Why Automated Mastering Services are not Mastering. (In my opinion!)

We’re excited to share with you this fantastic guest publication from professional mastering engineer Chris Pavey.

As most of you will know, myself and Chris go way back. We were both witness to the very early stages of Insight Music and Chris Pavey Mastering, often referring one another to university students and artists around the local area. Fast forward 10 years and it’s incredible to see the development of Chris’s mastering studio, skillset and finely tuned ears! 

As always, we love hearing his words of wisdom and bringing our community in-touch with some real-life mastering knowledge! We truly hope you enjoy the article written by Chris and please do check out his website Chris Pavey Mastering. Let’s dive in!

 

 

Look I get it, you’re a mastering engineer Chris, of course you don’t like automated mastering services I hear you say. Well thats not strictly true! The truth is I just don’t consider them ‘mastering’ which is what I do.

Now you can dive into a growing heap of in-depth (for the most part) studies into Mastering Engineer vs Automated Mastering, and wade through the arguments and general melee over it. This article is not going to be adding to that at all, as I don’t believe there is ever going to be answer to that. Why? Well for the main reason I don’t consider those services truly mastering.

Mastering is an opinion based process. Simplistic to say, but like all the creative industries its why we have a huge array of engineers, producers, artists, musicians, composers, mixers etc etc.

“I spend a great deal of time doing something in my mastering process that is never given the limelight in any description of mastering. Quality Control – checking with human ears, that what is playing through the speakers is what the artist intended.”

It’s all about the personnel involved that shapes the direction, and outcome of any creative enterprise. In the same vain of how we might compare one engineer to another, we will expect to in turn treat any automated service as just another ‘engineer’. Some might like ‘it’s’ sound, some might not. This is why I find the argument, over do these services sound good, a futile path to walk. 

Is the master good? Well that is a huge topic for discussion. But if we boil it down, it sounds good if you, ‘the bill payer’ enjoys it. Let’s not make this more complicated than we need to!

 

The Stunning Mastering Suite at CPM

 

So what’s the problem? I shall be brief as possible and would like to focus on two points.

I spend a great deal of time doing something in my mastering process that is never given the limelight in any description of mastering. QC or quality control – checking with human ears, that what is playing through the speakers is what the artist intended. It’s such an extremely important part of my job. It’s one of the main reasons, along with all mastering engineers, behind the acoustic properties, and the monitoring system I have spent a great deal of time and money on. It’s also why myself and other ME’s spend a huge amount of time studying and perfecting our own ‘ear focus’, and acuity to listening to every detail in the audio we listen to.

Pops/clicks, breaths, buzzes, distortions, missed clip fades, missing parts (yes this does happen more often that you would think). Even entire parts being muted for some reason or another, happens quite often, and gets missed by many people! I’m not blaming any mixers or artists for these at all, this is precisely why mastering exists. It’s not just about the processing, it’s about examining and checking, and being there to spot these things before the content is released to the world.

How does an automated service do this? Whats a click vs a side stick hit? Does this client want the noise left in that you can hear from the squeaky piano chair, or do they want it removed? Do they just want it subdued a little, but not completely taken out? That breathy vocal inhale before the chorus, does that get left in or out? Often when I ask these questions, my clients 98% of the time say, “Do what you feel is right Chris”, or “Please do what you think is best”. Think and feel. Two interesting words to crop up in this discussion.

But for me the biggest difference is the relationship and the discussion between two or more creative individuals about a project. That is the single most important part of mastering. 

“Sitting down (all be it more frequently over Zoom!), and talking about the sound and vision for a record, I believe, can never be replaced or manufactured by automated mastering.”

Released in 2017, ‘In The Woods‘ by Kant Sleep is a Fine Example of Chris’ Mastering Work

 

I recall a project in 2019 where an artist came to me and I could tell from the outset that something just wasn’t right. They didn’t seem fully driven to give me any firm direction or even that enthused about the work they had created. 

Now, this was an extremely talented artist and was completely not the way they usually were when working with me on a project.

So I started a low key conversation about the project, and then I started to ask some probing questions. At all times I kept just letting them talk, and slowly a whole slue of issues and problems spilled out that had been on the shoulders of them for this project.

Problems with the arrangement/production and some mix issues. I talked it all through with them and helped them figure out the best moves to make this project a success.

Some of it was dealt directly via me and the mastering, and some through our discussions and conversations with other parties in the production process.

 

Released in 2020, ‘Freedom‘ be Nare was also Mastered by Chris

 

Why didn’t they say something before? Well, we have all been there, sometimes its fear, other times it’s low confidence, or there might be people you’re not comfortable being perhaps confrontational with. Is this a mastering engineers job to fix? For me yes 100%. I help make musical releases happen, and I think I want to use that description more!

This was a large album project, with not just a significant financial investment, but one of emotion, time and talent. This artist almost lost a year of all of these investments into a project they were not going to be happy with. Pretty scary right! This may feel like an isolated incident, but it’s really not. Yes this was an extreme one, but mastering really is that safety net for artists and trust me, we want to help. I never want an artist to be nothing less than ecstatic about their music and to be full of excitement to show it to the world.

To me this is ALL part of mastering, – facilitating the finalisation of an artists art. However that needs to be done. We do processing, compression, EQ, saturation, limiting, stereo manipulation, filtering and restoration, and on and on. But being the mastering engineer also means you’re the new set of ears and eyes on a project. You’re an objective unbiased person, whose job it is to see how to get the project over any final hurdles, and support the artist all the way while doing so.

Something I don’t believe automated mastering can do.

 

We hope you all enjoyed reading this article from Chris and please do check out his website ‘Chris Pavey Mastering‘.

Support him via social media on Facebook and Instagram. Also check out his previous Insight articles on ‘Things to Think About When Mixing‘ and his 2017 ‘Insight Interview‘.