A Montreal startup hoping to disrupt a piece of the music industry has attracted a pair of unlikely partners: an acclaimed rapper and one of the biggest labels in the world.
Warner Music Group Corp. is among the chief investors in a $6.2-million (U.S.) funding round for Landr Audio, an automated, drag-and-drop digital audio postproduction tool that went to market just over a year ago. Renowned New York hip-hop artist Nas has also made a "substantial" investment, the company said, alongside a consortium that includes Plus Eight Equity Partners, Real Ventures and YUL Ventures.
Landr automates "mastering," the final stage in audio production before music gets sent out to the world. Practitioners and audiophiles consider it an art form, giving songs their mood and feel, making the audio sound clean and consistent. Automating this tends to frustrate sound engineers, but it also helps democratize the once-expensive recording process, giving do-it-yourself artists a cheap way to give their songs a professional sheen. Landr's team insists there's room in the marketplace for both approaches. This investment round is an early signal of confidence they might be right.
Landr chief executive officer Pascal Pilon likens the company's potential to the explosive growth of smartphone photography: technology that brings access to a wider audience without compromising high-end artistry. "I can afford to take pictures with my phone," said Mr. Pilon, who joined the company after investing in its seed round last year. "I'm not necessarily making a living out of that, but I'm capturing more moments."
The company, originally called MixGenius, has 25,000 paying customers and 250,000 total users; subscription tiers range from $6 to $39 a month, depending on the quality and quantity of audio that needs mastering. The new funding, Mr. Pilon said, will help the company pursue new partnerships with vendors and software providers that help artists create and distribute music, including streaming services. It will also let Landr develop new features to entice subscribers. The company had raised about $4-million in previous fundraising rounds.
Representatives for Warner Music and Nas declined to comment. In a press release, the rapper called Landr "an affordable groundbreaking technology to help musicians make music that has a quality finish like any major label artist with a budget." The software has been used by the likes of the Grateful Dead's Bob Weir, and championed by DJs and producers, including Canadian electronic pioneers Richie Hawtin and John Acquaviva – who also have invested in the service through their firm, Plus Eight Equity Partners.
"I'm superexcited by the potential Landr has in the short term, and especially in the long term," Mr. Acquaviva said, who, with Mr. Hawtin, previously helped to launch the digital DJ technology Final Scratch and dance music download site Beatport.
Investors also include Cirque Du Soleil founders Guy Laliberté and Daniel Gauthier.
After the individual pieces of a song are recorded, the separate tracks of each instrument or sample are traditionally "mixed down," with various pieces sorted into left and right channels to create stereo audio. (Landr itself is a play on left and right: "L and R.") Mastering is the process that comes after this, enhancing the audio and correcting any problems, such as imbalances between the left and right channels, ensuring a song or album feels like a cohesive experience free of sonic errors.
It often costs between $1,000 and $2,000 to professionally master an album, and mastering engineers can spend whole days or more working on a single song.
Landr relies on algorithms to recreate this experience from past mastering examples. Its chief music technology officer, Stuart Mansbridge, first began researching artificial intelligence as it applies to audio production in 2007, at the Queen Mary University of London, and has spent eight years honing it. Comparing tens of thousands of premastered albums to their mastered versions, Mr. Mansbridge developed algorithms to automate the process of taking audio from A to B.
These are designed to improve with time; the latest update was released Tuesday. Its mastering process typically takes just a few minutes.
This isn't the first time a major label has sided with technology that disrupts its industry: In 2000, the publisher Bertelsmann, which owned the label BMG, tried to buy an ownership stake in notorious file-sharing service Napster in an attempt to make it a paid platform. Landr doesn't go nearly as far as infringing copyright, but it certainly irks many hard-working sound engineers.
Some mastering engineers suggest that the automation takes away the nuance required to master a track properly, both technically (adjusting for vocal sibilants versus drum-kit cymbals, for instance) and experientially (the overall "feel" of a record). Noah Mintz, a mastering engineer who's worked with the likes of Broken Social Scene and Sarah Harmer, is afraid Landr will suck the life out of the art form.
"The human decisions we make are the most important part of mastering," said Mr. Mintz, who runs Lacquer Channel Mastering in Toronto. He and his colleagues regularly spend whole days tweaking sonic features until songs sound perfect. "It's a je ne sais quoi.... That feel, that vibe, what makes a bunch of songs an album, can't be put into an algorithm."
Mr. Acquaviva regularly works with a dedicated engineer to master his own music, but says that Landr isn't necessarily for professionals like him; instead, he says, it can help newcomers trying to draw attention to their music. "We get a lot of demos, and some of them could be tweaked a lot better," he said. "This is really helpful for the bedroom DJ who doesn't have that finesse. It's a great value and time saver."
Mr. Pilon hopes people will start using "landring" as a verb for mastering, and for the company to become the standard-bearing mark of audio excellence in the digital age. "We will become the Dolby of the streaming generation," he said.