LANDR Brings Music Mastering to the Cloud, Helping Major Labels & Bedroom Acts Alike

ISSUE 4 2019 - DO NOT REUSE!!!!
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Stefani’s team used web-based program LANDR to master the song “Make Me Like You.”

As Gwen Stefani prepared to debut the video for her single "Make Me Like You" at the 2016 Grammy Awards, her team needed the track mastered -- fast. Facing a 24-hour turnaround, Stefani's label, Interscope, consulted the web-based mastering program LANDR, known for the algorithm it uses to create professional-sounding masters within minutes. "At that level, no one would drop anything through a website," says LANDR creative director Rory Seydel. "They sent it to [the LANDR executive team]; we ran it through the site and sent it back to them. They were super happy, and we saved the Grammys."

For decades, engineers have used their ears and experience to take mixes and adjust the levels of various sounds to create more polished "master recordings" that serve as templates for manufacturing physical products or distributing music online. To make a master with LANDR, artists upload their music to its site, which runs it through an algorithm "trained" to make the same choices a mastering engineer might. Generally, says Seydel, his team of in-house engineers trains the algorithm on better-mixed tracks so it performs at a high level regardless of the mix quality.

Founder Pascal Pilon says he was inspired to develop LANDR (which stands for "left and right") in 2014 after learning that only 1 percent of music released on "the YouTubes of the world" is mastered. "People were unable to put in a couple of hundred dollars" for an engineer or to learn how to do it themselves, he says. "They were using Ableton or GarageBand or ProTools [instead]." After the physical recorded music market tanked over the last decade, many less-than-premier musicians tried to achieve the same effect as the professional mastering studios they could no longer afford by bootstrapping together those programs' plugins, or downloading bootlegged versions of mastering software Izotope, all in acoustically-untreated bedroom studios.

There is no official number of mastering studios globally -- estimates vary wildly, but there are generally thought to be between 500 and 800 around the world -- and cost varies quite a bit as well. One smaller independent label paid $1,500 for an LP to be mastered by an engineer at Sterling Sound who has worked with Vampire Weekend and Imagine Dragons; while Chris Athens (Tinashe, The Weeknd, Drake) has been known to bring in $400 for a single song.

LANDR sells subscriptions for $10 a month, with a "freemium" offering to attract new users. In early November 2018, the Montreal-based company announced it had mastered 10 million tracks by 2 million users. Their offerings include a sliding fee scale ($9 for four mastered tracks a month and $25 for unlimited) and free sample packs: exclusive sounds created by the Dirty Projectors, Alan Parsons, Canadian indie electro-pop duo Blue Hawaii and more. The company said its revenue was "strong" but declined to share numbers.

Warner Music Group was initially reluctant to deviate from the traditional mastering cycle before investing in LANDR's $6.2 million round of Series A funding in 2015, says a source familiar with the negotiations. Now, labels like Warner Bros., Atlantic and Disney Music Group use it regularly, and Interscope employed LANDR for the remixes of Lady Gaga's song "'Til It Happens to You."

In 2015 LANDR partnered with distributors CDBaby and TuneCore to present their technology at a discounted rate to users before they sent tracks to streaming platforms like Pandora, Google Play and Apple Music; last year, LANDR also began offering digital distribution of its own. About 30 percent of LANDR's subscribers also use its distribution service, which are included in a subscription. Royalties collected and paid out to artists -- who, like subscribers to indie distributor TuneCore, keep 100 percent of their royalties from LANDR -- have cleared $2.5 million and the company estimates that number will reach $5 million by the end of 2019 and $15 million in 2020.

So far, at least, LANDR doesn't seem to pose a threat to traditional mastering engineers. And not everyone is sold on the idea of software-driven mastering. "Whenever [clients] send a track through, if they send the same track again, they get different results," says mastering engineer Mandy Parnell, who has worked on Grammy-winning albums like Björk's Biophilia. "The program doesn't analyze it the same each time."

Philadelphia producer OddKidOut was also dubious but became a convert. "I've A/B'd it before where I've paid for a master and put it in LANDR and they sound pretty damn similar," he says. Berlin-based electronic experimentalist Machine Woman, who hosted a Q&A on LANDR's blog as part of Montréal's MUTEK Festival, adds, "I like the results from LANDR better than some tracks that have been mastered by a mastering engineer, but at the same time, I can say I also loved results that have been mastered by a human."

Programs like LANDR won't soon perform like a mastering engineer with years of experience, but many musicians value its affordability. Seydel, who originally worked at the company as a technical director, says he used to talk to teenage EDM producers in India or Canadian mothers making MIDI orchestras for their kids who would otherwise never have the economic means to get their songs out there. "We've always set out to make a brand that resonated with not just professionals or indie rock kids or electronic kids," he says. "We tried to make something that really spoke to everyone."