SoundCloud and Mastering
As it happens, SoundCloud are now offering, for Pro and Ultimate Pro members, an affordable automatic mastering 'one-click' on their SoundCloud page. SoundCloud give a full presentation and a video on their blog which I’d suggest you watch before seriously considering using this ‘mastering’ facility. While this may appear to enhance the sound of some tracks, I don't believe that any serious producer/mixer would use this simple click-button facility over and above that of a tried and tested human Mastering Engineer. Here’s why.
SoundCloud say “Dolby’s mastering technology doesn’t just analyze your track, it critically listens to your music similar to the way an engineer would – identifying the details, the sections, and musical transitions that give your song its unique story arc. Using the mastering profiles of your choice, this detailed “sonic map” is then used to sculpt the tone and overall dynamic profile of your mix while prioritizing your creative intent.
With this technology now built into your workflow and available via a custom suite of mastering styles created specifically for SoundCloud artists, your track will be ready for streaming playback and you can be confident about releasing new music”.
Ultimate Pro members can get three free ‘masterings’ a month then it’s approximately £5 per track after that. Although it may be instant and affordable, I’m skeptical.
Run through the video and you’ll see you get to analyse your track and then choose from 4 presets which colour the sound of your track in subtle ways. There’s also a button to boost hi-mids to give a little more flexibility.
A potential issue arises for beginners who don't understand or have not yet learned how to mix properly. The problem with this kind of automatic facility is that it gives the novice the impression that all mastering is is the turn of a switch. Of course it's not. The risk is that novices will not ‘read the manual’, put up their sub-standard MP3’s and select to have them automatically mastered thinking that that’s it, job done. To use the old clichés, ignorance is bliss....and a little knowledge can be dangerous! This is why I’d urge you to check out the SoundCloud blog on this thoroughly. To be fair to SoundCloud, they give you the full script, plus they don't advocate you master MP3's, but the lossless files such as .wav or .aiff.
This may have come about as a result of the ‘earbud’ listening fashion, that and the fashion, for the last 20 years or so, of having all tracks as ‘loud’ as possible, i.e., ‘square waved’ to 0dB on playback with little or no dynamic range, commonly what you hear on radio these days. I feel that what this facility does is primarily boost the output volume and limit the peaks to 0dB with a few other enhancements based on building presets into a genre setting.
Of course you get to run your track through a preview and following the instructions to analyse your track you get to choose which mastering profile you want before making final selection and payment. However, there is no feedback like you’d get from dialogue with a Mastering Engineer, who may make some professional suggestions, even in the extreme that you really need to go back and clean up your mix first, otherwise you’re wasting your dollar, so to speak.
I’d suggest that if you’re seriously considering using this facility, ask yourself some questions first, like;
How do I know my mix is ready for mastering?
What algorithms are behind this?
What stages of mastering does this ‘plug-in’ provide and in what order?
How does it handle signal noise?
How can this work as well on compressed files as uncompressed (and therefore more sonically accurate) files?
Why would I want to master an MP3?
If it makes my track sound great on my iPhone, will it also make my track sound great on my home cinema or my 100W per channel hi-fi?
SoundCloud infer that it does.
Now, I’m not trying to get over-critical of SoundCloud here, I also have a SoundCloud account and use it regularly. However, I don't put lossless music files up there, only MP3's which have been derived from mastered lossless files in my studio - lossless files take up a lot more of the allocated memory for my level of membership than the MP3 and let's face it most people will be listening on their phones so a well-rendered MP3's good enough - so as a potential client, this new SoundCloud facility is of no interest to me. But I think this concern holds good for any automatic online mastering service where a Mastering Engineer is not going to use his or her experienced ears to listen to the track first and provide feedback before performing any mastering work. Dialogue between the Producer/Mixer and the Mastering Engineer can be invaluable.
I have a feeling that this kind of automated facility might be okay for artists who do only sampled electronic recording, or at least with minimal acoustic input, but I’d be wary of using this type of facility over that of an experienced Mastering guy if you’re an acoustic artist, especially if you’re recording in a home studio or live situation. If you must go down the 'preset' route, you might be better to use tried and tested inexpensive plug-ins such as T-Racks or iZotope. At least you have some control over them and you might learn something from the experience.
Also, this is about single song mastering. You’re not mastering an album here which is quite a different approach. An album is mastered as an entity to give a signature sound, cohesiveness and character to the final product. Not to mention that considerations given to mastering an album for vinyl are different to those for mastering to CD. A mastered album, therefore is rarely a collection of individually mastered stand-alone tracks.
Then again, if you like how it sounds and it pleases your ear for a small fee, why not? It’s your buck. It is what it is. It ain’t what it ain’t.