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Mixing vs mastering: What’s the difference, and how to do both properly

Since the early 2000s, the world of music production has taken an increasingly DIY approach that gives plenty of control to the artists themselves.

This means that you, a modern music producer, can record, mix, and master a song from the comfort of your bedroom studio. Pretty cool, right?

While definitely empowering, the idea of producing a song from start to end requires a deep understanding of the post-production processes, namely mixing and mastering.

In this article, I’ll explain how these two fundamental processes influence the final composition and how you can do both when you can’t hire a professional audio engineer.

Why you should trust me

Marco Sebastiano Alessi, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a music producer with over 15 years of experience in music production, and the founder of a record label that released 50+ albums since its inception in 2014.

While I usually hire professional sound engineers for our publications (something I always recommend doing when you want to achieve the best results), honing my post-production skills allowed me to a) better understand the quality of mixes and masters I received, b) give advice to artists on how to improve their works, and c) do the job myself whenever needed.

Finally, this knowledge has become a fundamental aspect of my production workflow, and gives me the opportunity to compose and release a second entirely on my own, whenever the inspiration strikes.

This, I believe, is one of the most crucial assets in the modern fast-paced music industry.


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What is mixing?

In audio production, mixing is the process of turning multiple audio takes into a coherent stereo track, where every instrument has its place and defined role in the soundstage.

When you record different tracks and put them together in your DAW, each instrument will be “in your face,” with clashing frequencies, narrow stereo field, and similar volumes.

The mixing process involves taking this loose t of tracks and turning them into a coherent song, using effects like EQ, delay, reverbs, compression, panning, and volume control to shape the soundstage and enhance the harmony between the different elements of the composition.

A mixed song should give a realistic sense of ambiance, where every element has its place in the mix and adds something to the piece’s vibe.

The listening experience should feel cohesive and tight, regardless of the playback system you use to test your mix.

What is mastering?

The final step in post-production, mastering is when you refine your mix and prepare it for distribution on CD, vinyl, or online.

The goal here is to give your mix a polished and radio-friendly sound; when mastered, your song should feel as loud and professionally recorded as the ones you listen to on the radio, streaming platforms, or hi-fi system.

Ultimately, the role of a mastering engineer is to provide a final track that will sound good in all listening environments and consistent with the rest of the album it’s part of.

Creating a balanced master requires tools like linear-phase EQs, compressors, limiters, character EQs, stereo wideners, and tape saturation.

However, bear in mind that mastering is not about transforming a song, but rather enhancing the beauty of a mix while making the track reach the industry-standard levels of loudness before distribution.

So, what are the differences?

In short, mixing is all about balancing the elements that comprise a song, while mastering adds a final polish to the overall mix.

However, there’s also a more “creative” difference between the two processes: mixing enhances the artist’s vision, and mastering ensures the song sounds professional and ready for distribution.

Mixing usually requires heavy adjustments to all tracks to make sure frequencies won’t clash with each other. Mastering, on the other hand, uses subtle but broad strokes that affect the whole song.

When mixing, you make adjustments to the individual tracks, making them more cohesive with the rest of the mix, whereas with mastering you focus on balancing complete songs.

As a result, mixing sessions involve multiple tracks (could be 3, 10, or a hundred), while mastering sessions usually require working with one file per song.

How to mix a track

Now that the distintion between the two processes should be quite clear, let’s take a look at how you can mix your first track.

Before we get started, let me emphasize that there are golden rules when mixing or mastering, but only common methods can help you achieve professional results and streamline your workflow.

Step 1. Organize your mix

When you’re done recording and are happy with the overall sound, start by putting the tracks in order, naming them, and giving them different colors. This will help you a great deal when routing multiple tracks (mix bus).

To give you an idea, here’s how a mix from a live set I did recently looked like:

This is also a great way to streamline your workflow and make the process more enjoyable.

Step 2. Volume levels

The next step is to start balancing the volume levels of your mix. This is something you should do before applying any effect to ensure every element of your track is properly positioned in the stereo field and feels balanced with all the others.

The process is called gain staging, and doing it properly will be the foundation for a successful post-production process.

During this phase, also use panning to adjust the position of your instruments in the stereo field. Now that you’re done, you a have a rough mix in your hands.

Step 3. Adjust frequencies

Once the song sounds good and balanced without any processing, it’s time to start trimming some frequencies.

There are two ways to do this: you can fully process a single track before moving on to the next, or you can EQ all tracks first, then compress them and finalize them all with bespoke effects like delay and reverb.

I personally prefer the first approach, EQing tracks one by one and then adding compression to feel the song refine and rise in volume over time:

Use a combination of high-pass filters, low-pass filters, and EQ on the tracks to create room for each element until you get a balanced mix.

When each track is audible and the sound is evenly distributed across the audio spectrum, apply compressors to adjust and manage the dynamic range of every element.

Don’t overdo it: start with subtle compression on each track and then make adjustments until you reach the right balance of vibrancy and punch.

Step 4. The final touches

Now it’s time to add some creative effects to make everything more harmonious.

This is mostly based on personal preference, but chances are you’ll want to apply reverb, delay, modulation, and saturation, all of which, in their own way, will enhance the realism and energy of your mix.

A word on AI mixing

If it all sounds too complicated, AI can help you simplify the process and still bring good results to life.

For quick mixes, I use Neutron by iZotope, which offers enough customization options to craft a usable mix in no time:

However, I’d suggest you try to do it yourself first. It’s not that complicate once you come up with a workflow that works for you. Plus, it’s the only way to create a unique sound signature.

How to master a track

Now that you mixed your track, let’s take a look at how you can make it ready for publication.

Once again, there are countless ways to tackle the process. It’s also a rather complex procedure if you’ve never tried it before, but I’ll try to keep it brief.

Step 1. Make sure your mix is master-ready

First off, the better the mix, the less work will be necessary during mastering. Check that none of your tracks are clipping, and that there is headroom in each track and the master output (between -4 and -6dB will do).

Let me highlight that you’re now working on a single track with all the instruments, as opposed to a collection of sonic elements you can adjust individually.

This means that whichever effect you apply, it’ll have an impact on all the sounds included in the song.

Step 2. Check your reference track

Create a new project in your DAW and import your mix alongside reference tracks to compare.

A reference track is a song you use as a source of inspiration when mixing and mastering music. You can use it to absorb the vibe, volume levels, and style of the genre in order to recreate them in your song.

Choosing one or more reference tracks before starting the post-production process is crucial.

Use a graphic analyzer to compare the frequency spectrum of your track with that of the reference track.

Step 3. Apply effects

Gently start applying compression to improve the dynamics. Use a linear EQ to make broad adjustments based on the vibe you’re trying to emulate, and use a multiband to enhance certain frequencies.

Add saturation to make the song warmer and more realistic, and stereo widening to make it more immersive.

Finally, use a limiter to increase the track’s loudness without causing distortion. I’d recommend an output level between -0.3 and -0.8 dB.

Step 4. Exporting and adding metadata

And you’re done! Now, export the mastered track as a lossless file at 16-bit and 44.1 kHz to have CD-quality music.

Don’t forget about metadata. When exporting the track, don’t forget to add the ISRC number, UPN code, title, and all the artist information required when distributing your song digitally or printing it on a physical format.

Frequently asked questions

Since the first issue of this article at Higher Hz, we have consistently received numerous questions about mixing, mastering, and how to approach both processes.

I’ve compiled these questions, and in this section, you will find the answers to the most frequently asked ones.

Can I mix and master my own tracks?

Absolutely! All you need are plugins that’ll allow you to make frequency adjustments to your track: equalizer (EQ), compressor, limiter, reverb, delay, saturation, de-esser, noise gate, stereo imager, metering, and so on.

Does mixing always come before mastering?

Yes. Mastering can only be done on a final mix, as every change you make during mastering will have an impact on every element of your song.

Can mastering ruin a mix?

A bad master can’t “ruin” a mix, but it can definitely compromise your artistic vision for the sake of obtaining an industry-compliant sound. For instance, it might make your song feel colder or less groovy.

Can mastering fix a bad mix?

No. In fact, mastering a bad mix will only enhance the mix’s irregularities. Master a track only when you’re 100% certain you’re happy with the mix.

What does a bad mix sound like?

A bad mix is easy to spot: a muddy sound, some instruments overshadowed by others, unclear dynamics, and unbalanced frequencies.

If you can hear one or more of these characteristics in your mix, you’ll have to make adjustments before moving to the next step.

What does a good mix sound like?

A good mix has a clear and defined soundstage, feels cohesive and dynamic no matter how you listen to it (earbuds, studio headphones, car sound system), and allows you to hear distinctly every element that makes the song.

How long does it take to mix and master a track?

Mixing a track can take anywhere between four hours and a week. Mastering usually takes up to a couple of hours.

What equipment (or tools) do I need for mixing and mastering?

At the very least, you’ll need a DAW, professional studio monitors, headphones, and plugins: EQ, compression, reverb, limiter, delay, and anything else suitable to create the vibe you’re after.

Mixing in a DAW vs mixing on a console?

In a DAW, you have plenty of flexibility when it comes to sound customization, whereas a mixing console has fewer adjustment options but offers a more instinctive and expressive experience.

They’re both a great option to mix music, but I’d recommend exploring the power of your DAW first: using a mixing console professionally requires knowledge and plenty of practice, while a DAW is way more intuitive.

Do I need different software for mixing and mastering?

You can use different standalone software for mixing and mastering or do the entire post-production directly in your DAW through dedicated plugins.

How loud should my mix be before mastering?

I’d recommend having your peaks between -6.0 dB and -3.0 dB to leave enough headroom for mastering.

Should I mix in mono or stereo?

Mix in stereo, but check regularly how your mix sounds in mono. At the end of the day, you want the final song to sound great in both high-end hi-fi systems and Bluetooth mono speakers.

Why do my mixes sound different on different speakers?

Because every speaker is different, and the same goes for headphones. While studio headphones and monitors are designed to give you a neutral reproduction, all earbuds, car sound systems, and hi-fi speakers, come with their unique sound signature that modifies how your mixes sound.

Which is why it’s so important to test your mix using as many playback systems as you can.

Are online/automated mastering services good enough?

Online mastering services can be good (at best) but never excellent. If you’re serious about your music and want it to sound in the best possible way, you should always go for a professional mastering engineer.

On the other hand, online mastering services are good if you want to share your music ideas on SoundCloud, TikTok, or with a group of friends.

These software are fast, affordable, and can offer decent quality, but they’re far from creating high-quality results for now.

Final thoughts

I hope this piece clarifies the most crucial aspects of mixing and mastering music, as well as the differences between the two processes.

Do let me know in the comments section if you have any questions or feedback, and most of all, enjoy the process of bringing to life music you can create and share with the world, all by yourself.

Have fun!