Humanism is a school of thought that emerged during the European Renaissance. Intellectuals of that time placed huge importance on the genius of the human mind and the beauty and dignity of the human body. Humanists also looked to the past to gain ancient Greek and Roman society’s knowledge and values. The study of humanities as it is known today has its roots in classical humanism and is still taught and studied worldwide to this day. The theme of the 2018 Humanities Symposium held at Vanier College this year was Beauty. “Mastering Mastering: Artificial Intelligence, Standardization and The Sound of Music” was a presentation held by Jonathan Sterne, who is part of the Sound Studies Department at McGill University. His presentation exemplified the beauty of the music mixing and mastering processes. Sterne’s talk relates to humanism because he discusses the automation of making music and how it disconnects the human from creation, as well as how AI will change musical aesthetics, and change how humans use their creativity.
A large portion of Sterne’s talk centered on the pros and cons of using artificial intelligence centered computer programs for music mastering. First of all, artificial intelligence; or AI, is a technology with the goal of automating human processes and replicating human intelligence. Secondly, mastering music entails preparing it for quality listening on a variety of platforms, from the highest quality studio acoustics to laptop speakers. The mastering engineer is a professional who knows how to use mastering equipment and knows how to make a song sound exactly the same no matter what it is being listened to on.
The dilemma that is currently facing the mastering industry is the rise of AI-based software such as LANDR, which was one company discussed by Sterne, who master music submitted by their clients using a database of music categorized by genre and other factors. Companies like LANDR eliminate the step of a mastering engineer who handcrafts each master and replaces their job with an AI program. A pro of LANDR type services is that they allow smaller bands who cannot afford to hire a mastering engineer to have professional sounding music. However, a big con of this type of service is that they eliminate the human interaction and idea sharing between musicians and mastering engineers. Artists are becoming increasingly disassociated with the music making process. Due to the rise of technologies like LANDR, the complexity and creative processes of the human mind are being reduced to ones and zeros, removing the ‘human’ aspect of humanism in the context of creating music. Humanism places importance on art and human craftsmanship, and Sterne’s talk showed the true complexity and the irreplaceability of human ingenuity involved in the music making process.
Towards the end of Sterne’s presentation, he questions how technologies such as LANDR will change how humans create music, and also how they will change musical aesthetics. LANDR removes a certain degree of musical freedom because it categorizes all of the music it receives into already established musical genres. If the mastering engineer ceases to exist due to the ease of online mastering services, and artists can only use an AI program to master their music, new musical genres cannot be created. As AI becomes more and more prolific in areas previously thought to be uniquely human, such as music creation, they can eliminate creativity. The arts, learning and the creativity of the human mind are the pillars that define humanism, and Sterne’s talk brought up important concerns, such as those listed previously, as to how much AI should be involved in these types of human creative processes. He does offer a counter argument though, stating that “creating music that is satisfying is what’s important”, and that humans are at heart creative and ingenious creatures, and will not be satisfied by simply pressing a switch to make a song. Humanism as a school of thought deems the human as intelligent and worthy of spending their time on Earth cherishing life rather than enduring it. Therefore, humans will naturally choose to seek out means by which to express themselves in creative ways, music being a perfect example of this.
In conclusion, Jonathan Sterne’s talk “Mastering Mastering: Artificial Intelligence, Standardization and The Sound of Music” relates to humanism because he discusses the disconnection between musician and the mastering process due to AI and the age of digital music, as well as because he discusses how human creativity and musical aesthetics can be shifted due to the increasing automation of the music making process. Human intelligence, expression, and creativity are the core of humanism, and music is something used to express feeling and emotion through sounds, which AI – as proved by Sterne’s presentation – cannot truly simulate.