What is the difference between mixing & mastering?
Not all musicians are heavily into the technical aspects of recording and anyone can be forgiven for being a little confused about the difference between mixing and mastering, but hopefully this little guide will clear things up and show you just how important they both are in making sure your finished product lives up to its potential.
Let’s start with mixing. The art of mixing is about creating the perfect balance of all elements of a track – essentially the instruments and vocals if there are any. Paul Miles at Select Recording Studios says that “…the job of a mixing engineer is to carve out the best balance in terms of volume, dynamics, frequencies and space and nothing should feel clunky or out of place.”
A properly mixed track should leave no one instrument feeling overly loud or aggressive compared to the others unless this is the desired impact. Neither should any instrument cover over another in terms of frequency. There is an art to mixing and some transients should sound closer to the listener than others, while after the engineer has created the right balance they must then move onto the desired emotional impact of the track. For a death metal song this will often involve creating an atmosphere of pervasive grimness or brutality, while an ambient track might need to pull the listener into a calm head-space, with a light, floaty sound, for instance. A huge percentage of the sound of a track is directly created by the mix – through which myriad subtle changes come together to make a whole raft of improvements.
The engineer’s job has become trickier over time, with the potential for minute improvements being increased year on year as technological advancements are made and a lot of mixing and mastering can be done online these days. So we could say ¾ of a finished track owes its prowess to mixing. The other ¼ is a result of professional mastering. A ¼ that is just as vital and whose absence will lead to a thoroughly unprofessional, unfinished work.
Mastering begins only once the final mix is created. The mixing engineer will pass the finished mix on for the mastering engineer to work on. But what is mastering? To understand what mastering is and why it is important let’s look at the goals of successful mastering. They are as follows:
- To improve sound quality
- To increase the volume of the mix
- To make the track sound better on all speakers and systems
To achieve these goals mastering engineers use similar methods as mixing engineers – in terms of volume, equalisers and compression, but rather than focus on individual elements they work on the entire mix at once, which requires a deft hand. In addition, the mastering engineer will make use of the limiter, which works on the volume of the track as well as the perception of that volume. Limiters serve to make the track feel louder than it is as well as sound better overall. Finally, think of the mastering process as a catch-all edit. The mastering engineer might pick up on something the mixer has missed.