The Difference Between Mixing and Mastering

The reign of the specialist is over! Throughout the history of recorded music, most jobs have been performed by specialists who produce, record, mix, or master. In the modern music industry, however, most professionals tend to wear a lot of hats. 

While technology has allowed easier and more affordable access to professional-level tools, smaller production budgets have also encouraged people to be more universally skilled. This blurring of traditional roles and responsibilities has sometimes made it difficult to understand the differences between important parts of the process.

Mixing and Mastering are two of these important — but very different — jobs done after the artist has finished all the recording. In this blog, we’ll talk about what each job is, the difference between mixing and mastering, and the overlapping skillset that allows an audio engineer to manage both tasks.

Understanding the Process

The difference between mixing and mastering

Simply put, records are made in a few basic steps:

Recording: The first step will be RECORDING or programming an instrumental track.

Overdubbing: Then a process called OVERDUBBING begins, where extra instrumental layers, lead vocals, and background vocals are added to the song. 

Editing: After all the tracks have been captured in the DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) the engineer will have the ability to EDIT them into their final performances. Editing might include fixing timing for drums or guitar, sorting through multiple vocals takes to create a master “Comp” out of the best pieces of each take, and tuning vocals.

Mixing: It’s time to MIX once the separate pieces and parts are all ready. Mixing is the very detailed audio production process of making each separately recorded performance fit into the final sound of the song. The mixer will start with many tracks, sometimes more than 100, and combine them in creative ways to help the artist create a sound that helps convey the emotion of their song! The result of mixing is a single stereo file.

Mastering: MASTERING is the final step of getting this song ready for release. While the mixer was dealing with many individual instrument files, the mastering engineer will usually only have access to the final stereo audio file. 

The job of mastering is to make sure the volume and tone of the song make it sound good when compared with all the other music being released. Nobody wants their song to be quiet or dull compared to their competition! Some people think of it as a final Photoshop of the song – to fix any mistakes or rough spots left in the mixing process.

How does Mixing work?

Mixing and/or mastering a song can be a daunting task, even for a seasoned professional. However, there are essentially six tools that an Audio Engineer needs to learn to get started. 

At Dark Horse Institute, we teach about these Six Mix Tools:

  • Balance
  • Pan
  • Tone
  • Dynamics
  • Saturation
  • Effects

A mix is like a puzzle, with many different pieces that need to all fit together. The easiest way to solve any puzzle is to first find the corner pieces, followed by the edge pieces, then work through the middle by building off of those. Each element in the mix needs to fit comfortably with any similar element and without covering up any other more important element.  

Balance: The number one tool for mixing is balance or the relative volumes between different tracks. The volume faders help control the listener’s attention by making more important elements stand out and less vital elements can shrink to a supporting role in the background. 

Louder sounds appear big and close, while quiet sounds seem small and far away. This means the mixer has 3D front/back control over each sound. Modern DAWs also allow for automation, so one instrument could be back in the verse and forward in the chorus.

Pan: or panorama, is how we control the stereo field. Some sounds may get played from one speaker, while others will play from both. If a sound is played equally from both sides, it will appear in a “Phantom Center.” This means it will appear to float in the space in front of the listener. 

By placing some sounds off to the side, a mix can spread across this imaginary stage from left to right. This spread helps the listener be drawn into the most important elements, and have the rest of the sounds wrap around them. It can also help to avoid clutter around the all-important vocal!

Tone: is the balance between high, middle, and low frequencies. To help each instrument fit in the mix, an equalizer is often the best way to control the tone balance. To the listener, low frequencies tend to live near the bottom of a mix, and higher tones live near the top. This means the mixer has control over where each instrument will live from top to bottom.  

Also, when two tracks overlap the same frequencies and are at similar volumes, you can develop a problem called “Masking.” This means one instrument can start to be affected by another. For example, a harsh acoustic guitar can make a nice warm vocal start to get harsh.

Dynamics: are the changes in volume that performances tend to have. A singer may be singing in a near whisper one moment, then build up to a huge (and LOUD) peak in the last chorus. To control this volume change the mixer will use a dynamic compressor. This tool can react when a sound gets too loud and then automatically turn it down.

Saturation: is distortion in the audio used to benefit the feel and vibe of the track. Not only can distortion be a fun way to add energy to a sound, but it can also be used to smooth dynamics and alter tone. 

Using saturation can help a mix feel subtly more classic and analog, or it can make an 808 shred for a modern hip-hop track.

Effects: using time and pitch effects can be a great way to build interest and contrast in a song. The standard tools are reverb and delay to help create the perception of depth and context for the music. Adding big reverb sounds can make the music feel more grand and epic, while adding short delays could make the music feel more groovy and still close. 

Other effects like chorus, flangers, and phasers might mess with the pitch of the instrument to smear the sound or make it more exciting.

Using these six tools allows the mixer to place sounds in a three-dimensional space. Front to back (balance, dynamics), left to right (pan, effects), and top to bottom (tone, Saturation, effects). There are many workflows and opinions amongst mixers on how best to combine these sounds, but they will all be using the same tools.

What is Mastering?

While the role of the mastering engineer may seem like a bit of magic, in which stuff sounds better but nobody can tell exactly why, in reality, mastering engineers really only have the same basic tools that a mix engineer may have.  

Balance: The primary job associated with mastering is making the music loud. If a track isn’t loud enough, it will seem weak when played against other commercially released songs. “Loudness” is the term used to describe the average volume compared to the peak volumes. To control this, mastering engineers can use dynamic compression/limiting to reduce the spikes (watch out for snare drums!) in a song. 

Also, by pushing certain frequency ranges to be louder, the mastering engineer can trick the listener into believing the track is louder without the meters showing any change. It will be the mastering engineer’s job to balance each song on an album so that they smoothly play from track to track without jumps in volume. 

Beyond that, the album should balance well against other songs already being released.

Panorama: Mastering Engineers often work with the stereo field, employing tools called mid-side processors. This allows songs to be widened or narrowed for the listener. Sometimes that might mean making the low frequencies more central to give power and making higher frequencies wider to create openness and space.

Tone: Mastering may also include some corrective equalizing to make sure no frequencies are standing out or will sound weird on certain speaker systems.

Dynamics: A mastering engineer can’t compress individual instruments, but sometimes adding compression to make the entire mix “pump” together can help create some movement. This can trick the listener into believing the multi-tracks are “glued” together.

Saturation: Many of the classic songs were all recorded with analog equipment which left a recognizable stamp on the sound of those records. Tape machines, vacuum tubes, and analog equipment all help to smooth out individual tracks or even full mixes.  

Subtle saturation and clipping to increase harmonics and tame the loud peaks can make a mix significantly louder without any compression. Because of this, many mastering engineers will use high-end analog equipment to run mixes through, even though digital plug-ins are much more affordable and surgical. 

Effects: Reverb, delay, and pitch effects are typically only used for mixing, although there are some famous examples of obvious effects being placed directly on the track. The flanger placed over the drum breakdown in Led Zepellin’s Kashmir, for example, helped that section feel wild and otherworldly.  

Other Jobs for a Mastering Engineer

Besides making the music sound great, there are some other key tasks for the mastering engineer to help release the song.  

  • Noise Reduction or Audio Restoration involves using advanced algorithms and AI-based software to fix glitches or unwanted noises left during mixing
  • Track Sequencing is making sure the spacing between songs works to maintain the flow of the album.
  • Disc Authoring is creating a file called a .DDP to be sent to CD duplicators
  • Embedding Metadata, or extra text information about the digital files, allows for ISRC Codes (barcodes for tracking sales), album information, Copyright Information, searchable keywords, and more to be attached to each file.

When To Outsource?

Since many engineers are doing (both) the mixing and mastering on the projects they work on, there may be some mistakes that get missed. In many releases, these smaller problems won’t hurt the album’s success and it’s a great solution to the limited budget of many new artists.  

However, there will be times when it makes sense to hire a specialist. At the highest levels, very few major label projects are mastered by anybody other than a full-time established mastering engineer. 

Also, if the budget allows, hiring a professional mastering engineer can often help solve some of the mistakes left in mixing. This helps the artist, and it can be a great learning experience for a mix engineer to get some expert input and avoid similar mistakes in the future.

Let’s Review

Ultimately, you may not fully understand the benefits of professional mixing and mastering until hearing the difference it can make! Just remember to be careful when choosing the engineer and remember that though the tools may be simple, it’s still the artistry and skill of the engineer, which will make or break the sound of your record!

If you are interested in a career in the Music Industry, Dark Horse Institute’s Composition and Songwriting, Audio Engineering, or Music Business Programs are a great way to take things to the next level!

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