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I thought members of this site might be interested to know about SoundCloud's new Dolby based mastering system.  (Disclaimer: I have no relationship to SoundCloud except as a paying user, and I don't get any personal benefit from posting this.)

Basically, this feature allows users for a small fee per track to run any audio file they've posted to SoundCloud through their Dolby automatic remastering feature.  If you have an annually paid SoundCloud Pro Unlimited plan, you get three free masterings per month.  I've used my three free masterings for this month, and the tracks do seem to sound better, though most of my compositions use fairly limited instrumentations; a better test would probably be something like a symphony.

I'd be interested in any comments or reviews of this feature.

SoundCloud 's mastering information.

My mastered tracks:

Vella, de vos son amoros for flute, clarinet, and cello

Three Old Irish Airs

The Dream Of Lygdamis

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Seems a good fit for those who either have no interest in mastering or would simply prefer to have it done by others. I seen this as well but had not investigated it since I pretty much master all of my own material. There are several other online mastering services that are not connected to SC. I had hoped maybe they would throw this option in free to the higher tier subscription. No dice.

As an alternative to the online services both Ozone by Izotope and the Lurssen mastering console by IK Multimedia can be run in "stand alone" mode . Meaning no DAW needed. Both offer presets for those who don't want to tweak based on material. Ozone can get much deeper for those who want to venture into mastering themselves. Lurssen is probably the most "hands off" mastering program I've seen. Select a preset according to a genre and that's pretty much it. There are a few ways to tweak it.

I have had Ozone since version 4 or 5 now in version 9. Lurssen is a new arrival. I wouldn't have bought it but it was included with a Sampletank 4 Max purchase as part of that package. Now that I have it I find it very useful in some cases.

I haven't tried SoundCloud's mastering option so I don't have an opinion on it but I'm skeptical that an automated process can give everyone good results.

I have Ozone 5 and I have spent time with it with varying results. I think making  judgements about mastering is subjective and has a lot to do with what we expect from certain genres and formats.

First of all the term 'mastering' is confusing. Years ago it was necessary to convert tape to vinyl and that was called mastering. Now there are a number of things that are usually done to a commercial 'mixed' recording to prepare it for distribution to the consumer, and the industry calls that process 'mastering'. I think what we are talking about here is processing applied to a stereo mix to improve the sound for publication which is probably somewhat different than what the pros do. Please correct me if I'm wrong about any of this, I'm not an audio professional.

When I use Ozone on a jazz or pop recording I feel that I can often improve the sound and make it closer to what I hear on commercial recordings. Sometimes the presets alone will do that; sometimes I change things. Of course sometimes I ruin it!

When I use Ozone on a recording with 'classical' instrumentation I get nowhere, the classical presets in Ozone sound bad to me. Other than adding reverb or a small amount of eq I can't improve the sound. Of course that's just me and SoundCloud or someone else with Ozone or whatever equipment would probably do better.

 I always seen these kinds of services as filling a useful gap. Not quite there compared to the pros but often much better than a person who has no knowledge of how to use it. Once we had a blind listening test on one of the forums I frequent to settle an argument on which was best. There were three choices, one was mastered by a skilled user in a daw at home. One used a service like Landr. The last one used a professional studio for mastering using high end gear.

Some people liked the Landr mix best. Others chose the pro studio as best and only a very few preferred the DAW result to the other two. I was very fortunate that I guessed all mixes correctly and chose the professional studio mix as the best. I was so concerned I would select Landr after I had a negative opinion of it. TBH they all sounded good but the pro mix was a little more refined slightly more forward and crisp. I guess this should be expected with 50K of hardware and a good mastering engineer.

None of it is especially out of reach. A mastering chain is simply the basic things we already mix with, equalizers, compressors, limiters arranged in certain orders. The online services seek to replicate the most desired sound using algorithms to mimic it all of the hardware. Most times it's pretty convincing. Close enough not many would notice. Sometimes simply making things a little louder makes a person think something magic has happened. Adding an exciter seems to be a common thing in mastering chains in Ozone. The exciter makes the mix sound more alive. It's generally the last thing in the chain. 

Classical music is probably the  least tampered genre in mastering. Levels are generally much lower than rock and pop music. There tends to be lots of subtle dynamics which can be lost through over compression or limiting. This can make it difficult to master because when a person has a box full of tools, they tend to want to put those to use when often a hands off approach is better. 

I know lots of people who simply use the presets in programs like Ozone though. It gets them in the ball park. Most don't want to invest a lot in a track they are putting up for free. Soundcloud and all other streaming services will limit your material if you send it in too "hot". Different ones have slightly different settings. The world has adopted the LUFS standard which is a good thing because it can protect your hearing. Mastering is a lot more than volume though. I see it more like a quality thing. The last pass before exposure. Most of my classical mixes don't seem loud enough to my ears but they are loud enough compared to LUFS. 

You'll have to excuse my ignorance because I'd love to know what "mastering" is. I've presumed it's the preparation of media for a particular purpose such as public broadcast, streaming or hard copy (such as CD or vinyl) production. It made sense with vinyl, CD and broadcast because they have to fit certain standards (which might include mono-ing sounds below a certain frequency).

I'd be surprised if it changed the musical content in any way so it must be about exciters, compression, re-equalising and so forth. In due time I hope my use of musical software will be good enough to produce a definitive virtual performance and I'd be happier if it was left untouched thereafter. My interest is about preparation for public broadcast..

So... what's it actually about?

As some of the comments here imply, the term can mean different things.  So far as I can see, the SoundCloud mastering really means what is more often called mixing, that is, shading the prominence and volume of different sound levels and textures to make the music most expressive.

Dane Aubrun said:

You'll have to excuse my ignorance because I'd love to know what "mastering" is. I've presumed it's the preparation of media for a particular purpose such as public broadcast, streaming or hard copy (such as CD or vinyl) production. It made sense with vinyl, CD and broadcast because they have to fit certain standards (which might include mono-ing sounds below a certain frequency).

I'd be surprised if it changed the musical content in any way so it must be about exciters, compression, re-equalising and so forth. In due time I hope my use of musical software will be good enough to produce a definitive virtual performance and I'd be happier if it was left untouched thereafter. My interest is about preparation for public broadcast..

So... what's it actually about?

As I understand it you've got it.

There are tracking engineers, mixing engineers and mastering engineers and they are all supervised by a producer.  In a commercial recording studio situation these are all separate duties with different skill sets. It's not uncommon for one person to do more than one of these jobs though. The advantage is that when a tracking engineer for example misses a runaway bass tone in a recording a mixing engineer might notice it and either fix it or request a redo. Same goes for a mastering engineer. So you have three sets of expert ears, plus the producer, triple checking the sound quality. If one person does all three jobs you don't have the synergy of different viewpoints. But of course there can be disagreements and problems when three experts work on one project.

Mastering engineers tend to do only that. They have special equipment and usually only deal with a mixed stereo track which they put in to final form for delivery (possibly adding a bit of sonic magic) to whatever consumer outlet is chosen; and there could be several, all having different audio requirements.

Enter the home recordist. He (or she) does (or screws up) all of the above functions, and he can do them (or not do them) in any order he wants. You don't need to master anything if you have the sound that you want.

Dane your recordings are definitely good enough! Whether they conform to the technical requirements of a certain venue is an open question. You'll have to choose an outlet and learn their requirements.

Dane Aubrun said:

You'll have to excuse my ignorance because I'd love to know what "mastering" is. I've presumed it's the preparation of media for a particular purpose such as public broadcast, streaming or hard copy (such as CD or vinyl) production. It made sense with vinyl, CD and broadcast because they have to fit certain standards (which might include mono-ing sounds below a certain frequency).

I'd be surprised if it changed the musical content in any way so it must be about exciters, compression, re-equalising and so forth. In due time I hope my use of musical software will be good enough to produce a definitive virtual performance and I'd be happier if it was left untouched thereafter. My interest is about preparation for public broadcast..

So... what's it actually about?

 Ingo has good points here. Most of those duties "back in the day" were carried out by different people in larger commercial studios.  I had the great pleasure of interviewing several of the world renowned mastering engineers for my now defunct podcast Recording Hound. I still keep a Twitter feed for it in case I decide to revive it. Back to point- Assuming the pre master mix was done well and needs nothing other than mastering. often any changes made are very small.The changes that are made though impact the entire mix so a person who was dedicated to only that knew what to do to bring out the best. This was all pre Ozone.

Times have changed with the introduction of dedicated mastering software for the masses. It's much more difficult to bungle a preset.Even if you don't have a mastering program you can still try your hand at it.Most DAWs have mastering chains built into them. Cakewalk has several developed by Craig Anderton. You only need to know how to access them. The plugins included with Studio One have mastering preset built into their Fat Channel plugin strip. I'll bet Reaper has it as does Cubase. If anything these presets are very educational because if you dissect them you can clearly see how the various elements of the chain were made and how they are adjusted. You can then copy those ideas using any DAW laying out the same things in the same ways. While plugin quality is important, you can still put something together that's plenty good enough for internet streaming services using most stock DAW plugins.FWIW Izotope has free online training resources.

But that's the real point of an online service isn't it?  The musician composer doesn't want to bother with it....and for that these services work pretty well. It might be worth mentioning that not long ago Soundcloud was teetering on the edge of extinction in deep financial trouble. They operated at a loss for quite awhile. Eventually the Scandinavian company was bought out by an Indonesian ( I think ) company. 

SC let go of many of their employees trying to stay afloat before the sale. To this day their profit margin is probably so thin you almost can't see it. They have done several things to boost their profits recently and one of those was adding this mastering feature. I'm sure they made a good move for people putting tracks up they down't think are loud enough or don't have that commercial sound. Sadly, what many of them won't have going into it is a good mix.You need a good mix in order to have a good master....just sayin'

That is the bottom line! Well said Tim.

Thanks for the good information on DAW's and Izotope.

Timothy Smith said:

.You need a good mix in order to have a good master....just sayin'

One technique that is very useful for working on getting good recorded sound is the use of a reference track.

If you import in to your DAW a well recorded commercial track of music that is similar to what you are working on you can carefully compare it to your own recorded track and see what changes you might want to make to your own track to improve your sound.

Hi Jon,

It is hard to judge what is happening without hearing the unmastered versions to compare them but I don't like the versions you have posted. To my ears there is a heavy signal boost around the 5K and upward frequencies and some fairly heavy compression added to the whole track. I think there is also a stereo spreader employed to give it width but again this just adds to the clash of frequencies.

The main problem with auto mastering is it is usually aimed at pop/rock/dance tracks. The algorithm doesn't understand anything classical. In particular classical has more dynamic range (quites and louds) rather than a more even balance for overall loudness of the other genres. So heavy compresssion and gain makeup squashes a lot of the life out of the music.

Also the music is expecting high hats and cymbals so they add a top end EQ boost to accentuate those. But those same frequencies are where some of the harmonics in strings or piano lie and this can really affect the tonality.

One thing to consider is that good samples already have much of the work done for you.

Generally when mixing I am just using a very small amount of subtractive EQ to make space in the mix for the various instruments. If I use compression on an individual track it is very light. I also gain stage to keep enough headroom -6db / -10db.

When mastering it is a little compression, a linear phase EQ but nothing more than +/-3db on any frequency (maybe 2 eqs if I do mid-side eq where there are a lot of instruments) maybe some tape saturation and then a limiter to bring the gain up to the correct listening level (I aim for -14 lufs of loudness)

Someone should add a button for type of music to the auto mastering so that it could work differently ( and in theory better) for other genres of music.

My 2 cents!

Thanks for your well informed comments.  

If you have a SoundCloud account, you can listen to the original and mastered versions of your track before you decide to pay for it.

It sounds from what you say that SoundCloud mastering isn't much use to me, so maybe I won't use it.  That doesn't bother me much.  As I've remarked elsewhere, I don't consider myself a creator of software-generated music.  I compose for human performance; my audio files are not the deliverable but only demos to help imagining what a performance would sound like.

Nigel Campbell said:

Hi Jon,

It is hard to judge what is happening without hearing the unmastered versions to compare them but I don't like the versions you have posted. To my ears there is a heavy signal boost around the 5K and upward frequencies and some fairly heavy compression added to the whole track. I think there is also a stereo spreader employed to give it width but again this just adds to the clash of frequencies.

The main problem with auto mastering is it is usually aimed at pop/rock/dance tracks. The algorithm doesn't understand anything classical. In particular classical has more dynamic range (quites and louds) rather than a more even balance for overall loudness of the other genres. So heavy compresssion and gain makeup squashes a lot of the life out of the music.

Also the music is expecting high hats and cymbals so they add a top end EQ boost to accentuate those. But those same frequencies are where some of the harmonics in strings or piano lie and this can really affect the tonality.

One thing to consider is that good samples already have much of the work done for you.

Generally when mixing I am just using a very small amount of subtractive EQ to make space in the mix for the various instruments. If I use compression on an individual track it is very light. I also gain stage to keep enough headroom -6db / -10db.

When mastering it is a little compression, a linear phase EQ but nothing more than +/-3db on any frequency (maybe 2 eqs if I do mid-side eq where there are a lot of instruments) maybe some tape saturation and then a limiter to bring the gain up to the correct listening level (I aim for -14 lufs of loudness)

Someone should add a button for type of music to the auto mastering so that it could work differently ( and in theory better) for other genres of music.

My 2 cents!

Interesting reading these comments. I suppose today when everyone’s acclimatised to canned music it makes sense to tailor ‘production’ to given media.  But I hear some awful pop stuff pumped out by radio and streaming services probably because other than vocalists, live musicians are rare. It’s a mish-mash of sound at a constant ff level, drums usually getting priority with a very fast gating time. Noise and distortion are no longer relevant. People take what’s thrown at them rather than discriminate.

At the other end is classical or art music or whatever you want to call it – the stuff you’d find in the classical section of a music store, depending as it does on a big dynamic range – close to 100db spl to cover everything, low distortion and on. So there’s little to do other than balance the orchestra (which is mostly the conductor’s job) then make sure the overall recording level doesn’t bust the limit you set.

The old Decca Tree mic set-up was enough really. But with too many engineers sitting around scratching their bums with nothing to do, someone came up with the idea of miking each instrument, so the sin started - more an engineers’ interpretation than composers’ and orchestras/ensembles’. You see performers these days playing away while wearing headphones. Is it any wonder modern recordings of the genre sound so fake?

Those early Decca recordings were exemplary, their aim I’m told was to counterfeit as closely as possible the concert hall/salon in your room. (hence their success with Wagner’s Ring cycle, the first time a company had recorded 20-minute takes rather than the 5-minute post-78rpm chunks typical of EMI; the first time a producer (Culshaw) had the singers walk about the studio as they would on the stage). Then they half-speed mastered their vinyl to reduce distortion across the audio spectrum even if it did burn out more cutting styli. All Decca’s SET and Phase 4 discs were half-speed mastered which is why they competed easily with audiophile discs.

Yet here we are again with some beautiful recordings – and more recent less-than-beautiful ones being compressed for broadcast, streaming and CDs to fit standards. Finesse in broadcast has given way to anything’ll do with digital audio. That’s in addition to that sinful practice of giving engineers carte blanche. I had to ditch a couple of CDs produced by BIS; made me so frustrated; a work I know well - because there they were pumping the sections of the orchestra in and out according to what they thought the listened should hear. Thw woodwinds suddenly up front while the strings disappeared somewhere to the back, and on. After a couple of minutes I’d had enough, later sold the discs on. Why do they DO it? I don’t want the works re-scored entirely by a bunch of well-meaning but idiot engineers. It wasn’t what people would hear in the concert hall.

So I can see how this happens. It starts the moment the players get ready to play and those technical bums get in the control room.

I won’t hide my surprise at finding the quality of some vinyl often exceeds that of CD. Compare Sheffield Lab’s LAB2 (Thelma Houston) with its CD version. Or any Lyrita (Decca) stereo recording with its later CD release. The only CD advantages are longer playing time and no surface noise.

My interest in vinyl started with a commission to build an RIAA preamp circuit (designed by J Linsley Hood, the pickiest of audio electronicists)! Then I built one for myself. 

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