The Difference Between Mixing and Mastering Audio Recordings

The mixing desk in an audio recording studio
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Mixing and mastering are the two base components of professional record producing, so a good mixing and mastering job is a must when you're recording an album that you plan to sell. You can use one or both. You might be able to get away without mastering if you're only recording a demo, but it can depend on what you want your demo to achieve. The better it is, the more likely it will help you reach your goal, so you might want to invest the time and money necessary to do both.

Mixing Brings Multiple Layers Together

Mixing refers to the process of putting multiple layers of audio together to make one final track or to musically modify an existing track.

You're tinkering with basically everything you recorded when you mix a song. You'll do things like drop in effects, adjust faders, and EQ your tracks. Think of mixing as putting together a puzzle. You're combining the parts of what you've recorded, making sure everything hangs together, then you'll add some finishing touches.

The jury is out as to whether excellent mastering can fix a bad mix. Some professionals think so while others disagree. Watch out for the red flags that often indicate you're creating a bad mix in the first place. Clipping is never good. Leave headroom and turn down the drums. Filter when you EQ.

You should be pleased with the way the song sounds when you're finished mixing it. You should feel confident that nothing is missing musically. For a lot of musicians, mixing is where the real magic happens. It's when a composition goes from being a hodgepodge of notes and words to becoming what you envisioned as the finished track. 

Tips for Optimal Mixing 

You can hire a mixing engineer—something you might want to consider if you have the budget for it and no experience of your own—or you can attempt to mix your song or album yourself.

If you're mixing an album, you'll have multiple tracks. Find similarities among them, then organize them for flow. Set them in the order in which you'll work on them, the order in which they'll appear on the album. For example, if one track is heart-thumping rock, you would not necessarily want to follow this with a ballad, nor would you want to organize the tracks with the ballad immediately preceding the rock track. Arrange your tracks so there's some sense of continuity and make sure you're able to easily identify each as you work.

You'll also want to make sure that your volume levels on all tracks are similar as you work your way through the songs. You can compress with EQ to achieve this. It will heighten quiet spots and tone down louder ones. Smooth the tracks out using filters to eliminate excess or intrusive noises and sounds.

All tracks should have their own frequencies. Your goal is to make sure that each voice and every instrument leaves its own imprint. It can be helpful to use buses on each: one for guitars, one for vocals, and so on. 

Don't overcompress your tracks. Aim for a low ratio of anywhere from 2:1 to 3:1 dB of gain reduction. You can give a slight additional boost to a particular word or words if the tail ends of some vocals are getting lost.

Now move your mix from mono to stereo on each track. Panning will get you there. And make the mix yours. Put your stamp on it. This might include adding plugins or other minor effects. It's up to you, what you want to achieve with the album, and the audience you want to reach. 

Mastering Optimizes the Overall Sound

Think of mastering as adding sparkle and shine to your music. The term refers to the process of optimizing each individual track by compressing, equalizing, making stereo enhancements, or adjusting the reverberation (echo) effect.

In a very basic sense, when you master your album, you're making sure that song one doesn't blow out the speakers while the next song is barely audible. The mixing process extends to this, but mastering takes a broader view—you're focusing more on each individual track when you're mixing.

Mastering focuses on idiosyncrasies in each track with an eye and an ear toward their progression. It takes in all the tracks as a whole. You want the levels of the songs to be similar throughout and a general sense of cohesiveness to your recording. You want to flow from start to finish. 

Apart from correcting obvious differences in volume for each song, mastering is an incredibly subjective process. In some ways, musicians believe that you either have the golden touch or you don't when it comes to mastering. 

Although some programs help you master your recording yourself, paying to have it done professionally is a good investment if you plan on releasing your recording to the public.

When to Choose Mixing or Mastering

If you're planning on using your recording for a demo, mastering is not an absolute necessity. It requires much more intensive knowledge and experience than mixing so it can be costly when done by a professional.

On the other hand, mixing is something you should always make an effort to do, no matter what stage of release your song or album might be in. You don't have to hire a professional and you don't have to be a professional, but you should at least try to give each of your songs a rough mix whenever possible.

Unlike mastering, you can do mixing at home. It requires practice and time, but with some dedication, you can get the job done.