As a professional mixing engineer, this question gets brought up time and time again by many of my clients. Recording artists and managers often confuse mixing and mastering, thinking that they are the same thing when they are actually two very different processes in an album’s creative cycle. Each of which also affect the sonic outcome of a record differently.

What is mixing?

Mixing is the process of blending each of the individual audio elements (guitar, bass, kick drum, etc) of a song into one cohesive stereo mix track. This process occurs after the song has been recorded and all of the takes have been finalized.

Audio mixing generally involves volume and panning manipulation, and can also involve applying a variety of processing such as EQ, compression, de-essing, adding creative effects and more to individual or groups of tracks to help sculpt them so they fit better together. It often involves cleaning up a lot of sounds and balancing or removing unwanted frequencies from them.

Essentially, mixing is what determines how the song will sound as a whole and be presented to the end listener.

What is mastering?

Mastering is the final process in audio post-production that follows mixing. This is where the final stereo mix is enhanced to sound louder, clearer, fuller, and punchier so it can compete with other major label records that have been released. Mastering engineers and audio mastering services are essentially adding the final polish to a track or album before release.

When recording an album, mastering is applied after all of the songs are mixed to ensure each song is consistently as loud as the song before and/or after it. Other considerations, such as the gaps of silence between songs, are also decided during the song mastering process.

Unlike mixing, where processes like EQ and compression are applied to each of the individual elements of a song, mastering has these processes applied to the whole track (the single final stereo mix file). Any processing applied during mastering will ultimately affect every element of the song as a whole. For example, a boost in the low end will help the 808 and kick hit harder, but can also create mud in the synths and cause a mix to sound cloudy.

When mastering, you shouldn’t be looking to correct errors or volume balances between instruments. While a mastering engineer can help correct some issues at the macro level, fixing balances like that is better completed in the mix phase. This is to ensure the mastering engineer can do his job, which is to focus on enhancing what’s there and make the song sound bigger, fuller and more present.

Mixing Vs. Mastering

The biggest difference between mixing and mastering is when they happen in the cycle of a song and how they are applied and affect the overall sound..

Mixing involves techniques and processes being applied to each individual element of the song (where applicable) to glue the song together, making it sound cohesive and well-blended on its own. When looking for audio mixing services, it’s important to find a mixing engineer that understands your genre and has a great track-record of mixing music that you like.

Mastering takes that final mix, and uses similar techniques and processes applied to the overall track (as opposed to the individual sounds) to make it louder, cleaner, fuller and punchier so it can compete with other industry records and fit in as part of an album. Mastering is more of a subtle art about enhancing what’s already there and not overdoing it.

When should you master a song?

If you’re simply recording a demo, the song doesn’t need to be mastered. It could help for listenability, but it shouldn’t determine whether that demo is a success since chances are you will be re-recording, re-mixing and ultimately re-mastering it later. A demo’s sole purpose is to display the initial skeleton idea of a song so you can expand on it later.

However, if you’re about to professionally release a song to the world, I’d strongly recommend that you master it. Mastering your music ensures that it translates well on multiple devices such as laptops, ipod earbuds, and bigger speaker setups. It’ll also help your music appear louder and have greater impact to the listener overall.

If you’re looking for an engineer to work with, I offer both audio mixing and mastering services to clients around the world. For more information on how we can work together, please visit Services.