On Mastering Music: Should You Hire a Mastering Engineer or Use Automated Mastering?

mastering music
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mastering music
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Mastering music is the final stage before you release your songs to the world. You need to master every song you release – it improves the sound quality and increases the loudness to the level of other songs coming out these days. I’ve used both automated mastering and a mastering engineer, so here’s my take on which one is better for indie musicians…

What Is Automated Mastering?

First, let’s define “mastering music.” Mastering is when you take a mixed track (the bounced WAV file) and bring out certain parts of its sound with EQ, compression, and other effects. Mastering also increases the overall loudness and generally makes it sound good no matter the sound source. Traditionally, a mastering engineer does this process.

Automated mastering is a fairly new technology, and it was popularized by LANDR. Automated mastering is artificial intelligence that masters your song in a matter of minutes. It’s able to listen to your track, pick out the sonic elements, and attempt to do what a mastering engineer does.

This is all based on some settings you choose, like mastering intensity, compressor intensity, EQ preferences, stereo width, volume, and even mastering style (ex. warm, balanced, or open). Some services even let you upload a reference track so the AI can try to master your song similarly.

The Benefits of Automated Mastering

Although there are doubters, automated mastering is good in a lot of ways. Here are a few…

Affordable

Automated mastering has been a godsend for indie musicians on a tight budget. Instead of paying a mastering engineer anywhere from $50-150 to master one track, you can master an unlimited number of tracks for under $50 a month. Note: these services will continue to charge a monthly fee if you don’t cancel.

Easy

Regardless of the mastering platform you use, the steps are pretty much the same. Upload your fully mixed track, set your mastering preferences, hit a button, then the AI technology spits out a mastered track comparable to other songs in its genre. It literally couldn’t be easier.

Quick

Most automated mastering services will master your song within minutes, as opposed to the multiple days it would take for a mastering engineer to get around to mastering your track. This means you can quickly get your track to professional mastering standards and distribute it ASAP.

The Benefits of Hiring a Mastering Engineer

Here are the main benefits of going the traditional route of hiring a human to master your music…

Higher quality

To a lot of professional engineers, automated mastering delivers results that don’t quite match what a good mastering engineer can do. An experienced human engineer can hear things that AI may not be able to, meaning you’ll have a better chance at getting higher quality masters from a human. An engineer can make decisions based on your specific track. AI works more generally.

An engineer can point out mix corrections

One of the main reasons I hire a mastering engineer with every song I mix is to get a fresh pair of ears on it. The engineer is listening on high-end studio equipment and they ideally have plenty of experience with what sounds “good.” So if you can find an engineer who’s willing to ask for mix revisions before they master your song, hire them. Your song will come out so much better.

Get more customized masters

With automated mastering, you can choose your mastering preferences and even ask the AI to use a reference track of your choosing. But you can’t ask for as much customization as you can with a human engineer, especially if the engineer offers revisions.

When Mastering Music, Which Option Is Better?

Based on research and my own experience, here’s my take: if you can afford it, hire a mastering engineer. If you’re on a tight budget, automated mastering is a solid alternative. 

If you hire a mastering engineer, make sure you check out their other work beforehand and read any available reviews from past clients. They need to be very good, easy to work with, and have experience mastering your type of music.

And if you use automated mastering, make sure you get someone else to listen to your mix and the final master, someone who has good ears and will be honest with you. Also, you need to use a reference track. Compare your track to a professionally mastered song in your genre to make sure the AI brought out enough of the clarity and stereo width and made it loud enough.

Where To Find a Mastering Engineer

I highly recommend SoundBetter. I use it as a producer, and I’ve hired session musicians through it. There are a ton of very experienced mastering engineers on the platform. You can read verified client reviews. And you can find an engineer in your budget. (SoundBetter isn’t paying me anything, I’ve just had a really good experience).

The Top Automated Mastering Services

The top three automated mastering services today are LANDR, eMastered, and Aria Mastering. I’ve used the first two and gotten decent results. The latter came at the recommendation of an engineer friend – this service uses analog gear and an actual robotic arm to master tracks, meaning it theoretically leads to better results.