Just think of it this way… If we think of our tracks as ingredients, then mixing is the process of combining those tracks to create our “dish”. If we think of our mix as our dish, then mastering is the process of “plating” that dish to serve to our guests. Does that make sense?
Once you understand the difference between mixing and mastering, you’ll be one step closer to achieving BOTH of those tasks on your own. That’s right! You’ll realize that it’s not as difficult as everyone makes it out to be.
I’ll also be teaching you about the tools you’ll be needing for the job.
Believe it or not, it only takes THREE tools to mix your tracks!
- Understanding the mixing process
- Understanding the mastering process
- The tools/plug-ins used for mixing
- The tools/plug-ins used for mastering
- Summary: The difference between mixing and mastering
Understanding the mixing process
After the recording/tracking stage, you’ll have one or MANY tracks to deal with.
The problem is we need to squeeze LOTS of instruments into our relatively tiny speakers…
In other words, the mixing stage is all about “fitting the pieces of the puzzle”. If you were to simply leave everything “as is”, you’d realize that your performance would sound nothing like it sounded when you recorded it.
Here are some examples:
The mixing process’s main objective is to RECREATE that original performance.
The only way to achieve that is to BALANCE these components:
The volume faders take care of our amplitude/volume, but what about the rest?
We’ll be talking more about the tools used for mixing in the following sections. I just wanted to introduce you to these core concepts of mixing before moving on.
The final component of mixing I want to bring up is “space/room”.
That’ll be used to recreate/simulate the space we recorded in (or wanted to record in).
One of the tools we’ll be working with is also located on our mixing bus and is called “panning”. That’s how we decide how much signal is sent to the left/right speakers. We’ll be talking about the other tool used for space/room in another section.
Now, let’s move on to mastering!
Understanding the mastering process
Ideally, your mix should sound 99% of the way you want it to. The mastering stage isn’t supposed to make your mix sound “better”, although it will ENHANCE it.
One of the most important aspects of mastering is adhering to loudness standards.
I actually wrote an entire article on the subject if you’re interested in learning more (read it here)!
Another way to think of mastering is to think of your entire mix as one track and you’re basically “mixing” that track with itself. That’s because we’re using lots of the same tools/plug-ins as the mixing process for mastering, but there are some newcomers…
The only thing you need to remember about mastering is that it’s all about SUBTLETY.
It’s like adding the icing on top of the cake, it shouldn’t sound drastically different than the mix.
Here’s the final (mastered) version of our previous examples:
When mastering, your main objective is to get the mix (or mixes) ready for distribution. Knowing which medium (CD, Vinyl, etc…) and/or platform (Spotify, Apple, etc…) is essential because you’ll need to optimize the project for the chosen technology.
To achieve that, you need to FOCUS on these aspects of your mix:
- Continuity (between mixes in the same album/release)
That last one is often overlooked, but it’s actually one of the most important aspects of mastering. Each song on any given album needs to sound like it belongs there.
Do you see what I’m talking about?
I hope that you now understand the difference between mixing and mastering. If not, then perhaps the following sections on the tools/plug-ins used for both will provide more clarity.
The tools/plug-ins used for mixing
Remember when I said mixing only requires THREE tools/plug-ins? I wasn’t kidding!
Now, don’t get me wrong… There are obviously WAY more tools that you can use…
- Noise Gate
The list goes on, but the first three tools I mentioned are the STAPLES. What that means is that you ABSOLUTELY need them to mix your tracks.
EQ takes care of balancing frequencies.
The compressor takes care of balancing dynamics.
Of course, you’ll also be equipped with the “volume fader” and “panning” on your mixing bus. The reverb is the second tool we use to recreate/create an acoustical space.
It might not be necessary on EVERY track, but usually a good idea on electric guitar tracks.
Another important tool (or technique) I personally use for the mixing stage is called “sub-mixing”. Basically, you’re routing your tracks to another bus BEFORE that one is sent to the master.
It’ll allow you to further organize/refine your mix into different sections.
For example, I usually group all my drums, rhythm guitars and keyboards into their own respective sub-mixes.
Okay, so that pretty much covers mixing. What about mastering?
The tools/plug-ins used for mastering
The basic tools you’ll need to be familiar with for mastering are…
- Loudness Meter
If you were paying attention, we basically added TWO new tools.
I also personally use a multiband compressor in addition to the standard compressor.
We can also consider the “limiter” as another type of compressor, but its job is basically to get our mix loud enough WITHOUT clipping.
The “loudness meter” is used to measure our mix’s loudness (in loudness units “LUFS”).
Everyone’s biggest struggle when it comes to mastering is getting the mix as loud as possible without completely ruining it.
If you get it LOUD, it’ll distort and you’ll sacrifice most of your dynamic range.
If it’s too QUIET, your track won’t be as “attractive” and some parts may not be heard.
I won’t get into the details here, as I mentioned earlier, you can read THIS article if you’re interested in learning more about loudness. Just keep in mind that loudness ISN’T the same thing as volume. Okay?
On that note, the tools/plug-ins used for mastering are mainly used to control loudness and make any final corrections before shipping out the album/single.
I hope that makes complete sense now because we’re done!
Maybe one last summary will do the trick…
Summary: The difference between mixing and mastering
The mixing process is all about BALANCING your individual tracks/recordings by adjusting these FOUR fundamental components…
The mastering process is all about FINALIZING the mix (or mixes) for distribution by FOCUSING on these TWO components…
- Continuity (between individual mixes)
Although the tools we use for mixing and mastering are similar, the REASONS we use them for aren’t necessarily the same.
If you want to mix, you’ll need:
If you want to master, you’ll need:
- EQ (linear is preferable)
- Compressor (regular and multiband)
- Loudness Meter
After reading through all this, the difference between mixing and mastering should now be CRYSTAL CLEAR. It’s literally like comparing the cooking stage to the plating stage.
If you prefer a better analogy… Mixing is like blending your ingredients to make a smoothie.
Mastering is like pouring those ingredients in the PERFECT glassware.
If that didn’t make much sense, just think of the glassware as the streaming service and/or physical medium (CD, Vinyl, etc…).
And remember, when you serve drinks to your guests… YOU FILL IT UP TO THE TOP!!
That’s my analogy for LOUDNESS!! Okay, I’m done…
I hope this article answered your question. Please let us know what you thought in the comments and if you’re looking for someone to teach you how to mix and master your own music, I’d be more than happy to work with you 1-on-1.
You can schedule your mixing and mastering lesson HERE.