LANDR – A Guitar Soloist’s Experiment

Artwork courtesy of Margaux Fraisse, MixGenius
Artwork courtesy of Margaux Fraisse, MixGenius

Released this past year, LANDR is a new online mastering process designed to provide quick, DIY sound engineering. It is based on an adaptive algorithm that allows artists to quickly and affordably refine the sound, compression, limiting, stereo enhancement and equalization of full-length recordings within minutes with professional studio quality results. It requires no prior knowledge or years of audio engineering geekery from the user.   If you can drag and drop a file, the technology promises to take care of the rest.

Justin Evans, the Vice President of Products and Innovation at MixGenius explains that LANDR is pronounced, “’L and R,’ as in, ‘Left and Right,’ but people often just say ‘lander,’ as in ‘you’re landing your track onto the site.’”

LANDR logoLANDR was created by the Canadian company based on the research for the technology developed over the course of eight years at Queen Mary University of London’s Centre for Digital Music.

“The seed funding for this technology originated from an high tech incubator in Montreal that specializes in transferring university research into the real world,” Evans says. “As I have had some entrepreneurial successes in the past, I was sent to see if there was any commercial potential for this project. I brought the technology back to Montreal where we played around with it in the community here. We found it exciting and the seed money allowed us to launch the company. Queen Mary University of London actually has a share in the company.”

The initial research suggested this new technology could provide a way to streamline and automate an adaptive process for mastering music.   Given that audio engineering is the most notoriously challenging part of creating recorded music, the most obvious and exciting potential is that it offers the equivalent of a digital camera’s instant preview of what finished tracks might sound like.

“The program technology is based on the body of work first developed eight years ago by four doctoral students.   We took that research and spent another million dollars getting it up to commercial grade,” Evans says. “What’s so incredible about this is that so many musicians were able to look at the MixGenius research and figure out how this could immediately impact how they produce their music.

“The algorithm functions similar to the Shazam app, in that you hold your phone up and the app uses MIR technology to recognize the kind of music that is playing,” Evans explains. “Our algorithm analyzes the type of music that it is receiving and then it makes the appropriate adjustments for its mixing parameters, whether it is techno or not techno, hip hop or whatever. At the moment, we’re better at analyzing some genres than others because of the volume of material being given to us by users but, as we receive other genres and varieties, it will become more granular.

Admittedly, when I was given a chance to try the program, I felt apprehensive because my music is not standard in the sense of say, a DJ dubstep mix or Top 40. It is certifiably peculiar instrumental electric guitar that conjures haboob-encompassed desert tents funneled through a high dynamic range, reverb and delay. I was uncertain yet curious about what kind of job a single algorithm was going to handle all that.

Before one ventures into LANDR’s online Emerald City of Oz beauty parlor for track grooming, master outputs need to be at -4 or -5 db.   It’s also recommended that tracks forgo any tinkering with compression, limiting and EQ on the master output of the final mix.   Another requirement is to export the track at the highest bit level, (24-bit) and sample rate (48kHz).

After drag-and-dropping the file, it took LANDR took a couple minutes to process my first track, which was 12 minutes long. The site, I am told, can process a recording up to one hour long.

A new page will appear after some initial track processing which provides a 30-second audio sample of the originally uploaded audio file, along with a trio of newly master samples to choose from: Low, Medium and High. Each of these 30-second audio samples convey varying sound and dynamic levels that you can listen to and select for your final master.

When asked about the three level options provided, Evans says, “Music has become progressively louder and there are different sacrifices that you pay for this in terms of dynamic range. TRI Studio, in California, which was used by the Grateful Dead, only used the lowest settings because it offered what they felt to be the biggest dynamic range, which respected their songs the best. But then we have hip hop kids who say, ‘I want it louder!’ This is a contentious part of what mastering is. So we wanted to leave this option up to the individual.”

You may then decide whether you would like the final master to be a web-quality .mp3 track or a CD-quality uncompressed .wav file. LANDR emails you a link of where to download your finished file.   The entire process from uploading to completion takes about five minutes, depending on how much time you spend dithering over the Low, Medium and High mastering options.

The final result on my instrumental guitar tracks? For the 12-minute long track I processed, LANDR did well with parts of it but this particular track definitely requires the expertise of my studio engineer because of the significant shifts, highs and lows in dynamics. Two other shorter tracks (~5 minutes each) that I processed through LANDR turned out beautifully because the music was within more of a consistent, less varied dynamic range. I could immediately hear the difference between the original recording and the finished master and I appreciate how much time LANDR saved me.

When I first heard of this program, my first reaction was concern for what it portends for the future and livelihoods of audio engineers. LANDR states this is not their objective, though their pricing and accessibility is incredibly affordable compared to the average cost of studio time.

After tinkering with this, it’s clear that that no online audio mixing program is going to ever take away from the fact that you need to be a decent musician recording in a good room with the best gear for your instrument.  It takes is the right genius who knows the right mic and the proper placement for it to make the musician sound as if someone liberated them from performing inside a tin can.  Along with their years of experience, recording engineers have the technology of the studio at hand to achieve superlative sound quality.  Recording engineers are artists in their own right who will know precisely how to bring out every nuanced shade of color to an instrument.

For those who need to clean up and turn around a demo quickly, I can see how the LANDR technology would be a godsend. For those who work with multiple instruments, I can also see how this program offers the ability to clean up one element of a track at a time and hear what possibilities it has to offer. For someone who cannot get to a studio or afford one, many will be grateful to have access to an innovative tool like this.

LANDR expects to release new features later on this year. “These will be new, interesting tools and great ways which will provide different options to compare mixes, which will make the process more social so you can invite others to give their opinion,” Evans says. “We have some really exciting stuff coming up. We have made some worldwide partnerships, including integrating with TuneCore.”

Must people who use LANDR give the company credit on their recordings? “That would be great but if they don’t, who cares? What we care about is making people’s music sound great,” Evans says.

LANDR launched last May, 2014 and has already processed one million tracks. “Actually, the site can handle a million songs a day,” Evans says.

LANDR offers unlimited 30 second free previews of mastered tracks plus 2 free low res mp3s. Low res MP3s, high res MP3s and uncompressed WAV files are priced per track and you may choose between three structured monthly and yearly subscriptions that provide unlimited tracks and discounted options.

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