Often when musicians venture into the world of recording the terms ‘mixing’ and ‘mastering’ can be somewhat unfamiliar. Although many people don’t admit it they might not be familiar with these terms or what they actually mean in relation to the final outcome of their songs. I often work with clients that don’t have a clear understanding of the difference between these two services and so get the terms muddled up.
I often hear bands & artists say things like “We recorded in our garage and we just have to get the tracks mastered before releasing them” only to play me a project that quite clearly needs to be mixed before it’s ready for the mastering stage. Below some of the key differences between ‘mixing’ and ‘mastering’ have been highlighted.
Mixing is when individual tracks have been recorded i.e. the vocal tracks (lead vocal, backing vocal etc.) The guitar, drum tracks and so on and balancing and treating these individual components, preparing them to be ‘bounced’ or ‘mixed down’ into a single stereo file.
Mastering is the process of adjusting a single stereo track so that it aligns with characteristics of commercially released music, so that consistent volume is heard with different songs when listened to on the radio etc., this more often than not involves making songs louder in the mastering stage. Essentially, mastering is the final finishing step before a song is released, it has limited ability to change the actual sound as you are only treating a stereo file it’s self.
A mix on the other hand is a much more artistic endeavor than mastering, and it can have a massive impact on the final sound of a song. Mixing is the use of tools such as equalization, compression and volume levels to balance the individual elements and instruments in a way that serve the narrative and energy of a song.
Many artists who are starting out or have recorded themselves at home aren’t aware what’s possible through the art of mixing and therefore don’t understand the value of what a mix can do, it is not just a straight balance of elements. When a song is well constructed in the mixing stage, a sense of space and ambience can be created, if that is what the song requires. On the other hand, using reverbs and delays can add weight and punch to a track through skillful use or compression. A well-constructed mix will also use techniques and effects, to create a sense of excitement and energy in a song.
A good mix can take a track to the next level by giving it the sound quality to make it comparable to big commercially released tracks already on the charts. All the big players in the music industry know the importance of a good mix which is why commercially released artists (and labels) almost always send work off to be mixed (and mastered) by a qualified professional mix engineer.