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Mixing Vs. Mastering – Explaining The Main Differences

Mixing Vs. Mastering - Explaining The Main Differences

Mixing? Mastering? Is there even a difference? Many people, especially those just starting in audio engineering, ask themselves this question daily. I’ve heard this question countless times over my 15 years as a sound engineer from my customers, producers, and artists.

And really, this question stems from two main reasons:

  • Many do not understand the difference between mixdown and mastering.
  • People prefer to take the easy way out and blame others or shift responsibility.

The term “mastering” sounds like magic, a cult for the technical high priests, and a mystery that must remain undiscovered forever. Often, people do not realize that mastering is not the same as mixing and believe they must learn mastering first to mix their songs properly.

Also read: 5 Common Mistakes to Avoid in DIY Audio Mixing and Mastering

In the following article, I will dispel these mysteries. You will gain clarity once and for all, understanding how you can sound better in the future and why mastering is not the solution to your problems.

The Difference Between Mixdown and Mastering

Both mixing and mastering are crucial for making a song sound good and complete. However, there are significant differences between the two processes, and ideally, they should be performed by two different people (of course, only if the budget allows).

Mixing is about expressing the artist’s vision and conveying emotions, while mastering focuses on sound quality and the technical requirements of different music platforms (digital, CD, vinyl).

Mixing

Simply put, during mixdown, we mix all tracks of your song into one stereo track. This includes all your kicks, drums, synths, pads, basses, effects, vocals, etc.

Mixing is like cooking something. You have all the ingredients at hand; everything is almost ready, then the final seasoning is the mastering. We work from a lot, like pouring everything into a funnel, and at the bottom comes out the stereo track.

During mixing, you can make significant sound changes (as long as they match the artist’s vision) because you can edit each track individually. For example, you can heavily distort the guitar without affecting the vocals. However, changes in mastering are much subtler since they affect the entire song at once.

That means you can’t (or it’s challenging) reduce the bass without affecting the drum kick (as an example).

Mastering

We can do the mastering in the DAW itself on the master channel or in specialized software on the computer. Or we use expensive external hardware, as professionals do. Many producers skip this step and send their mixes to a professional sound engineer to master it. Whether this path is right depends on your willingness to learn the mastering process.

The mastering engineer usually doesn’t have access to the audio mixing process. He works with a finished stereo track and cannot access individual instruments. Therefore, he can’t turn up the volume of a specific instrument or fix mixing issues, such as an already distorted instrument.

Stem-Mastering

A step in between is stem-mastering. Here, you group the many tracks of your song into subgroups, e.g., bass, synths, drums, vocals, and effects. This gives the mastering engineer a bit more flexibility. Essentially, though, this is part of the mixing (or mixdown).

During mastering, we only work on this stereo track again to prepare it as best as possible for its distribution to the audience.

This involves two main aspects:

  • Technical Preparation: What file format should my song have later? What bitrate, dithering, etc.
  • Sound Adjustment: The goal here is to prepare your track optimally for its future distribution to the main public. It should sound as good as possible both on your phone speaker, car speakers and in the club.

An important step here is increasing the loudness to make the track sound louder and more compact. Tools such as the multiband compressor or limiter are used for this.

Also read: How To “Glue” Your Mix Using the SSL Compressor.

But that’s not the only sound adjustment. Often in mastering, EQs, filters, psychoacoustic effects, and software are used to ensure mono compatibility, make your track sound wider, or ensure a balanced frequency response.

And here lies the big trap. You could now shirk all responsibility and think, “Great, I don’t have to worry about whether my track sounds good because someone in mastering will make sure it bangs in the club!” – That’s not quite right.

As you’ve already learned, the mastering engineer only receives your stereo track. If the kick and bass are already a mess, your hi-hat is too loud, and your singer can’t be understood because your synths drown them out, the mastering engineer can’t help either.

Nowadays, however, we have more advanced technology that can fix more problems within the mastering process compared to 10 years ago, but this falls within the scope of audio repair and not audio mastering.

What to do? Mixdown first!

Your mastering engineer can only enhance your mix to a certain extent. Let’s say your engineer is a craft master, and we could assign a number to the improvement achieved through mastering. So, your song could become twice as good through mastering.

Let’s imagine a scale from a bad mix to a good mix from 0 to 100. If your mix was at 20, mastering might make it a 40. But if your track is already delivered at a quality of 80, your mastering engineer could make it a 100.

Mastering can then be seen as an editing process. Someone who takes a close look at your work and revises it, but they can only make it as good as the source material was.

So, the better the mix, the better the master! Now you know the difference between mixing and mastering and why a good mixdown is a prerequisite for good mastering.

What are your challenges? Let me know. If you need help with your mixdown or mastering, submit your project (audio files), and we’ll make a free demo for you. If you like how it sounds, we can work further.

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