Mixing and Mastering: What’s the Difference? - Careers in Music
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Mixing and Mastering: What’s the Difference Between Them and Why Is It Important?

Author: Matty Harris

Date: August 22, 2018

Reads: 2,593

Matty Harris is a music producer, mixing and mastering engineer. He attended Berklee College of Music where he studied Music Production and Engineering. He has worked on countless records with such artists as Kelly Clarkson, Sammy Adams, A$AP Rocky, Logic, Lil Yachty, Cousin Stizz, Cam Meekins, Just Juice, Action Bronson, Danny Brown, Fat Joe, Styles P, and La Coka Nostra.

For a new artist, the recording process can be very overwhelming. You need to write the songs, then record them.

Some of you might have friends who can record you at their home studio while others might have to go to a professional studio and spend quite a bit of money. Just when you think the process is over, people tell you that you need to get your songs mixed and mastered — and that’s going to cost you as much or more than the recording process.

Sometimes the person mixing your song can master your song. However, if the budget allows, it’s good to get the song mixed and mastered by separate Engineers. So what is mixing and mastering and why is it important?

Let’s dive in.

What’s the difference between mixing and mastering? We’ll take a look at:

  • Levels and panning
  • Compression and EQ
  • Reverb and effects
  • What mastering means
  • Hiring a professional Mixing or Mastering Engineer
  • Why mixing and mastering matter

What Is Mixing?

When you write and record a song, you should have every instrument and vocal on its own separate channel. For example, a basic song could have one track for guitar, one for lead vocals and one more for background vocals. Once this is done, you are ready to start the mixing process. Let’s break this down into three steps.

1. Levels and Panning

The most fundamental principle of mixing is levels and panning. During this process, you can make the vocal a bit louder than the guitar, and set the panning, so it resembles a stage. For example, you can pan the guitar a bit to the right and keep the singer panned in the middle.

2. Compression and EQ

Compression can bring the dynamics of a performance together, whereas EQ can make the source sound brighter or darker. So if the singer is singing loud at times and soft at others, compression can bring the difference between the two closer. If the guitar sounds muddy, you can use EQ to brighten it up.

3. Reverb and Effects

Reverb and other effects can bring a song to life. You can use reverb plugins to make the singer sound like she’s singing in a small room or a huge hall. This tends to be the most creative part of mixing.

What Is Mastering?

After your song is mixed, you will need to convert it to two channels so it can be played back on all commercial devices. However, it might not be loud enough, and it could still be missing a bit of the sparkle that songs on the radio have. This is where the mastering process comes in.

The Mastering Engineer will add final EQ tweaks, widen the mix if necessary, add light compression to glue the song together, and bring it to a standard loudness so it can compete on the radio. I refer to this process as “the icing on the cake.”

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Should I Hire Someone or Do It Myself?

So now that we have a basic understanding of what the mixing and mastering process is we have to figure out what steps to take next. With modern day computers, you can have a full-fledged mixing studio on your laptop. Many of the DAW workstations come with EQ, Compression, and Effects already built in.

Some people think mixing is pretty straightforward and decide to do it themselves. This can work for some and can be an excellent resource for building a rough mix, but let’s take a look at some of the cons to doing this.

1. Professional Engineers mix for a living.

If my car engine starts blowing smoke I’m going to take it to a mechanic right away and get it fixed. I have no idea what I’m doing when it comes to cars and watching a few YouTube videos is probably not going to help me figure it out. However many people look at mixing and mastering this way.

A proper Mixing and Mastering Engineer has usually gone to school, interned and worked professionally for a number of years. They have mixed hundreds of songs and seen every problem in the book. They know the tricks to make a thin bass sound full and how to bring impact and dynamics to a lousy drum recording. They have usually seen it all.

So when it comes to your song, it might be smart to trust someone who can get the best out of your recording.

2. Fresh ears can bring new possibilities to a song.

Let’s face it — by the time you get to the mixing and mastering process you’ve heard the song over 100 times. You might even be sick of the song, often wondering if the song you thought was a hit a month ago is any good. A professional Mixing Engineer can bring fresh ears, often offering arrangement ideas, such as making the chorus sound more prominent or giving the bridge section new life.

So Why Are Mixing and Mastering Important?

Now that we have gone over what mixing and mastering are and the reasons you should hire a professional, we have one final question. Why are mixing and mastering important?

1. Better Chance of getting a record deal.

As we all know, the music business isn’t quite making money like it once did. Budgets have shrunk, and the labels are looking for ways to help their bottom line. It is a fact that labels like projects that are already developed and ready to go.

If you have a good fan base and an album already mixed and mastered, you have a way better chance of getting signed then the artist who has a fan base but not the album finished. To the label, you are a low-risk investment. All they will have to do is invest some marketing money and release your album. So having your album already mixed and mastered can be very attractive.

2. Stand out from the crowd.

It is now possible to record myself screaming and release it on every major streaming platform for the price of an iced coffee. The point is, many people can release a song worldwide with very little investment. This leaves us with a very crowded market.

The music fan has so many choices of what to listen to and only so many hours in the day. By releasing a well recorded, mixed, and mastered album you can separate your self from the “amateurs” and stand out from the crowd.

3. You only get one shot.

The average artist only releases a handful of songs every few years. That means there is very little music new fans can judge you by — especially if you’re a new artist. So isn’t it in your best interest to give the best you can? Show the fans you care. Give them the best written, recorded, mixed, and mastered song you can.

A well-known Producer once said, “I make every song as if it’s the last song I will ever make.” I treat every song I’m mixing and mastering that way; make sure to treat your songs like that, too.

So now that we are all well-educated musicians on the mixing and mastering process, let’s do it right and become the rockstars that we are meant to be!

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