Can the golden ears of a professional mastering engineer really be replaced by an algorithm-laden website accessed via your phone?
MasteringBOX is a web-based mastering service based in Valencia, Spain that uses algorithms to create the final musical files known as masters. They've now launched a new app, which can be found in the Android store (sorry iOS users, this one's not for you). Its aim is to allow you to submit your masters through your phone or table, enabling you to master on the go, whenever and wherever you need to.
If you already know what mastering is, skip forward two paragraphs; for a quick Mastering 101 read on! Mastering is the last step in the creative process of music making. When vinyl was the primary medium for buying music, a cutting lathe was needed to cut the master disc for the duplication process. The cutting lathe was an expensive, delicate piece of kit, and only engineers that really knew their stuff would be able to transfer music from reel-to-reel or DAT tapes onto vinyl. When cutting the master disc, the engineer's job was to make sure that the final product was consistent across the album, and to ensure the needle wouldn't jump out of the grooves due to sudden peaks in loudness. EQ and compression were employed to give consistent levels across the album and correct any errors.
As the media of choice have changed to CD, MP3 and WAV, the mastering engineer's job has remained very similar: to make an album sound consistent, prepare it so the music is ready for the medium and make sure the artist's musical ideas translate well to the audience. Their tool kit normally contains EQ, compression and limiting; yet if there was a 'secret to mastering' it would involve some incredible monitor speakers in a wonderful-sounding, acoustically treated room, and an engineer that has many years of experience.
So, the MasteringBOX app. It's free to download, and you can pay for mastering on a per-track basis (a single mastered WAV costs 9 Euros) or sign up for different subscriptions that give you a set number of tracks per month, or unlimited access if you pay more. The design is clean and intuitive, giving lots of options to the user but without any clutter - a lot of other apps should take note of this! I was able to jump in and start trying to master some music right away. I did run into a few slight problems early on, but I emailed customer support and they had the problems fixed in no time. I found the customer support team to be knowledgeable, polite and efficient, so top marks there.
Uploading tracks from my phone was very simple, and the MasteringBOX App analyses the track in a matter of moments. The next screen gives you a 30-second preview, which plays you a 'before and after' comparison. You have control over the target loudness and EQ but the important word here is 'target'. I mastered the same track three times, only changing the loudness parameter, choosing -11, -9 and -7. I was expecting this to be reflected in my level meter but the RMS level stayed fairly consistently at -10.
This leads me to believe that the algorithm is programmed to prevent the user creating a distorted product even if they try, which makes me question how much control the user really has over the final product. For a complete amateur, this loudness censorship is welcome, in my book - we certainly don't need any extra soldiers in the loudness wars! Yet for the user who understands how a limiter should work, the loudness control seems redundant and ineffectual for the most part.
The app also allows you to fine-tune the balance of bass, midrange and treble using EQ. The website suggests that the EQ will adapt to best suit what is required. Running specially generated noise through the app three times gave me an insight into the inner workings of the EQ as I tried adding low, mid and high gain respectively. The low dial focused on frequencies between 50-125Hz, which is a good place to start for extra low-end weight. The midrange knob boosted just higher than 500Hz with a wide spread of frequencies being included, which could be beneficial to vocals in most well-recorded mixes. Finally, the high-end parameter affected everything from 2kHz upwards, adding sparkle and presence.
The control on the EQ was similar to the loudness target, leaving me feeling powerless, like a child who thinks they're steering the boat with the old wooden wheel at the front of the ship. The EQ definitely works but the app won't let you abuse the controls you are given and the 10dB indicator is definitely more of a guide than a rule. My final test was to run a pure sine test tone through the MasteringBOX app to see if any harmonics were added to the file. To my delight, there were no unwanted artifacts or problems at all.
Taking all of the tests I did into consideration, the audio quality of the files was actually pretty good overall. It was never too squashed or too quiet, the balance of frequencies was respected and overall the sound was clean with hardly any colouration, which is an important factor. The choice of formats allows you to choose from WAV, MP3 and M4A. Though I personally would only ever use WAV, I did try out all three. The app failed to deliver any M4A files, which was concerning, but MP3 and WAV worked smoothly each time.
The main problem that I have with the app is the way it previews the file. It gives you a 'before and after mastering' clip, yet I began to suspect the original preview clip was turned down to give the perception that the master is far better. I tested this by uploading a pure tone at full volume, and the 'original' clip it played was definitely not, in fact, original. Now, the masters of my actual mixes with headroom definitely came back louder and the mastering had been effective, so it seems strange that they feel a 'before and after' feature on steroids is a good way to go. It's like making everyone in the room kneel so that you are taller: it works in practice, but is it really the best way of going about business?
When you're mastering, the most important thing is consistency and making sure ideas will translate to the audience with the best quality possible. The way the app handles previews, and the time it needs to update every change, made this job very frustrating indeed. Also, you cannot easily or accurately compare to the loudness of your current master to that of other tracks on the album, so there's no way you will know if you have achieved consistency.
Overall, I have mixed feelings about this app. Due to the 'censorship' issues discussed above, the way previews are handled and the small errors I encountered, there's still some way to go before I'd think about entrusting my music to an algorithm. There's also the point that, if you use any kind of self-mastering facility, be it software-based, on a website or in app form, you're putting a lot of faith in your own ears, monitors and studio environment - probably better to leave it to the pros.
But the app itself offers a fresh, clean interface, the customer service is wonderful and the team are clearly committed to developing and improving the app. And I can certainly see it being useful for certain people and certain situations, such as DJs who record long mixes and who don't have a full studio setup at home. Put the set on your phone, master it in this app, and the final mix comes straight to your email inbox, mastered and ready to upload. Easy! It would also help newcomers to production get their rough demos sounding more professional, without paying to hire one. If you're in either boat, it's certainly worth investigating - just don't expect miracles.
Review score: 3/5
Words: Matthew Chapman
More info: www.masteringbox.com