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Will AI Replace Traditional Music Mastering Workflows? It Depends...

Feb 15, 2024

In the age when artificial intelligence can fully master a piece of music to professional standards, when is it best used? And when do previous “more traditional” mastering methods still work best?

Will AI Replace Traditional Music Mastering Workflows?

There’s a huge amount of discourse around artificial intelligence right now. The technology continues to go from strength to strength, growing more powerful, more effective and more accessible than ever before. AI has a huge range of applications, but the one we’re most interested in is, of course, its use in music production and sound engineering. More specifically, the use of artificial intelligence for music mastering.

Mastering Music Online With AI

In the not too distant past, the first AI-powered mastering services came onto the scene, which left many of us asking the question, “Can AI master music?” Here, we’ll answer this question, and explore how artificial intelligence could sit alongside the currently accepted mastering approaches used by artists, engineers and producers around the world today.

You can try Waves Online Mastering now totally free to hear how far AI mastering has come.

Can AI Master Music?

Mastering purists, this is your cue to look away now… Like it or not, the short answer to the question “can AI master music?” is Yes – it most certainly can. As highlighted above, artificial intelligence has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few years and it shows no signs of slowing.

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Yes, but…
Using advanced machine learning, award-winning audio processing technology and the input of expert mastering engineers, Waves Online Mastering Service is a practical and efficient way to achieve high-quality music mastering in minutes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the role of a mastering engineer is defunct, nor that you should abolish all mastering plugins from your plugin folder. There are advantages of the traditional mastering process that cannot be replicated using artificial intelligence.

What’s the Difference Between AI and Plugins in Mastering?

Let’s take a look at some of the key differences between mastering music with AI solutions such as Waves Online Mastering, and mastering with plugins.

Quality of the Master
Using a combination of years of industry experience, innovative machine learning techniques and market-leading audio technology, Waves Online Mastering is able to achieve professional masters with ease, regardless of your skill level or the tools in your arsenal.

If you already have some mastering knowledge, all the mastering plugins you might need for the job, and a great listening environment, then you might be able to master a track to the same quality as an AI-powered alternative, if not better.

Quality of the Master

If mastering music is still somewhat of a riddle to you, it’s fair to assume that using an AI tool such as Waves Online Mastering will probably yield better results than trying to make head or tail of the complex subject right off the bat. If you are eager to brush up on your mastering abilities though, this in-depth mastering course with industry veteran Piper Payne is sure to give you some steer.

Ability to Refine the Finished Product
Waves Online Mastering is designed to be quick, simple and intuitive for users of all skill levels and backgrounds. With easy-to-use Style and Tone settings, as well as the option to add a reference track to act as a guide, it really couldn’t be easier to get great sounding masters quickly.

Getting great sounding masters quickly

The trade-off with having such a straightforward interface and workflow, is that you don’t get the same level of control over your final masters as you normally get when using plugins. You can’t just tweak the dynamics and loudness of your master, or apply a targeted EQ notch to bring out the best in your track. This is where mastering with plugins triumphs, you have all the power to meticulously adjust any and every part of your master, especially if you’re armed with the plugins and the necessary know-how. Take a look at these 9 Tips on Mastering Your Own Mixes if you want to level up your mastering knowledge.

How Long it Takes
Another key difference between mastering with AI and mastering with plugins is the time it takes to apply the appropriate mastering to any given track. Waves Online Mastering will take a few moments to analyze your premaster, then a few more moments to apply the appropriate processing and generate the different Style and Tone options for your particular track. After this, all that’s left to do is experiment with the Styles and Tones to listen for which option or combination of options work best for your track. From uploading your premaster to exporting your finished master, you could easily be finished within 10 minutes.

How Long it Takes

Mastering with plugins on the other hand is likely to take considerably longer in most cases. Giving your track a full listen-through at the beginning and end of the mastering session may take longer than 10 minutes in itself, let alone the time it takes to actually apply the processing. Additionally, this doesn’t take into account the amount of time that must be invested in learning how to master music, learning which tools you need and how to use them, and understanding your monitoring and referencing setup.

Continuity and Cohesion
While Waves Online Mastering allows you to upload and process multiple files simultaneously, these are all processed as individual files, without regard for making a cohesive whole with a united running order as in an album. This is a large component of a mastering engineer’s role and is important for ensuring that a project can be listened through from start to finish without drastic changes in volume, tone or sonic character.

Continuity and Cohesion

Mastering engineers are also tasked with ensuring that tracks have the correct amount of silence at the start and end of each track. Similarly, this is something that should be carried out before or after mastering in Waves Online Mastering.

On the other side of the coin, mastering with plugins within a DAW environment gives you the ability to adjust the silence before and after a track, and lay songs out in order, thus allowing you to analyze and adjust how they flow between one another.

Short Term and Long Term Cost
Waves Online Mastering starts from just $2.99 per track, so in the short term it may work out cheaper than buying a collection of high quality mastering plugins. But you know what they say about teaching a man to fish? The same is true for mastering. In the long term, it may work out cheaper to invest the time and money in the right tools for the job early on, then carry out your own mastering. Ultimately it will depend on your appetite for learning to master music.

Mastering music - Price considerations

What About Hiring an Experienced Mastering Engineer?
Aside from using AI-powered mastering tools or mastering your own tracks with plugins, there’s a third way to get your music over the finish line. Paying an experienced mastering engineer to process individual tracks or entire projects has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

First of all, it’s important to note that paying a professional mastering engineer will work out considerably more expensive than mastering your own tracks, which may put it out of reach for many artists and producers. On the other hand, you are paying for the skills, experience and equipment of this individual, so you’re likely to end up with a much better result than self-mastering. There is no replacement for practice and experience when it comes to a technical process as advanced as mastering, and so you may feel more comfortable leaving the task to the professionals.

Hiring an Experienced Mastering Engineer

Another advantage to mention here, you’ve probably listened to your track for hours if not days, thus making you prone to experiencing fatigue when trying to master it. A dedicated mastering engineer will be able to approach the mastering process with a fresh set of ears, and could be in a better position to be able to easily identify issues within your mix.

So Will AI Replace Plugins?

As we’ve highlighted, there are instances in which AI-powered mastering is clearly the more suitable choice, and in other cases, there’s no match for mastering with plugins. The good news is that there’s no need to remain monogamous to one single mastering approach.

Do you have to quickly get a mix up to a professional standard and the appropriate loudness for a demo submission or performance? Great - buy a single credit for Waves Online Mastering and achieve a polished master in minutes. Have you spent a year working on your best project to date? Perhaps you’ll want to invest a bit more time in mastering it with plugins, or maybe you’ll want to go a step further and pay a professional to ensure your tracks reach your audience sounding as good as they possibly can.

Waves Online Mastering

Mastering, mixing and music production as a whole can be a time and money consuming endeavor. Depending on your professional and artistic goals, your skills and your network, learning to effectively master music may or may not be on your agenda. You might want to gain a full 360 understanding of the production process, or you may prefer to focus on your sound design or song writing acumen. In any case, hopefully the various mastering options and their advantages and disadvantages are clearer to you after reading this article.