What’s The Difference Between Mixing And Mastering?
One of the most frequently asked questions throughout music production communities is “what is the difference between mixing and mastering?” Many times the two words get thrown around like they’re the same thing, and as confusing as it might appear throughout music production forums and other “producer hangouts” online, I’m here to tell you there’s a distinct difference between the two and it’s very easy to understand. Before I explain the main differences between mixing and mastering I’ll give a brief explanation of each of the processes themselves.
So What is Mixing?
Mixing is a process in the production of music when an audio engineer or producer (or you in your home studio) takes all the elements in a song or musical piece and attempts to combine them into a “mix”. When you raise a volume fader to bring a noise up that’s being lost to the other instruments, or pan instruments left and right to create stereo imaging, you’re essentially mixing. Everything from automation of effects to applying the effects themselves is part of the mixing process. Mixing in simple terms is taking all the separate pieces and mixing them into a whole. Another good way to look at mixing is preparing the song for the mastering process. A finished mixed typically is combined into one stereo file, or at least has groups of similar instruments condensed into “stems”.
What is Mastering?
There’s 3 main things that a mastering engineer attempts to do:
-Bring the perceived loudness of a track up to commercial levels while maintaining the quality of sound, or if possible improving it.
-Making multiple songs or musical pieces fit cohesively together (ie; making all the tracks on an album have similar perceived loudness, transition from one track to the next smoothly, etc.)
-Prepare a project for distribution.
A mastering engineer will take a finished mix whether it’s condensed into one stereo file or a few stems files, and put the last touches on it to make it ready for distribution. These “last touches” typically involve some sound equalization and some form of dynamic range compression. It is not a mastering engineers job to fix a bad mix, but to make slight adjustments to improve the sound without altering it too much.
Main Differences between Mastering and Mixing:
One of the reasons that mixing and mastering get confused is that both processes share some common methods and tools. These include dynamic range compression and sound equalization. The main difference is not the tools themselves but the way they’re used. While a mixing engineer uses compression to effect the dynamics of individual parts of a song or musical piece, the mastering engineer is applying it to modify the dynamics of the entire mix. The same goes for equalization. A mixing engineer might apply drastic equalization changes to a individual track such as rolling off entire regions in a specific instrument or sound (highpass and lowpass filters), while an audio mastering engineer will make slight equalization adjustments to the entire mix.
So on one hand you have mixing: Taking all the seperate tracks and pieces and mixing them into a whole.
On the other hand you have mastering: Taking the “whole” and enhancing it and preparing it for distribution.
Mixing vs. Mastering Summary:
I hope this cleared up any confusion about the two processes being the same thing, and explained the main differences. There’s a lot more involved in both mixing and mastering than what I’ve discussed, but my main goal was to differentiate the two. If you have any other questions or suggestions to improving this article feel free to leave a comment.