitter.