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What's the Difference Between Mixing and Mastering Music?

If you’re a beginner music producer, audio engineer or simply a music fanatic, this might be the unanswered question that you find yourself arriving at again and again. If this is the case, keep reading. 

It’s always a good idea to go and discover the basic differences between mixing and mastering, before you start making or engaging with a song. As a producer and/or audio engineer, this will most likely come naturally to you and you’ll be able to differentiate between these two (seemingly similar but actually) very different processes. 

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The difference between mixing and mastering a song

Quick TLDR; Mixing is the process of making all the tracks within a song sound great together. Mastering is the final step in the production of a track. During mastering, you’re already working with a mixed song and making some final tweaks before it's ready to release.

But there's more to it than that!

First of all, we will split the music creation into the chain of events that you will need to take place to start thinking about mixing & mastering.

 Let’s see what you can do and how to plan your project:<br>

- The basic idea for a song

The idea for the song should be there even before entering the studio. If you have a blast of inspiration and you already have the song idea in your head, then you just need to translate that idea into the physical world via the music. The most important step before recording the song is to note down the idea in order to avoid losing it.<br>

- Writing down the idea (note sheets or directly into the DAW)

If you are a professional musician, you can write down the notes on a note sheet and have them ready for when you start recording. Otherwise if you’re a beginner, you can simply jam the notes in your DAW and create some basic scheme of how your song should sound.

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Write down the song idea

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Quick Tip: If you are not able to write down the notes or you are not in the studio, you can simply humm or sing the notes of the melody and record them in your sound recorder app on your phone. Later on, you can use that recording and recreate the melody into your DAW and build your song.

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- Recording/tracking the instruments and vocals + arranging

After you capture the basic idea, the next process is to record your vocals and instruments. The process that comes next (at least in our case) is to finish the song in regards to recording additional tracks and finishing the arrangement. 

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Record vocals and instruments

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- Mixing & mastering

Once you consider the tracks as finished in terms of tracking and arranging, then you can move on to the mixing and mastering process. Let’s dive into the main topics of our article more deeply now.

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What is mixing?

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What is mixing?

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Mixing is the process of making all the tracks within our song sound great together.

This is the step where we are balancing levels, cutting or boosting bad/good frequencies, compressing the dynamics, audio panning the elements, and so on. Also, this process includes adding time-based effects like adding reverb, delay, chorus, etc.

We came up with this general approach to mixing based on the order of processes we use when working on a song for a client.

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How to mix a song

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Step 1.

Once I get a song from a client, the first thing I do is to check to see if all the file formats are correct and if they are named properly.

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Step 2. 

After that, I usually engage with the basic balancing of the tracks (gain staging) that sets the project for further processing. 

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Step 3. 

When I get the song to this point - where it sounds good and balanced without any processing - I usually start with trimming the frequencies of the elements in order. 

You could take 2 different approaches here, and both work really well! It’s just personal preference. 

  • Fully process a single track, then move to the next one, or;

  • EQ all tracks, then compress all tracks – then add other effects to them.

We tried both ways, and both worked well. But for the sake of this post, we will go with the first example.

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Step 4.

After cutting the “bad” frequencies out, I usually fix some dynamic inconsistencies if any. The next process in line is to boost some of the “good” frequencies and finish the frequency balance of the element.

Quick Tip: Always finish the frequency image of an element or a song in context with all the elements. No one will listen to the element in solo, because they will focus on the wider image – the song as a whole. So do this processing from the perspective of the listener and make your adjustments.

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Step 5.

After we’re finished with the more technical parts of the mixing process, we can engage with using effects for more creative mixing and adding space to the song. 

 There are many techniques you can check out and see how your mix translates after it’s done - and if you have the opportunity to do it – do it!

See how your mix performs in mono, check it on several sound systems, try it on a phone or laptop to see how the song translates on different devices, and so on.

Once satisfied with the mix, we can then proceed with the mastering process and actually bring the song to an end and finish it. Because we really paid attention to the initial gain staging that we set & we maintained the same gain staging even after the processing, that leaves enough headroom for the mastering engineer to finish the song.

When it comes to this process, our preference is to send the mixed version of the track back to the client or directly to a mastering engineer. My personal preference is to have another fresh set of ears to listen to the song to spot check anything that we may have missed.

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What is Mastering?

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What is mastering?

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Mastering is the final step in the production of a track. During mastering, you’re already engaged with the mixed song and now you’ll need to make some final changes before putting it out or delivering it back to the client.

The mastering process has 3 important goals, to:

1. Improve the volume

2. Make the track sound better

3. Ensure the track sounds good on ALL audio systems

As with mixing, mastering is about creating a way of balance, however this time it’s between completely different songs rather than between different individual components of a track.

Within an album for instance, the mastering engineer decides on the order of the songs in the order that they sound most consistent, and levels them in order so that they’re all identical. In addition, they might work with volume crossfades and gaps between tracks.

These days, it is quite common to master songs separate from the context of an album, as via distribution to social media networks. In this case, the mastering process focuses more so on the song having industrial volume and being akin to different songs in the style.

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Quick Tip: Our suggestion when it comes to mastering is to sway away from AI mastering platforms and have your song mastered by a real life professional. No matter how good or close to good these platforms can master your song, a human touch is what counts in the end.

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In contrast to mixing, mastering enhances the track as-is in order to create the most balanced playback on a wide range of devices.

In the meantime, a mixing engineer may fully change the mood of a track, relying on his or her course. Mastering uses refined broad strokes normally making adjustments to a single stereo file, whereas mixing a composition uses each of the recorded channels of a track.

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How to master a song

Since mastering is the ultimate stage in making a professionally produced track, it is extremely technical. And it’s best to employ the help of a music engineering professional to get the best quality outcome for your song.

Mastering engineers must deeply perceive the technical necessities for stereo file playback on a wide range of platforms that are ever-changing.

Mixing professionals are normally working with extra-musical elements which permits them to make extra creative choices in music. Many discover that a quality master also can require far more expensive gear than mixing, although mixing can get plenty expensive as well.

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Quick recap

In this post we tried to cover exactly what the mixing process is, versus what the mastering process is. By now you should already know the basic difference between these two processes and be able to know what you are keener to doing.

There are some pros and cons in both jobs and you will need to decide between both to find the path that you want to follow. Even when both of the jobs can be done by one single person, we prefer to have two different engineers to do their part – a mixing engineer and a mastering engineer.

We hope that this gave you an idea of what mixing and mastering are. Good luck with your production journey! 

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Author Bio

Toshe from Mixing Tips is the admin and content creator for The Mixing Tips and account manager of the Instagram page. With over 15 years working in the audio engineering world, he decided to expand the horizon and help newcomers with some great tips and guides on how to improve their music production and especially mixing.