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What Is The Difference Between Mixing And Mastering?

My journey into learning the art of mixing and mastering music was a heart-breaking one because all I wanted to do was to make music and get it out to the masses.

I found out that it wasn’t as simple as that, there are some steps that your song has to go through before it can be consumed by the general public.

After spending some time learning about publishing and music distribution, I thought I had everything figured out. I sent my music to a distributor and they told me that my music needs to be mastered.

That wasn’t an issue since I was eager to release the music. I then asked around and I was finally introduced to a mastering engineer. 

I went to his studio, he told me to give him my music, so I popped out a CD (yes, it was a long time ago) and after a few seconds of listening he said the music still needs to be mixed.

I was so disappointed, but then I asked him if he can do it but he said he only deals with mastering. That’s when I went on a quest to learn this stuff and find out how I can do it myself.

Fast forward to today, I’m getting a lot of questions from my subscribers asking me what’s the difference between mixing and mastering. I’m tired of responding to everyone one at a time so I’m creating this post so that if anyone else asks I simply send them to this post.

But first, let’s understand the “what” part before we can go into the differences.

What is Mixing?

Mixing is manipulating different musical elements to create a great relationship between them to make a good listening experience for the listener or consumer. Mixing is all about getting individual parts or instruments to work as a song.

We achieve that by shaping sounds to make them relate with each other without clashing. Mixing is all about working with balance (levels, dynamics and tonal balance), envelope (ADSR), stereo image shaping and harmonic enhancement.

Think about how a full orchestra is set up on stage. If everyone was cramped together and squeezed against each other, they wouldn’t sound good, right? That’s why they’re all given space and certain positions.

The best players get 1st and 2nd chair. Everyone is spread out on the stage from left to right and front to back to achieve a certain texture of sound.

That same process is used in mixing. 

A mixing engineer uses tools to get the most important sounds upfront and the rest at the back. Other sounds play on the left speaker while others play on the right. All of this creates a good listening experience. 

That way the listener can enjoy the song without being distracted by the guitar because it’s too loud, or any other sound for that matter.

Creative production techniques can also be applied to improve and keep the arrangement of the song exciting. At times a mixing engineer can fix recording and production flaws such as tuning, phase cancellation, audio editing and timing.

The two most important things that a mixer should focus on are mood and feel. As a mix engineer, I have to make sure that I emphasize the feel and mood that the producer is trying to achieve with the song.

If it’s a romantic song then I have to make sure that everything is sweet and use my tools to emphasize the mood of romance. If it’s a dark and moody song then it’s my job as a mixer to make the song sound dark and moody.

So, mixing is also about understand the end goal and mood of the song or else I’ll end up mixing a romantic song like a party song and that will ruin the style and feel.

Mixing engineers also spend time with the producer and artists to fully understand the end listener experience.

So, mixing is the process of taking all the recorded instruments and vocals to blend them together into one channel. This channel is also known as the stereo channel, master channel, mix buss or 2buss.

The result will be a single stereo file.

What is Mastering?

Audio mastering is the process of taking the final mix or stereo file and prepare it for distribution. The main goal of mastering is to make sure that the song or album translates well in all sound devices.

That means the song(s) has to sound good whether played on earbuds, in a club, car, arena, smartphone, bluetooth speaker, headphones or any other device that people use for playing music.

Mastering bridges the gap between artist and consumer.

The mastering process requires a lot of finesse due to the fact that you’re only working with the full track (stereo file) as a whole and not with individual sounds.

The process of mastering requires fixing the frequency balance of the final mixdown. That means the mastering engineer has to fix any balance issues from the bass, midrange up to the high frequencies. This involves using tools such as EQs, filters, dynamic tools, stereo enhancement etc.

The engineer also has to consider whether they’re mastering the song for vinyl, CD, digital download or streaming services. If the engineer adds too much bass on a vinyl master then the turntable needle will keep jumping and it won’t be a pleasant listening experience for the end-user.

If the master is too loud then streaming services will squash the signal and it won’t sound professional. So, it’s important for the mastering engineer to know the vision and end goal of the artist and the form of distribution.

Mastering is also about using harmonic enhancement to add what is called warmth and character. Stereo shaping tools are also used to make songs sound big and wide (also called "open").

The final step of the mastering process is to get the volume of the song or album to be as loud as other commercial songs so that when the consumer switches from one song to the other they don’t have to keep reaching for the volume.

If a mastering engineer is working on an album they also have to maintain consistency throughout the entire album. Not only in volume but in frequency balance, dynamics, stereo field and character.

They also have to make sure that when the mastered songs are being played against other different artists, the listening experience is consistent and seamless.

After mastering, the song or album should sound complete, uniform, professional and well-balanced.

To learn more about mastering, check out my video that will show you how to do it like a Pro.

Mastering Tutorial: How to Master a Song

The Difference Between Mixing and Mastering

Mixing and mastering are often confused as being the same thing because they share similar techniques and tools, but the two processes are different.

Mixing typically involves working with a multitrack recording while mastering is the final polish of a stereo file.

Mixing is like taking a piece of art or a picture and use photoshop to enhance it. Mastering is taking that final enhanced piece of art and putting it inside a beautiful frame before hanging it on the wall.

This doesn’t mean you’ll always use the same preset or template all the time. Each and every project will be different and will require different processing. No two projects will require the same processing.

Music has never been consumed in so many different sound devices and formats than today. So, the mixing and mastering process has never been important like it is today.

Both these steps are really important and you cannot skip any of them.

What Mixing and Mastering Are NOT

Both mixing and mastering are not going to fix a poorly recorded song. They’re both not going to fix poor sound design.

If you put garbage in then you’ll get garbage out, it’s as simple as that. You can’t polish a turd.

This is really important because beginners tend to think that they can fix recording or sound design mistakes during the mixing or mastering stage.

Check out my article titled: 35 Beginner Mistakes to Avoid When Mixing Music

That post should help you get professional sounding mixes and avoid all beginner mistakes.

These two processes are also not a way to change a song to something that it’s not. Beginners tend to leave it to the mastering engineer to somehow magically make the song to sound like their favorite songs even though they used poor quality sounds.

Mixing and mastering are just enhancement processes to make sure that the consumer gets a great sounding final product.

The best thing to do is to always get the best sound straight from the source, don’t rely on mixing or mastering to get a great sound. That’s the advantage the Pros have over you, they always spend a lot of time during recording to make sure that they capture the best sound as possible.

So, spend a lot of time learning different mic placement techniques and improving your sound design skills if you work with VST instruments. If you rely mostly on samples then make sure that you get the best sounding samples, no cheap or free low-quality samples.

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Should I Hire Someone or Do It Myself?

These days everyone has access to the same tools, Thanks to technology. The downside is that everyone with a laptop, a cracked version of FL Studio and Waves plugins thinks that they can do the engineering on their own.

You have to understand that professional engineers do this stuff for a living and most of them do it every day.

If the geyser in my house blows up, I’m not going to pull up a Youtube video or start reading blog posts. I don’t even have enough tools or the right experience to do the job properly.

So, the best thing to do is to call someone who does this for a living and spend my precious time on something else that’s important.

A lot of mixing and mastering engineers went to school, got an internship or worked as an assistant for other professionals for many years to gain the experience. They have watched and worked on hundreds of songs and faced many different problems.

It is always a good idea to get a professional or a specialist to do the job for you. If you would like to learn how to do it yourself, hiring someone else will speed up your learning curve.

The problem I see these days is that people want to wear all hats and wonder why they can’t compete on a commercial level. You want to be the recording engineer, producer, arranger, mixer, mastering engineer, distributor, manager, marketer, PR, booking agent etc. etc. etc.

Focus on a few things and hire professionals to do the rest. Another great way is to build your own team, that way you’ll have a thriving music career.

However, you can learn and mix your own music. The only thing I wouldn’t recommend is mastering your own music. The reason is that you’ve heard the song a million times during recording, sound design, editing, production, arrangement and mixing.

So, you’re already happy with the results and you’re too attached to the song you won't have enough mental distance to make the right decisions.

Average mastering won’t help you, so never master your own music. Unless if you just want to do mastering to test your song in a club, send a demo to a record label or maybe just to upload a sample on soundcloud.

You can master your own music if you want to get an idea of how the final results will sound like, that’s actually a good idea.

If it’s someone else’s song then you can mix and master the song. It’s not an easy task though because when you finish mixing, you’ll be happy with how the song sounds which will make it hard to know what else you need to do during the mastering stage to improve the song.

So, when it comes to getting a professional sound, it’s always a smart idea to trust and hire someone who’ll get you the best results because they have usually seen it all.

Fresh ears will definitely bring new possibilities to your projects, and that’s how you will stand out from the rest.

Conclusion

I trust that by now you know how to differentiate between mixing and mastering. You should also know what is mixing and what is mastering. Not only that but you also know what they’re NOT.

Finally, you also understand why it’s important to hire a professional.

The thing that helped me learn mixing the fast way was to hire professionals to work on my music and taking notes all the time till I was confident enough to do it on my own.

Some people have pride and feel as if they’ll be belittled if they mention that they didn’t do everything on their song.

Understand that music is a collaborative effort. That’s how big names work. Swallow your pride for a few projects and learn as much as you can before jumping into DIY.

To get the best results possible, make sure that you treat the project that you’re currently working on as if it’s your last. Using that mindset will make you go all in to make sure that you achieve the best results.

Never compromise the quality of your projects.

That’s it for today.

I trust that you found value in this blog post. If you have any questions or would like to add to the conversation then leave a comment below. If you enjoyed the content then please share it to spread the love.

Happy mixing and mastering, we’ll talk again soon.

Take good care.

2 comments

  1. mastering is definitely NOT trying to make the song/album as loud as possible.

    standards are coming into place to control loudness measured by LUFS or LKFS and TV/radio as well as streaming services will be lowering your loudness and making your final sound worse than if you had done it right originally. if not today then real soon.

    the standards will make sure that everything is about the same loudness level so that consumers do not have to keep their hand on the knob to constantly adjust the gain on their amplifier or soundbar.

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