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.
To achieve this task, they will use tools such as panning, EQ, compression, reverb, and perhaps other effects such as delay, modulation, and saturation, among many other options.
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.
My tip is… don’t be afraid to go back and forth. Mastering a mixdown can reveal flaws which can be corrected in the mix. Go back and work on the mix more, then run it through the mastering again, perhaps with some parameter adjustments. The more effects you find yourself using in a mastering chain, the more good could probably be done in the mix instead. Sometimes an effect that sounds cool in mastering could be better applied in separate instances to stems instead of the whole 2buss.
Also: Listen to lots of references, to keep your ears from getting too used to the sound of the track you’re working on.
If not on a strict deadline, sit on finished pieces for a week at least and listen again with fresh ears before releasing.
Agreed. Applying mastering to an ongoing mix can really help reveal and understand problem areas. I don’t separate mastering at all from mixing for that very reason. You can put your master fx on the master bus, A/B with or without mastering chain AND A/B to a reference track as well super easily.
Even if you end up creating a separate session for mastering this can teach you so much about sound as a beginner.
Thanks for the clearest comparison of these two phases of the recording process I’ve seen.
Sweet and simple.
As a professional 15+ years in the best advise I like to pass on to producers/ engineers is to just pretend mastering never existed.
“the best mixes don’t need mastering” – Bob Katz
I have released hundreds of tracks which were not only NOT mastered, they had literally NOTHING on the master buss. And yes, they were ‘commercial level’ .
If you can train your ears to get close a mastered track in your mx session without relying on the crutch that is post processing then you’ll learn far more about sound, arrangement, and even composition than thinking one day that track your not happy with might get improved by some magical mastering session.
This. Listeners don’t know, don’t understand and don’t care if your music is mastered. Just get good at producing and learn mixing.
Hire a mastering engineering if you can afford it, regardless.
If you can’t though (like most of us here I’d guess), getting better at mixing is the one true solution to getting good masters, where mastering is either going to be doing nothing at all, or just pushing through a tiny byt of compression/limiting/clipping.
Keeps things simple, and lets you focus on what really matters: the source material!
In my Opinion, the most important part of mastering is to give a second opinion on a song, it is mostly a watchdog against loss of focus which is vital when processing a track.
I agree with the previous comments : mixing (with access to all tracks) is way more flexible than Mastering, and should be prioritized.
I also like mixing using BACK and FORTH : I often start a mix by solving the main issues I AM SURE OF : Low filtering what can’t be heard, resonances, dynamic control and a tiny but of tone shaping (but not much).
From there, I do a “fake” mastering using temporary effects on the master (EQ and compression) and using references. It usually gives me a good overview of what is missing. For instance : lack of 1dB at 1k on the bass, a bit of muddiness between drums and vocals at 150 Hz, and lack of compression for the vocals.
Then I ‘save as’ a new version of the projects and correct the issues.
Then I do this procedure again : a fake master, and I correct the issues.
This iterative process is half-way between what people call “top-down” mixing and “traditionnal” mixing. Doing this fake mastering 2 times is usually enough to get where I want my mix to be. I also split this usually in 3 separate session (for the 3 steps.)
Emre Ekici - Sound Engineeron
Thank you for sharing this blog. It’s always great to connect with others in our field and learn from each other’s experiences.
One of the most important aspects of being a sound engineer is the willingness to share knowledge and ideas with others. This is because our field constantly evolves and changes, and there is always something new to learn. By sharing our experiences, techniques, and tips with one another, we can all improve our skills and continue to push the boundaries of what is possible.
Additionally, knowledge sharing helps to build a sense of community among sound engineers. When we collaborate and work together, we can create something extraordinary that we couldn’t achieve on our own. Whether it’s troubleshooting a problematic issue or brainstorming creative solutions for a project, having a network of knowledgeable colleagues to rely on is invaluable.
So, thank you again for reaching out and sharing your blog with me. I write similar content related to sound engineering; feel free to check it out! emreekici.com