A Beginners Guide To Mixing & Mastering Music
And there’s good reason for this. Mixing and mastering as processes are complex, daunting, and full of seemingly contradictory advice coming from every direction.
An introduction to mixing & mastering
This doesn’t mean you can’t mix and master your own music. You can, just as you can purchase the brushes, paints and canvases and create your own paintings.
One of the differences between the two media is, however, that people seem to grasp intuitively that they won’t create Picassos with their early attempts, while when it comes to making music, some people get frustrated that their early mixes don’t sound radio-worthy.
It’s about expectations and desire. With high expectations and low desire, you have a formula for discouragement. Sorry, but your early mixes are going to suck, and that new mastering plug-in will not magically make your projects sound good at the click of a mouse.
How do I know this? All of my early mixes suck. And by early mixes, I mean every one up until the next one. Perhaps the biggest intangible with mixing and mastering your own work is the pursuit of continuous improvement.
It’s not an easy balance. While you still want to be proud of the work you do, complete satisfaction is a sign of complacency. Yet, being overly self-critical can also be discouraging.
That inner discipline is the constant challenge for anyone undertaking the mixing and mastering tasks. Ready for some more seemingly contradictory advice from this direction? Read on.
Mixing & mastering music for beginners
To help you get started on your mixing and mastering journey, you'll want to follow the steps laid out below. Let's get into it.
Your first steps
If you’re already into home recording in some capacity or another, the good news is that you have everything you need to get started with mixing and mastering. There’s always more to get, of course, but “I don’t have this” is rarely a good excuse anymore.
If you’re starting completely from scratch, the basics include:
- A computer and digital audio workstation (DAW) software
- Stereo sound card of reasonable quality
- A pair of reasonable quality reference monitors
There’s no need to break the bank from the start. Building your skill as an audio engineer takes time and experience, and working with entry-level equipment promotes the learning process. Yes, you will run into the limits of hardware and software from time-to-time, but that’s a great way to really understand the process.
The sound of your space
So you’ve gone out and bought yourself some serious studio monitors. It’s very easy, in this day and age, to purchase quality monitors for prices that would drive an engineer from the 1970s into recreational drug use.
Okay, perhaps not the best example, but you’d have a difficult time convincing him that good studio monitors in 2023 cost about $150 in 1975 dollars.
You can buy acceptable reference monitors under $500 today, so if you’re serious about your work, you no longer have to break the bank to pursue your dream. Just check out our video below to learn more about the best (and affordable) speakers and monitors in 2023.
However, that’s just the start. Those monitors are important, but think about a speaker’s job for a minute. It changes electrical energy into kinetic energy - the motion of the speaker cone - which then couples with the air to create acoustic energy, or sound waves. The job of the monitor is essentially done when it makes contact with the molecules of the air.
They’re then free to go bouncing around however they’re allowed, constrained by things like walls, floors and ceilings.
If you’re not happy with the sound of monitors that are otherwise well-respected and well-reviewed, you’re probably not happy with the sound of the room. Leave the monitors out of it.
Perhaps the single biggest technical challenge to mixing and mastering in a home environment is the shape - and therefore the sound - of the typical home studio room.
You can mix and master without acoustically treating such a room. You can also skeet shoot wearing a blindfold. Your chances for success, in either case, are about the same.
In order of importance, approach acoustic treatment in this sequence:
1. Monitor Isolation - monitor stands and/or isolation pads.
2. Reflection control - foam tiles to absorb sound bouncing off the wall, behind and to the side of the monitors.
3. Bass trapping - thick foam wedges in corners of walls and ceiling.
Take it progressively, particularly if budget is an issue. Monitor pads are better than nothing. Adding reflection control offers further improvements. This is not soundproofing, but controlling the way sound moves within your studio.
Consider that professional mastering studios and music producers spend hundreds of thousands of dollars building spaces that limit the influence a room has on the monitor output. It can be a never-ending pursuit, but every step you take is worthwhile progress, and it makes your work sound better.
Tune your ears
Even when you’re in the middle of your acoustic upgrades, you can continue to work. Ever notice how great-sounding music sounds great anywhere? Before you mix or master, calibrate your equipment. That is, your ears.
Take a great-sounding commercial recording in a style similar to what you’re working on, and play it back through your recording setup. Identify the sounds of the critical instruments, the blend and sounds of voices.
Your ears and brain are the most remarkably adaptive audio equipment you’ll ever own. While it’s easy to get caught up about what state-of-the-art toys other engineers have that make them more qualified than you, the unending truth about music is that it comes down to how it sounds.
Avoid the preset curse
Did you notice that the basic equipment list above makes no mention of software plugins for mixing or mastering? There’s a reason for that. You probably don’t need them. Your DAW program likely has sufficient tools and plugins already in the software.
Now, that’s not to say that additional plugins can’t improve your work. They can. In fact, for a guide to some of the best mastering plugins available today, check out MIDI Lifestyle’s guide to mastering plugins as a starting point.
However, there’s a crutch aspect to any plugin, particularly those that come with cleverly named presets. I call it the "preset curse". You’ll see a preset that seems to describe the project you’re working on. You select it, everything sounds brighter and louder, you go wow and declare the job done.
Sadly, loudness gets attention. Loudness also kills dynamic range and musical interest. If you’re making music for an EDM rave, then perhaps loudness is a tool you have to use to compete. It’s easy to set up compressor or limiter plugins to squash the daylights out of a recording, making its average volume as close to 0 dB as possible without going into distortion, but it’s rarely musical.
It’s easy to set up compressor or limiter plugins to squash the daylights out of a recording, making its average volume as close to 0 dB as possible without going into distortion, but it’s rarely musical.
Any time you select a preset without adjusting it to match the song you’re working on, you’re cheating. You’re taking shortcuts, and you’re not learning everything you can about the mixing and mastering process. Learn the tweaks. Embrace the tweaks. When someone calls you a tweak head, wear it proudly.
Mixing and mastering really come down to that, the tweaks. Every song is unique. Be comfortable exploring every aspect of its sound.
Your own journey
For those readers who are disappointed that there’s no list of “do this, do that” tips in this article, you can find many, many of those online. The problem with tips-based information is that it usually presents a particular point-of-view, whether it’s how to mix a particular musical genre or how to use the latest version of a DAW to master a song.
When you consider, as a beginner, the number of hardware, software, and musical style combinations out there, it’s clear that an article of this length can’t even scratch the surface of any how-to content.
You have about a million questions, each of which comes down to your particular combination of elements. On top of all that, given the way the human mind works, even at the earliest stages of your audio experience, you’re defining the element that sets you apart from everyone else -- your own style.
Now, that style may take years to emerge. It may be conscious or unconscious. You may be Picasso or paint-by-numbers.
It really comes down to you. What you want to accomplish and where you want to take it. That’s the thing about the creative process. It’s intensely personal. Yes, you can hook it up with ambition and forge a career. Or you can create for the personal pleasure it gives, never playing a mix for another set of ears.
For me, the creative process of music, whether playing, recording, mixing, or mastering, is like breathing. I’m not the same person without music. Granted, I haven’t tried going without breathing for very long, but I understand it’s not a good idea.
How the pursuits of mixing and mastering fit into your life are up to you. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot of work, but if you really love it, it’s not work at all.
This is a guest article from Scott Shpak, a performer, composer and music producer who regularly writes on music, tech and home recording topics. His work can be heard in the soundtracks of hit shows including "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" and"Entertainment Tonight".
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