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Mixing and Mastering : Once for all, what’s the difference?

July 21, 2019 • 8 min read

Even experienced musicians may have blurred boundaries of what exactly is, say, the mastering process. But people that aren't involved with music production usually don't know a fraction of whats involved in the process of making it. Sure most people can tell the difference from a good song to one with bad quality. But how exactly do producers get there? From a raw recording in the studio to a fully finished track released to all major music platforms. How do we get there? And how important is the mixing and mastering part in that process? By the way, do you know the difference of those last processes mentioned? Both have completely different roles in music production. So once and for all, what's the difference? Let's find it out.

Computer running a DAW, which is being used to arrange multiple tracks in the mixing and mastering processes

Computer running a DAW, which is being used to arrange multiple tracks in the mix.

Mixing and Mastering, a simple overview

Firstly you must understand that both are different processes. Mixing (as we will see in the production chain below) comes before mastering and it focus on the treatment of individual tracks separately. In the mixing process you'll work to make that single track/ recording sound good, undergoing tasks like equalizing, side chaining, adding effects (like reverb for instance). Afterwards, still during the mix, they are bounced to a single stereo track. That two-track will be forwarded to the mastering engineer to properly finish the track and give the final production a good quality. Summing up, the process of music production consists of composing, arranging, pre-producing and recording a demo. Just note that these days, due to home studios, recording demos isn't that common anymore, people tend to skip this step and go directly to recording the final track. Anyhow, the points below will dig deeper into each step mentioned and they will show you where exactly do mixing and mastering come in.

Where are mixing and mastering located in the music production chain?

Everything has its place in the music production chain, and mixing and mastering are part of the mid-end process. There are usually 5 steps in the process. I said usually because a few different music styles may skip a few parts. For instance, some electronic dance music skip the recording step, because most samples to be used are already digitized and (almost) ready for final mixing and mastering. But mostly the music production chain consists of the following 5 steps.

1. Recording Guide Tracks

For this step of the process musicians use the so called "click", also known as "tap", for rhythm and voice recordings. It consists of a click/tap that is set to a specific tempo and it helps (mostly) just for the drummer not to get lost, as the drums are the first to be recorded. Electronic or in-the-box productions don’t have this step, as the drums are already programmed on click and who is programming is also the composer. If the composer forgets a bar or a beat, he can simply just drag the drums and create the missing beat or bar.

2. Recording

And sequencing, in case of in-the-box/ midi instruments.

3. Editing

Editing drums/beats/recordings to grid, tuning vocals, quantizing midis.

4. Mixing

This step consists of taking all recorded tracks (this number may range from a few to a few hundred) and compressing/ equalizing/ putting effects and blending them into a bounce/ 2-track (the final stereo track).

5. Mastering

The final stereo track is processed in terms of final details. Equalization so that it works on any system/ headphone/ speaker. Compressing, so that the instruments are better blended together and the overall song level is raised to adequate standards. It's the mastering process that raises the track's loudness until levels we are used to encounter in finished recordings.

Mixing, understanding it further

In sum, in the mixing process you'll have to arrange each recording into separate channels of your mixer. That's because each instrument requires a different treatment. For instance, on vocals you might need more reverbing and some echo effects, while in drums you won't (or just lesser). Also, each instrument/ recording has presence on a different set of frequencies, thus you'll need a different equalization configuration for each. The chart below, taken from a previous article of ours talking about Frequency response can give you some insight on that.
graphic of frequency region of instruments

The graphic shows a visual representation of the frequency region of some instruments. This understanding can help you in the mixing and mastering process.

Understanding the frequency region of each element of your mix can help you cutting some unnecessary frequencies, thus cleaning the mix. The same understanding can help you detect possible problems with conflicting instruments/ frequencies. In case you have conflicting frequencies issues, guess where you'll solve the problem? If you've answered "in the mix" you are correct! But don't worry, it takes years for you to master the mixing process. Below I'll give you a quick list of topics you can research to help improving your mixing skills.
  • Recording process. How to make sure your source finals are optimal. It will save you a substantial time during mixing and mastering process.
  • Organizing your mix. Each track to a different mixing channel. This YouTube video can give you an idea on how to do it.
  • Frequencies, panning tracks and equalization.
  • Compression, reverb, delay, and other processes alike.
  • Side chaining, automations and fading effects.
Those topics should help you getting started. But that's what it is, just a starting list, there is a lot more you can learn that isn't mentioned above.

Mastering, understanding it further

The mastering process depends on the mixing process, as much as the mixing process depends on the recording step. You just can't have a good mastering if you have a bad recording or a bad mixing. There's simply not much to do. In sum, the mastering process takes the final mix and gives it a final "glow". Similar processes we found on mixing we'll find here, like a bit of compression, equalization... But mostly the purpose of the mastering process is to make a final audio final sound appropriate to its purpose. As example, let's say you have multiple songs coming out on a single album, the mastering process has to bring all songs to similar levels. The fact is that nowadays there are specific masters for each source it will be played, as each allows only a certain maximum compression level. Magroove's recommendation on this topic is to master only one track, one that works on all sources.

Mixing and mastering, one depends on the other

You have to understand that usually the mastering engineer doesn't have access to the mixing step. He works with a finished/stereo track, has no access to separate instruments. Thus he can’t raise the volume of a certain instrument, or fix any mixing issues, like equalization problems, for instance. For him to fix an issue with lack of presence of a specific instrument's frequency, for instance, he will have to boost that frequency in the master channel. As a result, you'll have the entire recording boosted as well. Here comes a friendly reminder, always fix individual volume issues in the mix (mixing process)! The mastering process is a subtle one, often seen as a finishing touch. So that we have the engineer's task easier, the mixing engineer has to export the tracks on ultra-low levels (peaking far from the limit) so that he has enough room to work, equalize, compress and finish the track without any clipping or distorting. You should keep in mind that finishing a mix near the 0 db level or a ultra high LUFS value on your DAW is often seen as bad practice. So avoid that, as it could undermine the mastering engineer's work.

In conclusion

For "regular people" it should be hard to visualize the mastering process. Mostly because they never had access to a mixed but not mastered track. On the internet, you can easily find “demos” of famous bands, and obviously the finished mastered track available on streaming and stores. But not a mixed track. Do you know how an uncompressed track should sound? I mean, in order to be ok to send to the mastering engineer? That's my point, most independent producers and home studio owner don't. At least not 100%. But trust me, that's completely normal, it just leads to a few mistakes sometimes, which is also ok, as long as you keep working to improve your work. With the ascension of the "digital recording realm", it became easier for us to just mix close to 0dB and insert limiters. You could use equalization or any other plugin needed directly to your (mixing session) Master Bus to do that. This way you'll get a mix and master all-in-one session. Some people will tell you that this is a bad practice or something, but don't listen to them, that's absolutely ok. As matter of fact, that's a resort that most producers take. The "purist" mixing engineers, for instance, usually want the final track (post-master) to sound like their mix. They'll mix near 0dB so that it narrows the possibilities of what the mastering engineer can do, mostly to prevent them from adding some unwanted tone or effect to the song. As a result you'll have a track only lightly touched.

The most importantly in mixing and mastering is...

As mentioned above in the article, somewhere, it takes years to understand how mixing and mastering works, but telling the difference of each process is a good starting point. From that, you should be able to work and keep always improving your music! Record, mix, master, export, listen, repeat... take as long as you need, as many times as necessary. My final advice here is to never give up! Trust yourself, trust in your potential, everything else will get to you in due time. Just keep it up!
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