The Difference Between Mixing and Mastering

Know the difference before you head to the studio to record

hand on mixing desk in recording studio
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If you are recording an album that you plan to sell, a good mixing and mastering job is a must. If you are only recording a demo, you may be able to get away without mastering.

Mixing and mastering are the two base components of professional record producing, so it's important to understand the differences between them.

Mixing: Bringing Multiple Layers Together

Mixing refers to the process of putting multiple layers of audio together to make one final track or to musically modify an existing track.

When mixing a song, you are tinkering with basically everything you have recorded. You'll do things like drop in effects, adjust fader, EQ your tracks and so on. Think of mixing as putting a puzzle together. You're combining the parts of what you have recorded, making sure everything hangs together and adding some finishing touches.

When you're finished mixing your songs, you should be pleased with the way the song sounds and feel confident that nothing is missing, musically speaking. For a lot of musicians, mixing is where the real magic happens, when a composition goes from being the notes and words to becoming what they envisioned as the finished song. 

Mastering: Optimizing the Overall Sound

Think of mastering as adding sparkle and shine to your music. The term refers to the process of optimizing each track by compressing, equalizing, making stereo enhancements or adjusting the reverberation (echo) effect.

In a very basic sense, when you master your album, you're making sure that song one doesn't blow out the speakers while song two is barely audible. In other words, you want the levels of the songs to be similar and you want a general sense of cohesiveness to your recording.

If that sounds like a vague explanation, that's because it is.

Apart from correcting obvious differences in volume for each song, mastering is an incredibly subjective process. In some ways, when it comes to mastering, some people believe that you either have the golden touch or you don't.

For this reason, although there are programs that will help you master your recording yourself, paying to have it done professionally is a good investment if you plan on releasing your recording to the public.

When to Choose Mixing or Mastering

If you're planning on using your recording for a demo, mastering is not an absolute must as it requires intensive knowledge and experience, which can be costly when done by a professional.

Mixing, on the other hand, is something you should make an effort to do, no matter what stage of release your song or album may be in. You don't have to have a professional, but you should try to give your songs at least a rough mix when possible.

Unlike mastering, you can do mixing at home. It requires practice and time, but with some dedication, you can get the job done.