Should You Use a Free Mastering Service or Do it Yourself?

This article is part of our FAQ series, published on our blog. Click here to view the blog archives.

Question: Should I use a free instant online mastering service or master my music on my own?

When it comes to mastering your music, there are three options at your disposal.

  • Option #1: Hire a professional mastering engineer.
  • Option #2: Use a (free) instant online mastering service.
  • Option #3: Master it yourself.

Option #1: Hire a professional mastering engineer

If you can afford option 1, it’s probably your best bet. You’ll get a professionally polished album, mastered for whichever mediums you desire (be it streaming, CD, or vinyl).

A professional mastering engineer offers significant benefits…

  • You can get more personalized attention for your project.
  • You can get an engineer you can give feedback to and collaborate with.
  • You know that the human element is there, without question (as opposed to using a computer-generated instant online service.
  • You get a unique set of ears to look at your mixdown with a fresh perspective.

If you need to get your music mastered, you should at the very least explore the option of hiring a professional, even if it might cost a little more.

Unfortunately, not everyone can afford to hire a professional mastering engineer, which leaves you considering the other two options.

And that’s where instant online mastering services come in…

Option #2: Use a (free) instant online mastering service

These services allow you to upload your projects with ease to get them mastered automatically.

Some of them are paid services, while others are “free.”

You may know have even heard of some of these services, including:

The affordability of instant online mastering services can make this a tempting option. But I want to give you three things to consider before you go this route.

1. How good is “free” anyway?

Are the services truly offering everything 100% free?

  • A majority of these services that offer “free mastering,” only really offer free samples.
  • That’s perfectly fine… but you should know that a sample is not a full master.
  • They’re giving you a taste in hopes that you’ll like it and want to pay for the service.
  • Don’t get your hopes up that you can get a whole album mastered very well for free… that kind of service wouldn’t be in business for long.

The point is, if you’re looking for or hoping for free options, you may find they are lacking in many areas.

2. There are drawbacks to computer-generated masters

The debate over instant mastering services rages on, and I don’t want to discourage someone who really wants to use a service like LANDR.

Still, I want you to keep a few things in mind before you decide to use one:

  • No matter how good a computer algorithm is (even if it was developed with help from brilliant engineers), it’s not the same as a unique set of human ears.
  • Music is human, emotion is human, and creativity is human… a service that replicates that very well is still not human. It will always be a replication. (Cue the iRobot philosophical arguments.)
  • Every song is different and music is constantly changing… so an algorithm that might work for one project simply might not for another.
  • You can’t collaborate with or control an algorithm. It’s going to do what it’s programming tells it to… that might not align with your sound goals.

I’ve known people who have been pleased with their results from instant mastering…

I’ve also known people who have felt like their projects were ruined when mastered instantly.

3. Will your mastering goals be met?

Like anything in audio… you should always consider your goals.

  • Mastering is NOT just about loudness (loudness being something many of these services seem to focus on).
  • Mastering is about giving a project that final polish and preparing it for release.
  • On an album, mastering is also about balancing all the tracks levels (frequencies, volume, or other elements).
  • Mastering can also infuse more warmth and nuance into a project.

Will a computer-generated instant mastering service help you accomplish those goals?

Option #3: Master Your Own Music

If you’re looking for a free option, with a human element, you can always choose yourself.

  • There is nothing that an instant mastering service can do that you couldn’t learn how to do.
  • Learning how to master can make you a better mixer and producer.
  • Learning how to master can help you develop your ears even further.
  • Mastering your own music can ensure you reach your artistic vision even more rapidly.
  • As mentioned, you wouldn’t have to pay a dime to anyone… it just costs your time.
  • You don’t need to invest tons of money in plugins to create a solid master… and it can be done in almost any DAW.

Conclusion

So where does this all leave us?

I think instant mastering services fill a need and are here to stay. They CAN deliver results that artists or producers are happy with.

If you don’t have interest in learning mastering, time to do it yourself, or money to invest in another mastering engineer… then instant might be for you.

However, I truly think ANYONE can master their own music.

There are drawbacks (it’s hard to be objective with your own music), but it’s still a skill that can be learned.

It might even be more fulfilling to master your own work… plus, there are drawbacks to using third party mastering services as well.

The audio world is rarely black and white.

In the end, you of course should do what you want. Just consider your options!

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