Mixing and mastering are two audio terms that you’ll come across in the music industry and audio engineering world. However, it might not be clear at first what the difference is between mixing vs mastering. In this article I’ll cover the basic details of mixing and mastering a song. Hopefully by the end of this, you’ll understand enough to tackle this subject on your own!
Mixing vs Mastering, The Basics
Mixing and mastering is a part of the audio production process, and essential to finishing the sound of your recording.
When you’re recording or digitally producing music, you’ll have different instruments playing at different volumes and at different frequencies. Before any mixing and mastering takes place, this will sound like a bit of a mess. Each instrument is competing with the other for space within the sound, leading to a muddy and unclear track.
Mixing is the process of adding effects and adjusting the volume of each track in your recording, otherwise called the mix. This process helps give each instrument and sound its own space in the mix, clearing up the recording and helping the listener distinguish each part.
Mastering music however, is the process where you apply the final polish to your recording. Unlike mixing, mastering is only done on the entire recording, not each individual track in the mix. It is also usually carried out by a professional recording engineer in the studio. The engineer will take the song or audio recording in its raw format such as a wav file. This is a bit of a dark art, so I’ll go in depth with mixing first…
Effects that might be used on tracks typically include EQ, compression, delay, and reverb. These effects combined help exploit the full potential of each track in your mix. The use of EQ, or equalization, is essential in any mix, as it is the main tool used to distinguish instruments in a mix. Think about it in terms of space. For example, you’ll typically want your bass instruments sitting at the low end of the EQ. And at the high end of the EQ is where you’ll want your high and treble sounds.
Another technique that an audio engineer or music producer will employ is to pan each track in the stereo field. Ever listened to a track and heard the lead guitar in the left ear and synth in the right? That’s panning, and it is a way of creating a sense of ‘space’ in the mix. You can also duplicate a track and pan it to each side, making the track sound bigger and fuller.
A great metaphor for audio mixing is like putting together a puzzle. You have an idea in your mind about how your final song is going to sound like, and it’s your job to put all the pieces together so that they fit.
Below is an image that I found on Reddit that acts as a cheat sheet for mixing a track. It’s not the be all and end all of mixing, but it’s a great place to start!
Study the above image and it with really help you produce great sounding mixes. Here are a few other helpful sources with mixing tips to help you on your way to becoming a great mixing engineer!
Audio Mastering is the step that makes your track playable on all sound systems, from a club PA to a sub-par car stereo. If you’re making multiple tracks for a mixtape or album, mastering will make sure all tracks cohesively fit together.
Mastering audio and music is very subjective. The techniques used vary from professional mastering engineer and mastering studio. In recent years, a lot of online mastering services and software has been released which will do a basic master of your track.
When I did my music production course in College, these are the fundamentals of music mastering that I learnt.
- Sound Level
Adding a compressor will take the part of your track with the highest loudness, and bring it down closer to the lowest part of the track. It limits the dynamic range of the track and brings all the sound together. The basic reason for this is to ensure the recording sounds the same on all speakers. A bluetooth phone speaker is going make the guitar sound loud, while a club PA system will make the bass sound loud. The trick is to make sure you don’t sacrifice too much of the sound dynamics for uniformity.
A final EQ of the whole track is done to improve clarity, and clean up the entire mix by taking away any harsh or muddy frequencies that would detract from the sound.
A good mastering engineer will also bring your track up to an industry standard sound level. This is not just used for albums. When you’re on Spotify and rattling through a playlist, you should never have to change the volume for each track, assuming each track has been mastered properly. One thing to bear in mind with this is that by bring your recording up to an industry standard sound level, you don’t introduce any distortion or clipping to any parts of your song, or lose any sound dynamics at play. In a track with a soft, quiet beginning that leads into a big explosive sound, you want to ensure that effect still works for the listener.
Mixing Vs Mastering Summary
So after reading this short guide on mixing vs mastering, hopefully you understand the fundamentals of both and the differences between each. It’s important to understand that while mixing and mastering might use the same tools, the tools themselves are used to different effect and for different reasons.
Did you find this useful? Then check out our Guide to a beginner home recording studio setup here! Whether you’re a musician or an aspiring digital audio producer, this will guide you into the basics of setting up a home studio.