LANDR Mastering – Is It Any Good? Are there other free mastering options? It’s been around for some time and is extending it’s services. I put it to the test.
You’re on a budget. A tight budget perhaps or even no budget at all. You’ve got a recording you want the world to know about and you need to have it mastered (yes, you do need mastering!). And you want it done good. LANDR is here to the rescue. Aren´t they?
I’ve read many comments on Facebook and other online places stating LANDR is superb. Others think it’s the worst ever. So since they offer a free trial I decided I’d give them a try.
GET RID OF THE COMPRESSION AND LIMITER!
First of all, and that’s where most people make a big, a HUGE, mistake: you will need to have your tracks ready to be mastered before you get started. If you upload your files with tons of compression on it, Limiter on the end bus and so on, they results will be bad. Very bad! You’re at risk getting a lot of clipping, distortion. Bad sound overall. At best it’s slightly louder.
I tested and it’s clear LANDR won’t do you much good if you’re not preparing the tracks correct. So don’t go wild with the mastering tools yourself, let them do the job. Don’t “master” your track, mix it, stick by the rules (see below) and send them to LANDR after that. It’s pretty useless to ‘master’ it yourself beforehand. It’s their job to do the mastering, right? They even suggested not to use compression on the tracks in the song itself. That doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m no expert in that field of course.
So again, be prepared. Have your tracks prepared for mastering (trough LANDR). On their blog there’s a long story about how the tracks should be formatted but here’s the short version for you.
- the Limiter on your main bus (volume) should be OFF. Do NOT use Limiters, compressors or other stuff that alters the sound on the master bus except, perhaps, for some reverb and EQ;
- set the volume to -6dB (or lower by ear/vision, stay in the ‘green’ zone);
- make sure you export your files to 24bit/48Khz WAVE format (or at least 44Khz CD quality);
- Upload in WAVE format
After you upload the files wait for the magic to happen. It might just work for you. Didn’t for me. In fact, imho they ruined my mixes. Yes, they made them LOUD. The kickdrum is especially loud and close to distorting (listen with good headphones to the track below). But they also made detail go and created a ‘boomy’ mastered file. It just didn’t sound good to my ears. Too loud and close to clipping all the time.
But oh well, it’s free right? Not so. You can only master two songs a month for free. And I really doubt if these songs are “radio ready”. Apart from that, a free master that makes your song not optimal sounding is even worse than a paid-for service that does a “decent” job. You can find them on sites like FIVERR. Click here. And the free songs (see below) are only available as MP3 files.
AUTO AUDIO MASTERING SYSTEM
So I decided to search online for other options. I’m not a starving musicians but I love free. And to be in control as much as possible.
I stumbled upon a software program called “Auto Audio Mastering System”. It’s got a few “problems” you will need to know about but it is free. Totally free, no catch. And it does seem to do a decent job. I used the same files I’ve used for LANDR to compare them side by side.
It’s free. Totally free. When you master songs with it, you can select a “reference” style, it will output three versions of your song (16bit, 32bit, mp3 in 192Kbps). And it is very simple to use. Very straightforward. It also includes a document showing you what it did (results in Word-format). Interesting for those who want to know. Not for me, I’m not that technical.
The 16bit version is fine if you want to use it to create CD’s or upload to BandCamp. The MP3’s are great for ReverbNation, SoundCloud and many others.
Even if you’re not completely happy with the EQ settings you now have a set of tracks you can do some additional editing or post-production on. I like to do so using an old version of MAGIX Music Cleaning Lab (for example lowering the volume a little on all tracks). I lower the volume since I’m aware of the fact that some websites like SoundCloud will need this (-1.7dB is the preferred setting). And radio stations will add their own compression. So if your song is to ‘hot’ (too loud) it will sound pretty bad on some online services and radio stations. You don’t want that to happen!
The free version suggests you have a lot of options available by showing them on-screen. You don’t. It will only run one file at a time (no batch mastering available) and this is a little time-consuming. Oh, there is a manual, .. you could read that before you start using it of course (but I didn’t read it and it was straight forward).
It will only run well if you run it as ‘admin’. Some consider this a security risk. I don’t, as long as you use the original program and don’t download it from another site.
I’ve tested on Windows7. I don’t know if it will work on other, newer, Windows versions. Word is, it was written in Delphi for WindowsXP. I don’t know if this is true, but as a former Delphi programmer (many lightyears ago, Borland Delphi 3.0 if I remember correct — oh, this really wants me to go back in time!) the interface does look like a Delphi program for WindowsXP a lot. That doesn’t have to be bad. But if it is build in Delphi I sure hope they will rebuild it one day soon to keep the program alive!
It sometimes crashes. If you don’t run it as administrator on Windows, it most certainly will crash (I’ve tested). Knowing this (after some trial and error and reading online) I started it as ‘admin’ user and had no issues at all using it to master 8 tracks (album).
HOW DOES AAMS SOUND?
But how does it sound? After testing a few reference settings I settled for the “alternative” reference setting for my music. Test a few settings on a few tracks to get the best results. And I must say, I found it impressive. I couldn’t have done it this way by myself in such a short time.
I noticed it cuts a lot of the low-end, boosts the mids and doesn’t do a lot with the high-end. I think the tracks are much more “radio ready” now!
For the sake of the argument I also included one file, in my run of 8 tracks I mastered, that I didn’t prepare for mastering at all. It was already ‘mastered’ in my DAW. LANDR won’t do you much good with an audio file like that. It will try to make it louder. They should have called it LOUDR instead of LANDR I’m afraid …
So how would AAMS do? It did (again) cut some low-end, didn’t make it louder (but mastering isn’t about making a track louder, that’s a common mistake I’d say!). To my surprise the volume was, in fact, cut back to the same level as the other tracks! That’s the advantage of using a reference (template) I guess. In fact all tracks were at the same levels. This is perfect for me, since I wanted a consistent album, as far as the audio is concerned! It also widens the stereo image slightly (in my case) but this also depends on the reference you use.
So, I gave it the final test: put the MP3’s on the USB stick and listened to the results in the car while driving to work. Again, it sounded pretty nice! In my car it was very clear the low-end was cut. The car audio system isn’t top-notch (sorry, Hyundai, it isn’t) and was set to ‘flat’ on the EQ and there wasn’t much bass in the songs. So I turned up the bass a little. Most people turn up the bass a lot. Cutting back the bass does make sense. If people turn it up, use bass heavy headphones and stereo sets a loud bass would cause distortion and ‘rumble‘ . You don’t want that to happen!
After the car-check, I played it over my cheap HP laptop speakers (HP Multimedia Speakers GL313AA). These speakers aren’t very good. But professional audio mixes do sound more or less “good” on them or at least “decent”. And “Lo and Behold”! They sounded GREAT on these cheap speakers. This is the real world test you will need to do. Car Audio. Cheap speakers. Mobile phones. If it sounds good on that, you’ve got a winner (as far as mixing and mastering is concerned).
For the first time ever my tracks sounded GOOD on these speakers! I was thrilled! The tracks mastered by the LANDR service did not. They were distorting. I think it’s the low-end. Must be. The low-end on LANDR tracks is too hot.
HOW DOES IT WORK?
It’s very easy and straight forward to use. I’ve made a short video about mastering with AAMS. You can find it here.
THE VERDICT IS IN!
I’ve chosen to use AAMS. It’s much more flexible especially the paid for version offers you lot’s of options (but test first with the free version if it works on your system!). The paid for version is pretty cheap too. I think I’ll buy it in the end. The mastered files sounds just fine! LANDR’s mp3 sounds ‘boomy’ and the low-end is distorting on my cheap speakers. That’s bad! On good headphones you will here the “lacking” of low-end on the AAMS track, but again, that’s fine imho.
More important, I’ve chosen not to master myself this time for a (good) reason. If you use a software program like AAMS, or LANDR’s website, your end product, your mastering, will be (more) consistent. I think that’s the most important of all: a consistent, radio-ready, product. And on top of that, it saves you a ton of time and frustration.
YOU BE THE JUDGE
Anyway, don’t take my word for it. Listen and compare the tracks below (these tracks do not have the lowered volume I use in my final mix to make it a fair comparison). Perhaps you prefer LANDR over AAMS. Or neither of them.
- WAVE-file that was used is according to the guidelines of LANDR.
- MP3’s are as they were generated by LANDR and AAMS
- the original file was encoded using LameMP3 encoder (RazorLame)
- All mp3’s are in 192Kbps
- They are uploaded to Google Drive to prevent encoding changes by online audio services.
You can listen to these tracks and even download them. Copy them, give them away. All tracks are, however, ©2017 by Rudy Brinkman/Barking Aunts. You cannot sell them or upload them especially not to make money out of it. And please do use the correct credits and refer people to www.barkingaunts.nl if you share the song.
Even though LANDR charges you nothing for two tracks (MP3 format) this is not a good deal. You can’t upload, for example, MP3 files on iTunes, CDBaby or BandCamp.
If you want more or better quality you’ll need to pay a monthly fee depending on your needs or wait for another month to get two more for free. The basic mastering will cost you $4.99/mo and you will get unlimited .MP3 flies. If you want WAVE-files additional charges apply. You can also pay per song (for example, I paid $1.99 for this one song since I ran out of the free ones).
So that’s $48/year if you sign up for the service. For MP3-files. See https://www.landr.com/en/pricing for more details. For an album in WAV-format you’ll end up paying more than AAMS will cost (when you get the full version) and even the free version allows you unlimited mastering!
Yes, you read that well. AAMS charges you nothing for unlimited mastering. If you want the version with bells and whistles that allows you batch conversion, tweaking the settings and so on you’ll have to pay a one time fee of EUR 65.–. So, want to do some free, decent, mastering? Use AAMS and after the mastering you can do some final tweaking yourself to create a nicely mastered album. You can download it from there website at http://www.curioza.com/
If you have the money or wish to spend it let someone else do it. Hire a professional mastering service. They will get you the best results of course. For commercial releases I’d say that’s the best option. And of course you can (and some will) disagree with my personal opinion and taste and choose LANDR. Since in the end, it’s all a matter of taste. But if you’re looking for a free mastering option that will master your tracks in such a way that it does at least sound decent, download AAMS.