What’s the Difference Between Mixing and Mastering?

what's the difference between mixing and mastering

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Just like you, I used to ask myself “what’s the difference between mixing and mastering”. To be honest, I can’t even remember why I was even questioning it, but it can be confusing for those of you just getting started with music production. In today’s post, we’ll be answering the question once and for all and going over how you can get started with mixing and/or mastering.

So, what’s the difference between mixing and mastering anyway? We often hear/see them in the same sentence so there must be similarities, right? The only similarity with mixing and mastering (besides the fact that they both involve music) is that they can be accomplished by the same person; the sound engineer. Nowadays, we can also refer to this professional as the mixing and mastering engineer. It’s even quite common that music producers will also mix and master their own music. However, you came here to know the differences, so let’s get started!

Mixing is the art of balancing your different sounds together

Throughout this blog post, I’ll be using photography as my analogy to illustrate my points. So, mixing music is very similar to composing that perfect shot (if you’re not familiar with photography, I’ll explain).

Much like an image, there are certain elements that are more prevalent in certain tracks.

what's the difference between mixing and mastering - mixing console 5

For example, you might see an image with the colour red being emphasized. You may also hear music that emphasizes the guitar part more than the keyboard part. It gets more complex because the sound engineer can also choose to emphasize certain elements of that instrument more than others.

It’s very similar to lighting in photographs; they bring out certain “tones” more than others.

In other words, your song can sound RADICALLY different depending on who mixes it. Mixing music is very subjective which is why you’ve probably heard of remixes. It’s also why certain artists (such as myself) refuse to have their music mixed by anyone else.

However, mixing music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea!

The process isn’t as complicated as it sounds and can be accomplished by anyone. As long as you listen to music and hear YOUR music, you can easily work out the technical details. The only thing holding you back is lack of experience.

The best way to start mixing your music is by studying others’ mixes and emulating them.

If you’re curious about the process itself, we’ll be going over the basics in the next section. If you’re not interested, you’ll probably be more interested in the following section.

Okay, let’s talk about mixing.

How is mixing accomplished and why is it important?

If you’re still asking yourself “what’s the difference between mixing and mastering”, this section will provide much more clarity. You’ll understand the process thoroughly and develop an appreciation for the tools that are used.

Speaking of tools, both mixing and mastering use similar tools, but for different reasons.

what's the difference between mixing and mastering - mixing console 4

I guess the best place to start would be to list the essentials:

  • EQ
  • Compression
  • Expansion
  • Limiting
  • Noise Suppression
  • Saturation
  • Reverb/Delay

That may seem like a lot of tools, but they’re not used all the time.

Starting with EQ, you can pretty much guarantee that you ABSOLUTELY need it. Even if your track sounds great on its own, there’s no way the entire sound will “cut” through the mix. Other sounds will overlap each others’ frequency spectrum and it’ll sound messy.

EQ is usually the first thing in my mixing chain.

Without getting too technical, you basically use it to bring out certain elements of your sound and remove the ones you don’t like. For example, electric guitars are usually “cut” at approximately 60-100 Hz because we don’t need those frequencies.

That’s usually where the bass guitar and/or kick drum sits!

When it comes to compression/expansion, we’re talking about an instrument’s dynamic range. In the mix, the quieter parts are going to get lost because the gap is too big. On the other hand, some parts can actually lack this gap and sound dull/lifeless.

Compression and expansion are used respectively to correct these issues.

They’re basically the same device, but in reverse. Compression reduces the dynamic range and expansion increases it. Like EQ, you’ll most likely need to use these tools or your mix will sound messy and unoptimized.

It’s especially noticeable on percussive instruments!

Now, limiting/noise suppression are basically the extremes of compression/expansion respectively. Limiters stop loud sounds from exceeding a certain threshold while noise suppressors stop quiet sounds from exceeding a certain threshold.

I don’t use these very often, but the limiter is essential when it comes to mastering!

Moving on to saturation, it’s used to add some thickness/warmth to your tracks. I don’t use it often, but it’s really useful to help kick drums and snare drums “cut” through the mix.

Instruments in the low-register usually respond better to saturation.

Lastly, reverb/delay is used to create the sense of space in your mix. Depending on the room you recorded in or DIDN’T record in, you may absolutely need to use reverb on tracks that sound overly “dry”.

Delay (and echo) are similar, but it’s more often used as an effect.

So now that we know how mixing is accomplished, we need to understand its importance.

Without these tools, your mix would sound “untamed”. Each track would be competing for its space in the mix because the speaker can only handle so much information.

It’s like trying to squeeze too much juice down the pipeline; it’ll burst!

In its very essence, mixing is all about allocating space. We’re working with the volume of both harmonics (frequencies) and amplitudes. We even use the mixer to make certain tracks louder than others to create a sense of balance.

That last part is the most subjective part.

If you want your keyboards louder than your guitars, it’s your choice! However, as you get more experience you’ll be basing your decisions on what works best rather than what you THINK is best. As I mentioned earlier, the best way to learn is to study great mixes.

Now, what if you’re not into mixing your own tracks?

Can I start mixing my own tracks, or do I need professionals?

There’s no reason why you couldn’t be mixing your own tracks. Even if it’ll be your first one, everybody needs to start somewhere. However, you may not want to or have the time.

That’s when mixing and mastering professionals come in!

what's the difference between mixing and mastering - mixing and mastering engineer

If you’re releasing 1-2 albums per year and don’t record your own music at home, then you may want to splurge on mixing services (like this one). Having it done online is much more affordable than having it done in someone’s studio, just so you know.

However, if you’re producing 5-10 tracks per month like I am… 

You may want to learn how to do it yourself and save yourself from that ludicrous expense. I’m talking to producers doing TV/Film licensing for the most part. However, you may eventually decide to delegate that task once you start earning more money than you need.

Personally though, I LOVE mixing and mastering my own tracks!

So, I believe everyone has it in them to start mixing their own tracks. If you’ve already got your own recording studio it’ll be completely to your advantage! However, if you’re using other studios, you need to weigh the initial investment of purchasing gear versus getting it done by someone else.

Great, we’re ready to move on to mastering!

Mastering is the art of making your mixes sound bigger

Back to the photography analogy… If mixing is the art of composing your “shot”, then mastering is comparable to the Instagram filter you put on your image to make it look cool (I know, that sounds ridiculous, but it’s how I see/hear it).

In other words, mastering is comparable to the icing on top of the cake.

what's the difference between mixing and mastering - mixing console 3

However, it’s actually much more complicated than that under the hood. For starters, your final mix won’t be loud enough after mixing. One of the main functions of mastering is to get your tracks loud enough (according to current commercial standards).

If you were asking yourself “what’s the difference between mixing and mastering”, that’s a pretty significant one right there.

Here’s another one!

We need to distinguish volume from “loudness”. To increase the volume of your mix, you’d simply need to pull up the volume fader, but that doesn’t make it sound BIGGER.

Here comes the part where we start using our tools to make things sound better.

We’ll be covering those in the next section, but there’s one more element of mastering that is overlooked WAY too much. I’m talking about metadata and if you’re not familiar with the term, it simply refers to information you embed into each track.

For example:

  • Title
  • Album
  • Artist
  • Year
  • Genre
  • ISPC

Those are just a few of the identifiers your music will need once it’s being distributed.

So yes, that’s actually the mastering engineer’s job. Basically, this person is the last node on the assembly line, so it needs to be perfect by that point. It needs to be “mastered”!

Now, let’s find out how it works… 

How is mastering accomplished and why is it important?

As I mentioned in the section on mixing, we’re using pretty much the same tools to master. However, we’re using them for different reasons since we’re no longer attempting to balance the final mix with anything else.

Our goal is simply to get the mix loud enough, big enough and insert the metadata.

what's the difference between mixing and mastering - mixing console 2

Here are the essential tools you’ll need:

  • EQ (linear)
  • Compressor (multipressor)
  • Reverb
  • Limiter

You could obviously use more, but these are the essentials according to me.

The reason I use linear EQ with mastering is because it colours the sound less. It’s also more precise, however, it requires more processing power. You’re basically using it to shape the sound of your overall mix, but it’s really subtle adjustments!

You could use any compressor, but I prefer multi-band compression.

The reason being that you can compress different bands of frequencies differently using the multipressor. You get more control and can bring out certain things more than others. It’s almost like the combination of an EQ and typical compressors.

I also recommend using one of those as well, but be VERY subtle (you only want about -1 dB of gain reduction).

Master reverbs are really important because they blend all the sounds together to make them sound like they were recorded in the same room. Otherwise, your tracks won’t sound like they’re “glued” together and your mix will fall apart.

Limiters are probably the most important of them all though!

It’s crucial that your music doesn’t “clip” and that’s exactly what the limiter does. However, it does much more than that because it also increases the LOUDNESS, not just the volume. It’s very similar to compression which is why you need to be very careful at this point.

Yes, you need to get your track loud enough, but not at the cost of blowing it out.

If you’re having difficulty getting it there, the issue is in the mixing. I learned this the hard way when I didn’t complete basic procedures because “I thought they weren’t important”.

Well, once you get to that last crucial step, every single little mistake will become more than evident. If you’re having difficulty with the limiter, you need to go back and correct your mix. Hopefully you were the one who did it or else you need to find a new sound engineer!

Now, is mastering for everybody?

Can I start mastering my own tracks, or do I need professionals?

One of the main differences between mixing and mastering your own music is that mastering is much more technical. You really need to know what you’re doing and be aware of the current industry standards.

Luckily, getting your track mastered online is much less expensive than mixing.

what's the difference between mixing and mastering - mixing console 1

I recommend finding the best service you can find (here’s my personal recommendation) and getting your projects completed in bulk. You’ll save more money that way and you’ll be sure to have consistent results regardless of who you decide to work with.

However, I personally do my own mastering because like I said, I produce 5-10 tracks per month. I would go broke before I even secured any TV/Film placements!

It’s more difficult than mixing, but I highly recommend learning this valuable skill if you’re in the same boat as I am.

On the other hand, you can always choose to delegate this task to someone else if it’s not your cup of tea. I personally grew to like mastering, but I struggled with it the most at the beginning. It’ll really help you hear if your mixing is up to point though!

So, that’s pretty much it folks!

The difference between mixing and mastering is pretty significant

So, what’s the difference between mixing and mastering you ask? I hope the differences are obvious to you after reading this post and that you can appreciate how much work mixing and mastering engineers put into it.

It’s not for everyone, but I believe anyone can learn if they have the patience.

what's the difference between mixing and mastering

However, rest assured that there are some pretty affordable online mixing and mastering services if you’d rather delegate this important task. I’ve done my research and personally used Mikes Mix & Master and it’s one of the best services out there!

It’s also the most affordable (you can read my review here)!

Whichever route you decide to take, keep in mind that the mixing and mastering process is essential if you ever want to distribute your music commercially. Whether it’s on streaming services like Spotify or through music libraries… 

Your tracks need to sound professional!

I know that was a lot of information to digest, but if you have any questions, I’d be more than happy to answer them! I do have resources available on my website and am always creating more to help you learn how to mix and master your own tracks. If you want to stay up to date, please consider subscribing to my weekly newsletter. You’ll get all the educational material you need to become fully-independent music producers! I appreciate you taking the time to read, you must really be serious about your music career!

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