The differences between mixing and mastering are subtle but important to fully understand for musicians and engineers alike. Today we’ll define both terms, outline the differences and give you some tips for completing both processes.
You can learn more about mixing music in our beginner’s guide. But the best way to compare mixing and mastering is to highlight the main differences between the two music production stages.
What is the difference between mixing and mastering?
In simple terms, mixing is the process of blending multiple audio recordings together. In contrast, mastering is the final check to ensure that the audio material is ready for playback and distribution.
Let’s compare the objectives of mixing and mastering.
- Adjusting the levels and stereo panning of individual recordings;
- Processing the audio for each recording;
- Blending the multi-track project so that it sounds balanced.
- Setting overall loudness;
- Presenting the parts and the entire song in the best way;
- Preparing the music to sound good on different systems and mediums.
Mixing involves processing the tracks to present them in the best way possible, setting the levels, and blending the instruments together harmoniously.
Mastering involves a final quality control check, setting the loudness for the song, and preparing the music for distribution, so it sounds right on the devices the consumer will listen to it on.
Consider the analogy of producing a song and preparing a book for publishing.
The musical artist is the author, while the mixing engineer is the literary editor who helps the author put their ideas into the best form possible that’s enjoyable to read. Finally, the mastering engineer is the copy editor, who does the final technical checks on the writing and creates the final layout to fit the manuscript into different book editions.
To get your head around the differences, listen to the video above, where you can hear the same song unmixed, mixed, and mastered played back-to-back.
What is mixing?
Once you’ve recorded all the parts of a song and applied the basic effects to them (for example, putting an amp sim on a DI guitar part), then the mixing begins.
The mixing engineer aims to present the parts and song as a whole in the best, most cohesive way possible to the listener.
During the mixing process, the mixing engineer will also set the levels for the parts, which the tools above can help with. For example, compression can be used to bring an audio track forward in the mix, while reverb can be used to make a part sit back a bit.
At the end of the mixing process, the song will be complete in its basic form, and the levels, effects, and sounds will all be set in place.
What is mastering?
The mastering engineer will typically take the single stereo track generated at the end of the mixing phase and do the final polishing to make it ready for release. The tools commonly used during mastering include EQ, compression, and limiting.
With the benefit of a fresh set of ears, the mastering engineer will do final quality control checks and address any technical issues the mixer may have missed.
They will set the song’s loudness to a level comparable to other commercial releases so it doesn’t sound out of place when played back-to-back with other music. They will also create consistency in the level and sound between the different songs on the release.
Another mastering task is to prepare the song so it will sound as good as possible on whatever system the consumer uses, be it cheap earphones, a car stereo, or studio monitors.
The mastering engineer will also do the necessary tweaks to prepare the song for whatever medium it will be published in. For the best results, engineers typically create separate masters optimized for different mediums, for example, digital formats (CD and download) and analog (vinyl).
Getting the best results when mixing and mastering
There are a few things to keep in mind to get the best results during mixing and mastering for your project.
Use a different set of ears for mastering
Perhaps the best mastering advice you’ll ever get is to use a fresh set of ears for mastering. It’s preferable to have the mixing and mastering done by different engineers and, if possible, to outsource the mastering to a professional.
This is because one of the main points of mastering is double-checking the quality control and looking for things the mixer may have missed while immersed in the project. With that in mind, mastering should ideally be done by an expert who wasn’t involved in the mixing stage and who has access to an acoustically treated room for mastering purposes.
Not to mention that mastering is a specialty area where technical knowledge, experience, and a professional setup go a long way.
Options if you can’t afford pro mastering
Mastering isn’t all that expensive compared to outsourcing mixing or tracking. That said, if your music production budget doesn’t go that far, you can certainly get the job done yourself if you’re willing to put the time and effort in.
Using online mastering services is the best option if you don’t have the budget to visit a mastering studio in person. Numerous websites offer online mastering, and chances are you’ll find a mastering service that fits your budget.
AI mastering is another option, but our experience is that the quality isn’t comparable to that of a proper mastering engineer.
Remember to separate mixing and mastering
It’s important to appreciate that composing, recording, mixing, and mastering are separate music production stages and should not overlap.
When tracking the parts, don’t waste time trying to do the mixer’s job. Don’t worry about applying reverb and going crazy EQing things. Without all the recordings in place, it’s impossible to do these tweaks accurately, so you’ll just have to redo them again later anyway.
Likewise, when mixing, it’s counterproductive to start trying to boost the loudness or get worried about tasks that should be left to the mastering phase.
Tips for mastering your own music
Even if you’re doing the mixing and mastering yourself, it’s a good idea to export the song to a single stereo track for mastering to delineate the mixing and mastering steps.
Also, after completing the mixing stage, take a break for a couple of days and return to the mastering with fresh ears. This will help you see the forest from the trees and allow you to catch things you would miss if you did the mixing and mastering back-to-back.
Now that you know the difference between mixing and mastering download some free VST plugins to start producing music on your computer.
Do you master your own tracks? Have you ever used an online mastering service? Do you have any mixing or mastering tips you’d like to share with fellow music producers? Let us know in the comments section below.