No matter where you are on your journey as a musician or music producer, having a solid understanding of the difference between mixing and mastering is essential. These crucial components of music production help your tracks stand out in a competitive industry, and ensure its sound resonates with audiences.
Need a quick refresher? Follow along as we take you into the world of mixing vs mastering. We’ll give you a comprehensive overview of each process, the different approaches you can take, as well as the necessary tools and equipment you’ll require. We’ll also take a look at how BandLab‘s free mixing and mastering tools can enhance the overall sound of your songs.
How song arrangement, mixing, and mastering intertwine
There’s lots to consider when crafting a top-notch sound. First up: song arrangement. This consists of selecting and sequencing different musical elements to compose a great-sounding track. It’s a multifaceted process that can include recording individual instruments and vocals, selecting samples and loops, and creating the perfect beats and rhythms.
To start, give careful thought to the various musical components involved and how they interact. This requires not only a grasp of music theory and composition but also a keen ear for sound and a strong sense of creativity. By carefully selecting and arranging different elements, you can develop a song that seamlessly flows from start to finish. Don’t forget to consider aspects such as tempo, dynamics, and mood. This creates a sense of progression and builds tension throughout the song, ultimately leading to a satisfying resolution.
Nail your arrangement and you’re well on your way to making exceptional music! A well-crafted arrangement sets the stage for a successful mix and master – one of the most important stages in music production. It provides a clear roadmap for mixing engineers to follow, allowing them to bring your track to life.
Mixing vs mastering: A quick overview
It’s quite common to confuse the differences between mixing and mastering, especially when they’re so interconnected. Therefore it’s good to start with the basics. What is mixing and mastering? To put it simply, these processes are akin to a writer drafting a novel, and an editor refining the manuscript to produce a polished, final version. They are two distinct but equally important stages in music production that require different skill sets and approaches.
Mixing comes first and primarily focuses on the creative aspects of audio engineering. It ensures that all the individual tracks of a song are blended together to create a cohesive and balanced sound.
Mastering is more technical in nature and is the final step in which the entire mix is refined. It aims to achieve a professional sound with optimal balance, clarity, and volume across all listening devices.
Both processes are integral to the creation of a professional-grade sound, and the skills involved in each are highly complementary.
What is mixing in music?
Let’s take an in-depth look at mixing in music. This is the art of blending and refining multi-channel recordings. It involves steps such as: setting the appropriate levels for each element; positioning the individual elements in the stereo field; and creating a three-dimensional soundstage that captures the listener’s attention.
Equalizer (EQ) is one of the essential tools used in mixing to create a balanced frequency spectrum for each instrument. By adjusting the levels of bass, mid, and high frequencies, you can control the overall tone of the track and ensure that no instrument dominates the others.
Additionally, EQ can be used creatively to create a sense of depth and space in the mix – making instruments sound closer or farther away. It’s used to emphasize important song elements by creating distinctive EQ settings. It may not sound great on its own, but can be effective in the context of a mix to make a particular sound stand out.
Compressors are also used in the mixing stage to tame the dynamic range of each element. By compressing the sound, the volume of louder sounds is reduced while the volume of quieter sounds is increased. This leads to an even and consistent sound across the board. It can help highlight nuances in a performance and ensure that details are clearly heard in the mix. They’re also useful in making sure each element sounds less chaotic in the mix, especially when dealing with live drum recordings that can be difficult to control.
Mixing wouldn’t be complete without adding various effects like reverb and delay. These effects bring the song to life by creating a lively sense of depth for each element, simulating different environments. Reverb, for example, can make a lead vocal sound as if the singer is performing in a grand concert hall, a jazz club, or right in front of you! Delay can create a sense of movement and excitement, as if the guitar solo is bouncing off the walls of the room.
A mixing engineer’s main goal is to achieve the desired sonic character and emotional impact of the song. This means they need to have a clear understanding of the artistic vision and intentions of the producers, writers, and musicians. Hence, effective communication among all involved parties is crucial for a successful mixing stage in a professional workflow. Now we’ve answered what is mixing in music, we can move on to mastering.
What is music mastering?
Once you’ve got your song mixed, mastering engineers step in to work on the overall sound of the track. They focus on achieving an optimal balance of bass, mid, and treble frequencies, using an equalizer to ensure the track sounds great on all music playback systems.
Compressors are applied to control the dynamic range to fit the style of the song. This brings all the elements of the mix together and creates a more cohesive sound. They may even add cool effects like stereo widening or even a subtle amount of reverb to really enhance the listener’s experience.
If the mix sounds fantastic, the mastering engineer works to maintain its quality and make slight improvements – but only if needed. Their ears are the last trusted pair in any kind of audio production, and the main motto here is: “Don’t fix something that isn’t broken!” The best mastering engineers are those who know that sometimes the most effective approach is to leave a mix untouched.
Analog mastering is where things get really exciting. With their mastering-grade hardware EQ and compressors, mastering engineers can give your music a rich and full sound and add character to your song. You can’t get this extra depth and warmth in a typical recording studio setting.
Mastering also involves limiting the output of the track to avoid exceeding the digital boundary value of 0 dbFS – this can cause digital noise or distortion. This allows for better and more transparent control of any extreme dynamic sections that may not have been fully balanced with the compression. Mastering engineers might even automate the master output to maintain the right amount of energy throughout the song. This is done by adjusting the level between sections such as verses, bridges, and choruses. It ensures we don’t lose the impact of the chorus, which is often the centerpiece of the song.
But mastering isn’t just about one song. If you’re putting together an album, mastering engineers make sure that all your tracks sound consistent. This is especially critical if the songs are recorded or mixed in different studios or by different engineers. They might also adjust gaps between songs and use advanced fade-out effects to create a seamless listening experience.
Finally, the mastering engineer prepares the song or album to be played for all kinds of music platforms. Think everything from Spotify to vinyl to good old-fashioned CDs. Some of these formats have different technical requirements. So they create different master files for each type of broadcast, and send them to the record label, musician, or producer.
With mixing vs mastering basics out of the way, let’s move on to some examples so you can hear the difference for yourself.
Mastering vs mixing: Spot the difference
To better understand the difference between mixing and mastering, take a listen to these before and after samples.
Keep in mind that mastered tracks are usually louder than the mix! Studies show that our ears tend to perceive louder sounds as being better. We’ve matched the loudness of these samples to the original mixes to help you hear the differences.
The first track is ‘Pretty Genius’ by Charlee Remitz.
Listen to the mixed version:
Listen to the mastered version:
The first thing you’ll notice is that the mastered version sounds fuller and wider. It has a greater sense of depth, which some describe as a three-dimensional feeling. The master feels more dynamic, even though it’s more compressed than the mix.
Next, a cinematic track named ‘Warborn’ from Sybrid.
Listen to the mixed version:
Listen to the mastered version:
There’s an easily noticeable difference here. The mix sounds dull, and lacks the dynamics that are often called for in cinematic music. On the mastered version, you can feel the impact of the drums and the emotions they bring to this track. Plus, there’s a greater separation between instruments, giving each one more room to breathe and be heard in its own space.
Finally, ‘States of Minds’ by Blue Knot.
Listen to the mixed version:
Listen to the mastered version:
This mix feels a little disjointed – the sounds don’t seem to mesh well. Notice how much more unified and cohesive it is on the master. Here, it has a warmer character with a solid bass and you can better hear the shaker and its nuances, which add an extra layer of flavor.
Analog and digital mixing and mastering
When it comes to mixing and mastering, producers and engineers have some choices to make. They can either go the old-school route and use hardware, like outboard mixing consoles and equalizers. Or, they can go digital, using software, plugins, or online mixing and mastering platforms like BandLab to tweak sounds with great accuracy. They can even choose to go hybrid! Many renowned engineers use a combination of setups to get the best of both worlds.
Each approach has its own pros and cons. With analog processing, you get a really deep and rich sound. It’s like cooking with cast iron! It may take a bit longer, but you end up with something unique. Digital processing produces more efficient and precise results. In the digital audio world, you can save your settings and recall them instantly, which makes it easy to make changes on the fly and experiment with different sounds.
The analog method is often favored by artists who are looking for a sound with more character. Analog’s rich sound and unique depth and character are difficult to replicate with software processing. But it can also be more time-consuming and very expensive, requiring a dedicated studio space and specialized knowledge to operate effectively. Despite these challenges, analog units from brands such as SSL, Neve, API, Manley, UAD, and more, remain highly sought after by professionals in the music industry.
While analog equipment is still preferred by some, there’s no doubt that digital audio software, plugins, and artificial intelligence have come a long way. As such, producers today can achieve excellent results using digital processing alone. Many software brands like Avid Pro Tools, Waves, and Izotope have created innovative solutions that push the boundaries of what’s possible in digital audio.
This has turned music production into a process that can be accomplished by anyone with a device. All it takes is having the right software and plugins, and you can have precise control over every aspect of the mix and master.
Studio acoustics in mixing and mastering
Whether you’re working with software or hardware tools, it’s important to remember these aren’t the only defining factors. The acoustics within the mixing and mastering spaces hold significant sway over the final sound and shouldn’t be overlooked! To get the best results, opt for a studio space that’s free from unwanted noise, and features a neutral frequency response and minimal reflections.
Getting that perfect sound in a regular room can be a huge challenge – requiring specialized knowledge and equipment, like acoustic treatment panels, diffusers, and bass traps. All in all, acoustics should be considered an essential part of any mixing and mastering workflow.
Tapping on BandLab’s online mixing and mastering tools
In the realm of digital audio, traditional methods of mixing and mastering typically involve software and plugins on a computer. However, as a cloud-based platform, BandLab takes digital audio to a new level. It provides musicians with a range of free tools, including comprehensive mixing and mastering solutions. It’s an accessible, user-friendly, and cost-effective alternative to expensive music software or professional services, which can be a barrier for aspiring musicians.
BandLab’s mixing feature enables you to effortlessly adjust levels, pan tracks, apply effects, and more. The best part? You can access it anywhere using your smartphone or desktop once you’ve signed up for an account. Read this guide for more information on mixing with BandLab.
It also offers a remarkable instant online mastering solution that allows you to master your tracks swiftly and effortlessly. Developed in collaboration with Grammy-winning multi-platinum professionals, it performs up to 10 times faster than manual mastering methods. Just visit the mastering page on BandLab, upload your track, and watch as it applies the most suitable mastering settings.
Selecting the right audio engineer
Mixing and mastering are highly specialized skills handled by two different professional audio engineers. Mastering engineers have a fresh perspective on your music. This enables them to analyze it with a big-picture approach. Their finely-tuned critical listening skills and mastering-grade equipment allow them to make essential adjustments that enhance the quality of the sound. This is what distinguishes them from mixing engineers.
For this reason, having separate engineers is the most ideal scenario for any artist. However, it may require a higher budget, which isn’t always feasible. In many cases, a single professional can handle both mixing and mastering tasks well with the right mindset, tools, and studio. But, you should carefully evaluate their skills, tools and experience to ensure a high-quality result.
Take note that in-house mixing and mastering may not provide the level of quality and expertise that a professional studio can offer. Given the highly competitive nature of the music industry, it can be hard to compete with a certain set of production standards and sound quality of current music releases, even with the best tools and equipment at hand.
Consider factors such as the engineer’s experience, equipment, and compatibility with your style, goals and budget. Do your due diligence when selecting an engineer, as this can greatly impact the success of your music production.
If you decide to go with a professional-grade mixing and mastering studio, consider exploring Maven Mastering Studio which offers industry-standard analog gear, with a dedication to deliver high-quality mixes and masters that meets the expectations of the music industry. At the end of the day, investing in a well-mixed and mastered recording can make all the difference in terms of the overall impact and success of your musical project.
To sum up, the importance of mixing and mastering in music production cannot be overstated. Although these processes can be challenging and involve technical aspects, they also require a creative and artistic mindset that takes into consideration the artist’s or producer’s unique vision. Ensure you do your research, know the processes inside-out, and have all the tools and resources you need to get the sound you’re after. With the right attitude and approach, you can create truly exceptional music that resonates with listeners and stands the test of time.
About the author
Burak Atas is a mixing and mastering engineer and the founder of Maven Mastering, a music studio that specializes in mixing and mastering. Burak has a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in Audio Engineering. He has worked as a freelance mixing engineer, and producer in England, as well as a sound technician at Disney in the US. With over 17 years of experience in audio engineering, Burak has had the privilege of working alongside talented artists from around the world.