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AI and Fast-Food

Quite recently I’ve been asked to give my vision on mastering and more specifically, AI, the trending thing for 2024. This is something which I also normally do during lectures since people have a lot of questions about it. Actually, AI mastering is not new at all, it’s something which has been going on for years already.

Yeah yeah, I know, you formed an opinion already. I'd suggest to keep reading anyway.. It's gonna be fun, I promise!

The first part of the lecture was about mixing and AI (not presented by me, I'm not a mixing-engineer), because it also seems to have trickled down in that section of music production. I was sitting there, paying attention to what was going to happen and seeing mixing-engineers being out of a job soon. I was really amazed at how much time it took to set things up; setting the tracks to specific types, bass-drum, snare, hihats, vocals, backing vocals, guitar everything had to be set by hand first. My first thought was, it’s not that intelligent, isn’t it? All that work so that the intelligent computer interface could do its tricks to make a ‘not so decent mix’. This made me instantly realize, an experienced mixing-engineer could most likely do this in less time and with way better results. So no worries guys, you will not be out of a job anytime soon! 😃 But what about mastering and AI then? You basically just upload a stereo mix and you crank up the volume, add some highs, bass, some compression and limit the life out of it and save it. There you go, that’s what a mastering-engineer does right and that could be done with AI real easy! I’m out of a job now because of Artificial Intelligence. Well.. hmm.. Let’s dive in and find out.

Still there? Great! Now we are getting somewhere. Keep reading, don't give up, even if you think you know it all!

What is mastering?

cutting engineerFirst of all, it’s good to understand what mastering actually is since the internet mangled that vision up way too much nowadays. A master is the final product, the end product and no-one else should/could be touching the music after that last mastering-stage and you should trust that master for being it a proper master.

Back in the days, the mastering-engineer was the person making the master-record, the lacquer. The only people touching that master-record where the people producing/pressing the vinyl record which was basically a mechanical job. For CD production, the mastering-engineer made the master CD (later DDP images) which is what the factory uses to press the CD’s from. All done by experienced/specialized people doing these things day in and day out. Then the digital era came up and now everyone could make a master. You just download some cracked plugins, crank up the volume, add some highs, add compression, add bass, there you go, a master for digital release and now with AI it’s even more easy. Well, that’s where things go wrong. People see mastering as just some sort of masterbus processing; add some EQ and compression and that’s your master. But it’s way more then that. 

First off all, and maybe even the most important, the mastering-engineer is your second pair of ears. He/she will listen to your music objectively, for the first time without pre-judgement, in a different and dedicated environment for just this task. If there is an issue in the mix, you will get feedback so that your mix can be corrected where needed or if it’s a minor issue, it will be fixed in the mastering. He/she will only ‘add or remove’ what is REALLY needed by listening to it, by feeling the music, by experiencing it, by grabbing the emotions of the song. Not by using some algorhythm or analyzer. If it doesn’t need compression, it will not be used, it has too much highs, takes it slightly down. It needs more impact, here you go, BAM impact. It needs to be more intimate, that’s my job. Clicks and pops, fixed it! Making proper starts and ends, consider it done. Levelling out all tracks on an album by ear while making the right transitions between tracks so that they feel like an album, love it, got that! Metadata and ISRC codes, yep, send it over, I will add that to the masters in the right places following all standards and I will double check and send you some documents proofing it. You need vinyl-ready masters, sure, no problem. I will fix that next to the DDP for your CD and those Apple Digital Masters, yep, Apple certified mastering-engineer for over 10 years.

Maybe this paragraph already convinced you that AI mastering is not really mastering, but I’d suggest you continue reading anyway. Now the fun really starts! You can do this! Beat that skip next next generation! It's just a couple more minutes, come on! Be strong now..

Fast Food Mastering

expectationsI always like to compare these automatic tools with a fast-food restaurant. You see the advertisement, with smiling happy people enjoying a great looking burger.

So you decide to go there and you are now ready to order. After waiting in a queue, you can finally order using some touch-screen or some uninspired person behind a counter, following pushy ‘you want to make it a menu at only 5 euro extra’ options. Then waiting for your number to appear on some other screen. The burger comes in a carton box with fries in a greasy paper bag on a plastic tray. With that tray in your hand, you have to run over to a dirty table which just came free but with a dirty tray still there and mayonnaise on the plastic ‘bolted to the floor’ chair. After cleaning the chair with your only napkin (dammit), you sit and then open the box with the burger. You have a look, raise your eyebrow, look at the advertisement at the window and then look pretty disappointed at that greasy carton box again. You have a bite and realize, shit.… cucumber and only one slice of pickles. I thought I selected ‘no cucumber’ and clicked ‘double pickles’, must have forgoten to click 'OK'. Sligthly annoyed, you remove the cucumber with your now greasy hands and take a frie. You dip it in the chemical mayonnaise container, realize its way to salty and so you take a zip of your 0.5 liter cola carton which seems more melted ice then cola. After still eating it all, you payed for it didn’t you..? you are now feeling a bit sick and slightly disappointed. You get up from that bolted to the floor chair, realize that it’s actually quite hard to get up with those greasy hands (you used your only napkin for cleaning the chair remember), slip over a blob of mayonnaise on the floor which is now all over you shoe and while you walk out, you bang your head to the door because someone in a rush getting in, pushed that door in your face leaving a big red mark (and he didn't even say sorry).

Dining Mastering

vegan burgerNow you could also go to a proper restaurant, where you made a reservation and so they know you by name and a smiling lady at the door opens the door for you and your partner. After taking your coats, she personally brings you to your table, near the window (which you asked for) with proper seats, it’s clean, has some nice candles and even some fresh flowers. You hear relaxing music and look around and feel the cozy atmosphere. A friendly waiter comes over to the table, asks you about your drinks while handing over the menu and tells you about the specials for today, which is among others, a wagyu-burger with wild mushrooms. Your drinks are brought by the waiter, he pours it in your glass and asks if everything is OK and if you want to order already. You order the wagyu-burger, without cucumber but with extra mushrooms. The waiter asks how you want it baked, medium, well done and if you want fries, vegetables or spicy potatoes along with it. The waiter brings your burger with fries and your partner gets a vegan-burger with fresh vegetables and potatoes and you both get their famous home-made sauce with fresh herbs. The waiter asks if you want an extra bottle of water and brings that to the table while you get your first bite of that juicy burger. A moment you will never forget. It doesn’t just look great and smells excellent but boy.. that taste! It’s brilliant, the best burger you ever had! You then dip a fresh frie into the sauce, take a bite and wow, what’s in that sauce? You taste basil, and your partner takes a potato with the sauce and says; no, I think its fresh thyme combined with basil and some lemon and you start talking about how tasteful and great all that food is. You have a taste of the vegan-burger from your partner and even that tastes great. How do they do that?

After diner, you have a double espresso from locally roasted beans, made by the bartender, who also turns out to be a great barista. After you pay and tip the waiter, you get your coats from the lady by the door who asks if you enjoyed your night out. You say, yes we did, thank you so much! We will come back real soon for sure. The lady at the door smiles and thanks you, opens the door for you and your partner and wishes you a great night. 

27 mei 2005While walking down the street, still buzzing, talking and thinking about how great that diner was, you see a bright-lighted building with a big yellow M on the roof. You instantly start touching your head, feeling for that mark which for some reason brings back that annoying feeling. Your partner then says, shall we go back to that restaurant next week? You think for a second and say, ‘we could also start up the airfryer and get some burgers from the supermarket and pop that in the pan’. Your partner stops walking, says nothing and just looks you in the eyes. You look to the floor and feel a bit ashamed and say, ‘You are right, I will make a reservation tomorrow. Maybe I will even try that vegan-burger which you had, or maybe that wagyu-burger again or let’s see what else they have on the menu'. Hand in hand you continue the walk, while the sun goes down into the sea. 

With kind regards,


-- This blog was written on a not so smart and certainly not Artificial or Intelligent computer --