Automated Mastering Services?

Hey Folks, 

I've had a customer, who wanted me to create his master (sequencing, metadata, ddp etc.). The music was already premastered by an automated online mastering service. I have heard of those, however I've never had the pleasure to work with music mastered by such a service. Naturally, I was very curious to listen to the music and get a picture of how good these "Mastering-Bots" actually are.

At first I was pleasantly surprised. The music sounded balanced, clear, fat, with a tendency to harshness and over-brightness, but within reason. It was only the more I listened to it, the worse it got. Today, some time after the session, I sat down and reopened the project to really explore the ins and outs of those algorithm-creations.
The first thing I noticed (already in the session) was that there was no care taken concerning clipping. I saw clips all the way up to +1,2dbFS and almost EVERY song was clipping. The only ones that didn't were the quiet Intro and the also quiet Piano-Solo Interlude.
Not only are Clips like that not conform with the "Mastered For iTunes" Rules, but they create distortion, which isn't audible most of the time but becomes noticeable in extreme situations.

The next thing I noticed was that in some instances, certain processing steps became very questionable. In one case, there was pumping compression on the left channel only, probably because the right channel held more heavy transient information and the same compression was applied to both channels. Separate processing for the L and R channels would've been needed in this case.
Again, listening to the stereo track, I didn't notice the problem at first... The devil really is in the details in this case!

Another problem I had with the automated masters was the lack of cleaning up source material. Some songs showed very obvious (although not devastating) objective flaws. Examples of that would be uncomfortable high frequency films, muddy bass, strong sibilants, single frequencies/areas that pop out and disturb the balance. I imagine that a computer algorithm should be able to detect these!
Maybe these problems only showed after the processing, but that's even worse! Mastering is supposed to make things sound better, not worse!

My conclusion after a thorough listening session was that I'm absolutely not convinced that an automated online mastering service is adequate and should be paid for.  Please note that my material was only one case of automated mastering and I will have to investigate this matter further. I will say that in some cases, a service like that, much like presets in Mastering-Plugins might work, but I wouldn't bet my money on it.

If I were a young band looking for a relatively cheap way to get their music mastered, I would look into local mastering engineers and try to work out a deal (most engineers will probably meet you somewhere along the way).
Good Mastering is crucial and you might be surprised, what an experienced engineer can help you and your music with!

-Rob