There is a misconception about mixing and mastering, these two music production concepts are used so closely that you might perceive them as a singular activity. In reality these are two different processes.
Mixing is the blending of vocals and the instrumental to make a song, while mastering is the enhancement or improvement of the mixed song to make it ready for distribution. This is the major difference between these two processes.
There is no such thing as the perfect mix, but most good audio engineers do get close depending on how good their production ear is, this makes it essential to understand the principles behind mixing and mastering in order to understand what mixing errors can be fixed with mastering and what mastering difficulties can be fixed with getting the mix right the first time.
In order to properly understand the difference between mixing and mastering you first have to understand how they differ as processes. Typically with mixing, the stages that will be involved are:
- Recording – this is the first step, because final mixing can only begin when the recording is done. Sound engineers know it wise to spend some time preparing for recording by picking the right microphone and experimenting with it in order to figure out its range and capturing capabilities. The fact is you will need a good recording in order for you to produce a good mix. The quality of the vocals will be decided during this stage. Mixing will not fix a badly recorded composition, so get the recording right.
- Compression – think of compression as automatic level control as it was formerly known. Sound engineers will utilize compression in order to ensure that they maintain the same volume within the vocal. Most of the times a vocal recording will have parts that will be louder than others. The compression stage in mixing will be done in order to make there’s a less drastic volume difference between the loud and quieter parts, this is to ensure that all the lyrics are properly audible and are not buried within the mix.
- Noise Reduction – this is the process of removing noise from the audio recording, sometimes editing can create clicks, the sound engineer will listen for these and other types of noise like background noise in the room that may appear between pauses, pops and other noise present in the room whilst recording. A cleaner recording will be required in order to continue the mixing process. Sound engineers might also use this time to fix the timing of some vocals and cut out the breaths in some instances.
- Pitch Correction – in this stage of mixing, the individual notes of a vocal performance are adjusted to match the key of the song. This process is most utilized when there is some singing involved in the song; it’s very common even for skilled singers to miss a note every now and then. On the other hand, for genres like Rap, the vocals don’t always need pitch correction because most of the time the rapper is not following the key of the song, they are simply rapping the words.
- Gain staging – simply put, gain staging is setting or managing the volume levels of the individual recorded audio tracks in a project to achieve the required target volume that will reduce the overall noise and the distortion. This process in mixing is basically the stage at which the volume levels will be controlled and optimized. I take a considerable amount of time when doing this because the clarity of the mix is what I’m looking to maximize here.
- EQ – Equalization is one of the most important steps in mixing, I’d say that EQ is my main tool during a mixing session because individual vocals will be able to sound good on their own. In essence, an EQ will perform two major tasks, the first is its ability to boost the high end, low end and the midrange of a vocal or any other recorded audio, the second task is being able to make room for all individual audio elements in the mix, for example you can EQ a lead synth that has over powering low end frequencies in order for you to make space for bass in the mix.
- De-esseing – this process is most applicable to vocal editing, and is aimed at reducing or controlling high frequency sounds in a vocal in order to improving its quality and in turn, the overall listening experience, but don’t confuse De esseing with Equalization. De esseing is for high frequency sounds that produce some sort of hiss sound or sibilance usually made from the use of words that have the letters J, S, F, X, SH, T or Z. Great examples of such words would be fist, piece and hiss.
This process in your production will begin after you are satisfied and confident that you have a great or good enough mix. Here are some of the steps that will be done in the process of mastering:
Checking the Mix:
This is done to make sure that the mix is ready for mastering; this process will include the engineer checking to see if there are any problems in the mix. If any problems are found within the mix then the engineer will go back to the mixing process in order to resolve the problem. It is in this stage that you ask yourself questions like:
Does the mix sound too dull?
Are the vocals sticking out or are they being covered up in the mix?
Does the mix sound muddy?
These and many other technical questions will be asked during this process, the song will be tested on a variety of sound systems too in order for the engineer to form a bias because what may sound too muddy on one sound system, may sound too bright on another sound system.
After making sure that the mix is fine, the engineer will import commercial tracks into the mastering session to use as a reference for what a song should sound like once it is mastered and ready for release.
Most of the time the artist will give the mastering engineer the reference tracks, and it is the job of the engineer to try as much as possible to get the song to sound as good as the reference tracks.
The sole purpose of the reference tracks for the artists is to be able to elaborate the sound they are going for much easier.
One of the aims of mastering is to ensure that the track is loud enough but not too loud and not too quiet either, this is the point of having a reference track because it will direct and provide a reference to the mastering engineer when enhancing the loudness of the track.
Nowadays most people release music on streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer and many others. Music uploaded on these services will often be used as the perfect road map of how a standard mastered song should sound like.
Sound engineers will use compression, limiting and/or clipping plugins to moderate the loudness of a track.
Sound Quality Comparison
Usually after you’re done mastering your track, you will have to play it on different devices and speakers and check for any mistakes or discrepancies that you may hear. Sound systems are designed different and will produce sound differently, this makes sound quality comparison using your song an essential step in mastering.
Some equalization will also be utilized to balance the low, mid, high frequencies of the song.
Mixing is not perfect, sometimes a mix will be too bright or too muddy, in these cases EQ is utilized.
Sweetening the Mix
This will be the last step in the mastering process most of the times. Sweetening the mix will be done to improve the song in subtle ways that will make the song interesting at any moment hence improving the listening experience of the end user.
People listen to music to be moved or to be taken on a journey and they will be looking for that in your song; hence the average listener is often times put into consideration when adding any additional touches or nuances to improve and sweeten the song. Sweetening can be as subtle as inserting a bird chirp sound effect in your song to support the content of the song.
Both mixing and mastering are involving processes, mixing has to be done first before the mastering can begin. Mastering is only to make the song sound better and have it ready for release.