Mixing vs Mastering

"Wait, I thought mixing and mastering were the same thing?" "I just recorded a song, do I need to get it mixed, or do I need to get it mastered?" "Why do you charge so much more for mixing than mastering?" It's not uncommon for me to get questions like these when I'm working with musicians that are new to the recording process, so I wanted to try to clear some of that up.

Here's the simplest way I can describe the difference: Mixing is the process of taking all the parts that were recorded for one song and making them sound good together. Mastering is the process of taking all the songs on an album and making them sound good together. They are different and you do need both.

Once upon a time, back in the analog days, the need for the different steps was more clear. Musicians would come into the studio and record onto multi-track analog tape. The mixing engineer would then mix the multi-track down to a two track tape (one track for left and one track for right to make it stereo.) But of course in those days people listened to music on record players and not large reel to reel tape machines, so it was another engineers job to take all the tapes for an album and transfer them to vinyl. Those guys were the original mastering engineers. Today, because you can record something on your laptop (or even phone) and then quickly export an mp3 and upload to Sound Cloud the distinction between each step is less clear. 

So now you're probably thinking "Okay that sounds cool man, but I'm not getting my album pressed to vinyl" or "but I'm only doing a single not an album, so do I still need mastering?" Yes. Mastering is still an important step, the role has changed slightly with the advent of digital recording. In addition to making sure an album sounds good all the way through, the main role of mastering these days is to make the mixes louder and to add a final polish to the mix. 

Now let's break it down a little further to help you understand what can be accomplished in each step and what you need for your project:

Mixing:

Mixing is the stage where the most work can be done to improve the sound of a recording. This is because, as opposed to mastering, I have access to each part of the song and I can process and balance everything separately.  Mixing would be the right thing to do if you're looking for changes like these:

  • "Can you make the vocal cut through the guitars?"
  • "Everything seems kinda muddy, can you make it sound clearer?"
  • "The drums seem kinda small, can you make them bigger?"
  • "I want a bunch of cool delays and reverbs on the vocals"
  • "I want the second chorus of the song to hit harder and be more exciting"
  • "The lead guitar should be more prominent in the bridge but the rhythm guitar is covering it up."
  • "The vocals don't feel like they're 'sitting right' with the rest of the track"
  • "The acoustic guitar track seems too boomy"
  • "I recorded myself at home and it sounds okay but I don't really know what I'm doing and want to take it to the next level"

Here's what a typical mix session for a full band looks like in Pro Tools:

 
Mixing.jpg
 

As you can see in the main part of the window there's a bunch of tracks. Starting from the top there's the drums (grey,) bass (blue,) guitars (orange/red,) keys (green,) and vocals (pink/purple.) In addition there's some extra tracks you're not seeing that have to do with effects like delays and reverbs, parallel processing, and mix buses. On the smaller left side part of the window you can see a bunch of little grey dots on each track. Those are all my effects and processing for each track.

So if you want to have your song mixed you'll need to be able to send me individual audio files for each part like you see above. You don't have to use Pro Tools in order for me to be able to mix your song, you can export tracks like that from any software. (Send me an email if you need help.)

Mastering:

Like I mentioned above mastering is mainly final polishing. This stage is mainly about small adjustments and improvements. If you're looking for a huge night-and-day difference or major overhaul the song should probably be remixed. In mastering I'll make sure that all the songs sound good together, they're all loud enough to be played alongside other professional recordings, and I'll make sure that the song will sound good on a variety of speakers. Mastering would be the right choice for you if you've already spent a lot of time mixing the song yourself or had it mixed by another engineer and are happy with the sound overall but looking for changes like these:

  • "The mix sounds great, I just think it needs to sound more full in the low end"
  • "Overall the balance seems good, but some of the highs are a little harsh"
  • "My song isn't quite as loud as other commercial releases, can you help me with that?"
  • "I think the mix is like 90% of the way there, but I just want to see if you can get a little more clarity and energy out of it"
  • "My mixes sound good in my studio, but I don't have very good monitors or a well treated room so I just want a pro to double check it and make sure I didn't miss anything" 
  • "I had this song mixed at another studio and I like what that engineer did, but it seems a little dull so I want it a little brighter"

Here's what a typical album mastering session looks like in Pro Tools:

 
 

As you can see this is much simpler than the mix. There's one stereo track for each song on the EP. The mixes were probably 95% of the way there, so I just applied some subtle compression, EQ, and final limiting to make sure everything sounded nice and even across the EP. They're also laid out from left to right like that so that I can adjust the spacing and transition between the songs on the EP. Sometimes a large gap is nice at the end of a song if the next song has a different feel, sometimes a much smaller gap is appropriate if you want to keep the energy moving. In this step I can even have the songs overlap just a little bit if you want the next song to start while a guitar is fading out from the previous song.

Here's what a mastering session might look like if it's only a single instead of an EP and there's more work to be done:

 
Single Mastering.jpg
 

"You said this was for a single but there's three tracks there!" Yes, but as you can see all the waveforms are identical. In order to dive deeper and make more adjustments to the sound I duplicated the track a couple times in order to do something called mid/side processing and parallel processing. (The previous EP example didn't require that special treatment since the mixes sounded better to start with, but I will use mid/side and parallel processing on full albums as well if I think it will help.) Don't worry about that too much, but what's important to see here is that even though it's just a single and not a full album there's still more work that can be done and mastering is still important. 

So if you want to have your single or EP mastered you just need to send a single stereo audio file for each song.

If you compare the mastering images and the mixing image you can probably understand the difference in price a little better as well. Typically mastering takes me about 1 hour per song and mixing normally takes me about 1 day per song.

 

Hopefully this all makes sense now, but wait there's one more thing...

 
 

Stem Mastering:

Stem mastering is a fairly newer process that sort of lives in the space between mixing and mastering. Stems are basically sub groups of a mix, for example: All the drums, all the guitars, bass, all the vocals. By mastering stems instead of the full mix the mastering engineer has a little more control than typical mastering, but it's not like starting from scratch. Working with stems keeps the main mix intact but lets the mastering engineer adjust things that they normally would not be able to. For example if the mastering engineer thought "this mix sounds great, but all the vocals should just be a little louder," or "the drums sound good but I want a little more low end in the kick drum but not the bass guitar" these could be addressed in a stem master. Some engineers don't like stem mastering, but I find that it can be a great solution in these cases:

  • When the mix is pretty close but not as good as it could be.
  • When a song should be re-mixed but the client doesn't have the budget it can be better than nothing.
  • When the songs across an album are really inconsistent stem mastering can help get them closer by having more control over the balance of instruments.

Here's what a typical stem mastering session looks like in Pro Tools:

 
 

So in this example I was sent stems for drums, bass, guitars, vocals, and effects (reverbs/delays.) The engineer who mixed the song did a good job, but we felt like the drums could be punchier and heavier and the guitar tone/general clarity could be improved in addition to normal mastering.

 

Hopefully this post clears up some of the confusion between the steps and can help you decide what you need from me to make the most of your music.

 

-Peter Duff

Head Engineer