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When you're mixing you're trying to make your music sound the best it can possibly be--so why would you need mastering?

Music production is all about levels. We’re talking about the level of tracks against one another, channel volume and how loud music sounds. Mixing and Mastering are all about achieving the best possible levels for your type of music but they come at it in completely different ways and require different skills to do it well.

There’s another way to look at “levels” and that’s to do with levels of professionalism. Some people are able to pay money for great studios with talented Sound Engineers and then engage the services of a Mastering Engineer to add their magic onto the final product. However, many of us are not in a position to do that and are hoping to do it ourselves as well as we can through the magic of software. Neither of these is more valid than the other, we all find ourselves at different levels and it’s important to be able to work with what we’ve got rather than worry about not being able to afford the best.

To make the best of our music it’s helpful to understand how mixing and mastering differ and to a sense as to why they are both important in making your music the best it can possibly be.

What Is Mixing?

Studio One mastering interface

Mixing is the bringing together of the individual musical elements of your song. It’s a creative process where use you level, panning and effects to craft your finished track.

When making music you are likely to record a number of different tracks: that could be guitar, bass, vocals, synthesizers, instruments and probably several tracks of drums. These will exist independently within your DAW enabling you to change the level of each element to get the right “mix” of sound.

You also have the opportunity called panning to position sounds into a stereo space. So if you have two guitars you may want to pan one a bit to the left and the other a bit to the right. The lead vocal will sit well in the middle but backing vocals should be panned slightly one way or another to give them a bit of their own identity.

During the mixing process you might want to add compression and EQ each track to help them find some space in the mix. Compression brings the dynamics closer together whereas EQ can make sounds brighter or darker. You may want to add reverb to place instruments into a space or use effects like chorus, delay and filtering to add creative changes and interest.

When you’ve finished mixing you create a “mixdown” which is a finished, completed version of your song that you would happily listen to on any music system. Or is it actually finished? Where does the Mastering come in?

What Is Mastering?

Hand on soundboard

Mastering is an additional stage in music production that use to put a final polish on a song. It has a number of uses, some practical and some creative.

In a practical sense mastering prepares your song for its final destination. All musical mediums, whether that’s vinyl, CD, radio or digital streaming have certain requirements to give the music the best possible sound. These will be level, frequency and dynamic requirements. A Mastering Engineer will process your finished mix to achieve the levels required for your chosen destination. This is usually done through compression and EQ which is focused on the whole mix rather than individual tracks.

During this process there’s an opportunity to make some changes to the overall sound of the mix. Maybe it can bring out some certain frequencies, focus the drums or bring up the overall energy of the track.

Surely you would have done everything you need during the mixing?
Quite possibly yes but there’s a difference between trying to make something sound good when mixing and doing it when mastering. The difference is that you have a different set of ears listening to the music. A set of ears that’s not looking to change the mix but is looking to bring out the best in what’s already there.

It’s like baking a cake. You’ve been working on this recipe and have come up with the perfect set of ingredients and you’ve been cooking this thing for just the right amount of time. You are awesome at baking. However, instead of adding the icing yourself you get in a trained artist who only ever does icing. They bring a fresh perspective and some fantastic skills that elevates the cake to a work of art. That’s mastering.

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Take It from a Mastering Engineer....

Grammy-winning Mastering Engineer Paul Blakemore was kind enough to answer some of the most commonly-asked questions we see about mastering. With more than 40 years of experience in engineering and over 600 credits on Allmusic.com, Blakemore is currently staff Mastering Engineer for Concord Music. In this role, he masters new releases as well as catalogue albums for labels like Concord, Fantasy Records, Loma Vista Recordings, Rounder Records, and Stax. Here’s what he had to say.

What do Mastering Engineers do?

Paul Blakemore (Manchester Orchestra, Lindsey Stirling, Jaco Pastorius)

Mastering Engineers finish both music recordings and other types of sound recordings. This involves making both aesthetic changes and technical formatting for release. Let’s say you’re doing a music recording–because of all the variables that are inherent in trying to record and produce a song, sometimes the mix is not as polished or as emotionally impactful as it could be. The Mastering Engineer–in consultation with the artist, the Producer, and the Mixing Engineer–figures out how to make it the best that it can be.

In the case of an album or an EP where there are multiple songs, frequently those are recorded at different times in different places, and so there’s not a uniformity in terms of presentation. The Mastering Engineer figures out all these little musical and sonic puzzles and ties the whole thing together so that when you listen to it, it feels like it’s “of a piece.”


What happens during the mastering process?

Paul Blakemore (Manchester Orchestra, Lindsey Stirling, Jaco Pastorius)

Even though the goal is a fairly simple one of either improving or intensifying the emotional effect of the music, or tying multiple songs together, the kinds of processes that are involved in mastering are varied. There’s an infinite number of possibilities ranging from using digital tools like plugins, outboard analog gear, outboard digital gear, or a combination.

The types of sonic adjustments range from doing something as simple as matching the volumes of each song, to something more complex like changing the dynamic range of each song for a more intense presentation. Even beyond that, you can do extremely fine-tuned tone control, which is called EQ or equalization, to change the spectral distribution from very low bass to high treble to make the songs match better or to have the optimum kind of sound quality.

On an even deeper level, there are processes that you can do which will affect your emotional response to the music, and these involve using very subtle kinds of distortion. A lot of people think of distortion just in terms of the really extreme kinds of distortions like you would get from a distortion pedal for a guitar. But really, distortion is making any kind of change to the sound from what was originally there. Subtle changes in harmonic distortion, modulation noise, noise floor, even noise shaping of dither can affect the way the music feels emotionally.

In the processes of both mixing and mastering, you frequently intentionally distort the sound to present a feeling in a more intense way than if you were to just put a microphone on a Singer and let them sing the song. That’s why people love all different kinds of instruments and all different kinds of amplifiers. Those different timbres and combinations of timbres of sound have different emotional effects on the listener.


How long does it take to master a track?

Paul Blakemore (Manchester Orchestra, Lindsey Stirling, Jaco Pastorius)

It can take as little as a half-hour to do a single track, but if there’s something that really could be improved upon, sometimes it takes experimenting with different processes in order to find either the one or the combination that really achieves what you’re imagining it could be. I’ve spent as little as a half-hour on a song and as much as a full day on a song.


Anything else you think people interested in mastering should know about?

Paul Blakemore (Manchester Orchestra, Lindsey Stirling, Jaco Pastorius)

I think that in order to become a successful Mastering Engineer, you need to have participated in all the other processes of creating music before you attempt mastering. I think it’s extremely important to have played at least one musical instrument, or sung, or have sung and played. It’s very important to also learn how to make recordings and learn all the different kinds of techniques that are used to make recordings because Mastering Engineers are mostly people with a huge amount of experience in all those things and they bring the full range of knowledge to the task of mastering.

For example, in my career, I was first a performing musician, and I studied music in college. Then in 1976 with my first full-time audio job, I did studio design and installation work. I learned all the technical processes that are involved in studio systems and interfacing different types of gear.

The third step was actually becoming a Recording Engineer and making a whole bunch of different kinds of recordings of a whole bunch of different kinds of music ranging from Rock to Jazz to Acoustic Americana to Classical. I even did a significant amount of work in audio for ethnomusicology. I didn’t get into mastering until I had about 25 years of experience under my belt.

Finally, I think that mastering work is a great career. There is something new and different every day. There is constantly new music to learn, new equipment and techniques, new delivery formats. Many Mastering Engineers work until very late in life, well into their 70s and even 80s!

Can You Mix and Master Yourself?

Yes, you can, but if you don’t have to then don’t. If you have the budget to send your finished tracks to a Mastering Engineer then you absolutely should do that. Your music will come back sounding better than when it left and you already thought it sounded great. It’s not just their ears but it’s the quality of the gear they run it through bringing in warmth and clarity and a polished vibe that is always worth it.

However, it does cost some serious cash and there are many bits of mastering software out there that will help you achieve similar mastering results if you simply don’t have the budget.

Here Are My Tips for DIY Mastering:

  • Most DAWs come with plugins that can be used for mastering but ideally use a different piece of software to the one you mixed in. PreSonus Studio One has an excellent Mastering side to their software. Or check out software such as Izotope Ozone or IK Multimedia T-Racks.
  • Come back to it a day later – don’t try to master right after finishing the track. Give yourself some space so that your ears are fresher and less fatigued.
  • Listen to your music in different places like in the car, on earbuds, headphones and speakers and make a note of what stands out.
  • Give it a go, make sure you hit the levels required by the destination and accept that it’s not going to be perfect.

For perfection talk to a Mastering Engineer.

Izotope Ozone
IK Multimedia
PreSonus

Mastering Engineer Paul Blakemore
Paul Blakemore

Paul Blakemore is a Grammy-winning Audio Engineer with over 40 years of full-time experience in a wide range of musical styles including Americana, blues, bluegrass, classical, jazz, Latin jazz, pop, and rock.

Paul has over 500 verified album credits on Allmusic.com. He has also worked in national radio and television audio, surround sound design for film, and dialog recording/replacement work for feature films and episodic television, including Enemy of the State (Will Smith), The Chamber (Gene Hackman), and others.

Before becoming a full-time Audio Engineer in the mid 1970s, Blakemore was a professional musician in the Austin, TX, scene. He studied applied percussion at the University of Texas, Austin, and recording techniques at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY. He has taught college-level recording courses at the Cleveland Institute of Music, SUNY Fredonia, University of Colorado Denver, and University of Miami. He has been speaker for the Audio Engineering Society convention in New York, and also the Full Sail recording school in Orlando, FL. Blakemore has resided in Cleveland, OH, since 2000.

He is currently staff Mastering Engineer for Concord Bicycle Music, the largest independent music company in North America with main offices in Beverly Hills, CA, which is comprised of 30 active and catalog record labels plus music publishing. He does both new release mastering and catalog album remastering and audio restoration for record labels including Concord Jazz, Concord Records, Fantasy, Loma Vista, Original Jazz Classics (Pablo, Riverside and Milestone), Prestige, Razor & Tie, Rounder, Sugar Hill, Stax, Telarc, Vanguard, VeeJay, and Wind Up Records.

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