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What is the difference between mixing vs. mastering?

The difference between mixing and mastering is often misunderstood, even by experienced musicians. Both mixing and mastering happen post-production and are the final steps towards a finished product.

Mixing is the process of balancing individual tracks from a recording session to make them sound good together. Mastering takes a stereo mixdown and prepares it for playback and distribution.

Those are basic descriptions, so let’s take a better look at what each step entails.

What is mixing?

As we said, mixing involves taking individual tracks from a recording session and making them sound good together.

But, it’s not as simple as adjusting the level of each track. Some sounds occupy the same or similar frequency range, and that can make things a little muddy.

A mix engineer will EQ tracks so that each sound has its own space in the mix. Space can be created by panning certain sounds, which also changes the texture of the song. Other effects like compression and reverb are often used to shape sounds.

Despite the significant musical decisions being made in writing/production, mixing is still a creative process. As well as making sure everything can be heard clearly, mixing decides which elements/sounds should be most prominent.

Sometimes that comes from the artist’s instructions, but it’s often left to the engineer’s discretion. Think Pino Palladino’s bass on Wherever I Leave My Hat as an example of a bold mixing choice.

As well as shaping sounds, it’s not uncommon for an engineer to mute certain sounds or add new samples to layer with existing sounds.

Another job of the mix engineer is to consider the song’s flow, transitioning from one section to another. A simple example is that man engineers give the hook a 2 dB boost, so it hits with a little more impact.

How many tracks in mixing?

Producers will supply a mix engineer with a project session from their DAW or stems from the project. It could be anything from a few tracks to over 100.

The mixing process

When working with a large number of tracks, the first step is usually to organize them. Organizing includes creating stacks for instrument groups or sound types and color-coding tracks. Creating track stacks makes it easier to apply an effect to a group as well as individually.

Once organized, it’s onto blending the tracks, removing unwanted frequencies, transient shaping, and adding automation.

What mix engineers work with?

These days, most people mix in the box, or mostly in the box. That means they mix inside a DAW, using software plugins, maybe adding in some outboard gear.

Software plugins have got so much better over the years that it’s no longer a colossal downgrade to mix in the box.

Where mix engineers work?

Providing they aren’t working in a noisy environment, mix engineers can be more flexible about where they work.

Before passing on their stereo mix, they will listen to it through various devices – monitors, headphones, laptops, and even smartphones.

What is mastering?

A mastering engineer takes the stereo mix, usually along with some reference tracks and notes from the previous engineer or artist. The reference tracks and notes help outline the sound the artist is going for.

Notes won’t always say exactly what they want from the mastering engineer, but they often highlight any areas they don’t want to be altered.

Mastering is the final opportunity to correct any balance issues. Good mastering won’t save a terrible mix, and that’s often misunderstood. For example, if the engineer stacked a horn section in mixing with far too much reverb applied to the group, it will be muddy, and mastering can’t save it.

Mastering engineers also rely on EQ, compression, and limiting but use them in a broader sense. It’s about creating a consistent balance and making sure the dynamics and effects applied in mixing translate well across all platforms.

Think of mastering as applying the final touches before distribution.

Beyond a single song, mastering engineers are hired to create a consistent experience throughout an album. They make sure you don’t need to adjust your volume after every track and don’t blow your speakers. They also do a few less creative things like making sure all songs have the correct spacing between them (usually 2 seconds).

Then there’s metadata, like artist and track names, durations, and so on that come from encoding tracks with ISRC (International Standard Recording Code).

How many tracks in mastering?

Masting involves working on a stereo mix only.

The mastering process

Mastering involves a lot of listening to reference tracks and current genre comparisons. Listening and deciding how to best compete with those tracks.

In some cases, it might involve changing the signal path. However, many mastering engineers are known specifically for their signal path and don’t like to change it.

They start with industry/genre/format-specific levels. Then they begin to apply EQ and compression to enhance the balance of the song. While doing this, they will often A/B test it against the original stereo mix (gain matched).

If it’s an album or EP, they will work through each track individually then as a whole. Making sure the tonal character is consistent and loudness is as uniformed as can be without losing dynamics.

Finally, if all is well, they can prepare metadata and export for different formats with suitable adjustments.

What mastering engineers work with?

Like mixing, mastering can be done well inside your DAW. It’s still common for many mastering engineers to work exclusively with outboard gear, though.

Whether working in or out of the box, the most important tool in a mastering chain is perhaps a limiter. A limiter is basically a 10:1 ratio compressor, which allows you to boost the quiet parts without pushing the loud parts too hard.

It’s a fine art; limiters can be harsh, especially in the hands of a rookie.

Where mastering engineers work?

The room matters much more to a mastering engineer. It will be a treated room with no unwanted noise. Mastering is the last step; you can’t mess it up because you work beside a busy road with an open window.

Mixing and mastering are both more complex than we can sum up in this short article. But, we hope you now have a better understanding of the fundamental differences between the two.

Mixing gets the best out of the artist’s/producer’s vision, while mastering delivers clarity and high-fidelity.

Both steps are crucial to a successful release; take no shortcuts.