We frequently come across misconceptions about mixing and mastering. The two processes are often confused so I thought I’d take a moment to explain how we approach the two very different undertakings.
Once a band or artist is done tracking and overdubbing the parts of a song, an engineer will mix it. This is the time when all the levels of all the individual parts (instrumentals, vocals, etc) are adjusted up and down to find the perfect mix. Reverbs are added, where necessary. Vocals are compressed if they pop out at certain points. Bum notes are muted, if they distract.
Mixing is essential. Getting the right mix can make or break a song. You don’t want everything loud. And you don’t want everything soft. Some parts you want quiet, and others you want to pop. You want to be able to hear everything cohesively as one complete piece, while also being able to discern the individual parts and create a ride through the song that carries the listener through varying ups and downs, ins and outs.
Beyond cleaning up the sound on a technical level, mixing can also be a crucial creative step, which is why one mix (or re-mix) can have a completely different feel and sound than another. Mixing can be a time to move parts of the song around, consider all the variables, and use the tools of the studio to add another layer on top of the recorded tracks. With some artists, the engineer or producer mixing the song is like an additional member of the band in terms of creative input.
Mastering is what happens when you are done mixing. It’s a process to tweak all the songs of a record so they jibe as a whole. It’s a subtle process and takes time and concentration on many different sound sources. The process is not that far from that of mixing, but it’s more global. The goal is to refine the overall sound of each song so that the album works as a unit and sounds more cohesive and pleasurable overall.
Mastering isn’t always essential, most notably for a single, depending on who your audience is and where it’s being played. Many times mastering can muddy up a record. It can make certain elements of a song harder to hear when the author of that song had different intentions. That said, mastering often has benefits and can add shine and a feeling of completion and unity to a record.
Simply put, mixing is bringing the individual parts of a song together to work as one. Mastering is bringing the individual songs of an album together to work as one. Mixing is something that should always be planned and budgeted for whereas whether to master is a decision that should be made on a case-by-case basis. Above all, there is an artistry to both processes and it’s important to choose an engineer who not only knows his/her tools, but understands the artist’s creative vision and the final goals for the album and knows how to use his/her tools and ears to achieve them.