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What are Mixing and Mastering Techniques?

Mastering engineer working with an artist in a studio

Interested in becoming an audio producer? Want to know more about mixing and mastering techniques? If you enjoy listening to the nuances in music and like to change elements of a song until it sounds perfect, you may want to consider learning more about mixing and mastering techniques.

Mixing allows you to create harmonious sound throughout a song, balancing the elements to create an emotional response that is memorable. Mastering gives you the ability to create a balance across an entire album. Mastering also allows you to create songs that sound good on any recording medium. Don’t forget that every playback medium will be copied from the master. Proper mastering will transform a good album to a pro-grade album. However, you may be asking yourself, “What is the difference between mixing and mastering?”

What is the Difference Between Mixing and Mastering?

Mixing is the start of post-production for an audio producer and their song. An audio producer will balance out the individual tracks to make a cohesive song. An audio producer will use EQ, compression, panning and reverb to reduce the incompatibility between tracks. Mastering on the other hand is the process of making playback quality optimal. Instead of creating a balance between tracks in the mixing phase, mastering creates a balance among the entirety of the album.

Pro Tools is the Pro’s Tool

One of the first steps to mixing and mastering is for the engineer or producer to choose a mixing and mastering software or digital audio workstation. One of the most used DAWs is Pro Tools. Pro Tools is also a software that many music arts schools will teach their students to use.

What is the Technique of Mixing Music?

Mixing is the technique of combining individual tracks in a recording to create a song that sounds as good as possible. Many skilled audio producers will have multiple mixes that don’t make it past the cutting room floor. They continue to mix until they have the perfect song. Tracks are blended by balancing the levels and panning. The mix also includes audio effects like chorus and reverb.

Balancing the Levels

Balancing the levels allows the mix to offer an emotional effect. An example is creating a crescendo in an EDM song, allowing the drums to increase tension and offer an emotional release. During the mixing phase, an audio producer may also offer a higher and lower range of levels to allow the mastering phase some room to work with. Balancing the levels allows an audio producer to blend both loud and quiet sounds to strike the perfect balance in the song.

Panning

Panning helps an audio producer control the width of the song. Allowing the sounds in a song to move left or right from the stereo center. Without the use of panning, a song could sound flat.

Frequency Spectrum

Frequency is the number of times a point on a sound wave passes a fixed reference point per second. It is important to have all frequencies in the spectrum properly represented by utilizing equalization. Audio devices should be able to capture, reproduce, or process the full audio frequency spectrum of 20 Hz to 20 kHz.

Reverb

The use of time-based effects such as reverb gives a sound depth and fullness. An audio producer can use a DAW to give a song or sound a unique structure, whether from a concert hall or large celebrity music studios.  The difference between these two sound structures is reverb.

What is the Technique of Mastering Music?

Mastering is the final process in music making before distribution. During the mastering phase, audio producers can remove small mistakes in the final mix. It also allows an audio producer to provide continuity across multiple audio tracks on an album. Mastering can be completed using equalization, compression, limiting, and stereo enhancement.

Audio Equalization

Equalization (EQ) is the boosting or reducing of the different frequencies of an audio signal. Equalization is more than just treble and bass and can involve many different controls. Most audio frequencies fall into a frequency spectrum, from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, this is deep bass to extremely high-end frequencies, respectively.

There are a wide variety of equalizers including shelving equalizers, graphic equalizers, parametric equalizers, and semiparametric equalizers. Shelving EQs handle just the treble and bass controls and is most popular on consumer radios, like in most vehicles. Graphic equalizers have 10 frequency controls that run from 30 Hz to 16 KHz. These frequencies can increase or decrease the intensity of the audio signal. The most common EQ is the parametric equalizer. The parametric equalizer is the most precise equalizer and includes three controls, the center frequency, gain control for boosting and attenuating the frequency signal, and bandwidth.

Audio Compression

During the mastering phase, audio producers use audio compression to lessen the range between loud and quiet parts of the song. This means the audio producer can boost quieter tracks and lower louder tracks to make the music more symbiotic. The common compressor controls include threshold, knee, attack time, and release time.

Threshold – controls the level of compression. When the sound passes above the threshold it will be compressed. This helps balance out the high and low-end audio signals, making the sound pleasing to the ear.

Knee – the transition of the compression, from the compressed to non-compressed states. It can either flow evenly or take a hard turn from one output to the next.

Attack Time – the time it takes for the signal to become fully compressed. This can also be expressed in a slope of dB per second rather than in time.

Release Time – the time it takes for the audio signal to go from compressed to the original signal.

Audio Limiter

While compression smoothly reduces gain, limiting completely prevents any additional gain above a specified threshold. Audio limiting is used to increase the perceived volume of the audio tracks.

Stereo Enhancement

A stereo enhancer widens the field of a mix, making it seem larger (or smaller in some cases).  This can make the audio sound more balanced, make it more unique and offer dramatic sound to certain parts of the mix. However, stereo enhancement should only be used if the mix is unbalanced.

Mastering for Media Format and Delivery Source

Ultimately, mastering is the process of preparing and transferring a recording to the delivery mechanism. For every delivery source, an audio producer must consider the final mastering process. Mastering is a balancing act of the stereo elements and how it will sound on the media format used to play it back. Whether Vinyl or MP3, playing in a concert hall or a set of high-end studio speakers, the audio producer must make sure the sound is optimal in all settings. It is good to note that all copies of the audio come from the master.

What Effect Does Mixing and Mastering Have on a Recording?

The effect on the recording is the difference between a good song and a pro-grade song. Using mixing and mastering techniques properly can turn a good song into a streaming hit. Mixing can add depth or create an emotional response. It allows individual tracks to play in harmony. Mastering can take away subtle mistakes, widen the breadth of the song, and offer a recording that sounds good on any recording device.

What Equipment or Software is Needed?

There are many different software suites and audio equipment that can help with mixing and mastering. An audio producer will use an audio interface that is used to connect the audio equipment to a computer. Whether using equipment or software, an audio producer uses a digital audio workstation, equalizer, compressor, limiters and monitors.

Pro Tools is the Pro’s Tool

One of the first steps to mixing and mastering is for the engineer or producer to choose a mixing and mastering software or digital audio workstation. One of the most used DAWs is Pro Tools. Pro Tools is also a software that many music arts schools will teach their students to use.

Final Thoughts

Mixing and mastering techniques are key to creating any good song. Without the techniques of mixing and mastering, a song would just be a random set of tracks that do not flow together. If you find mixing and mastering interesting, attending an audio production program may be the right path for you.

Audio Production Program

The Audio Production and Engineering Program  at the Institute of Production and Recording is an occupational degree program designed to train producer engineers who are entrepreneurs, musically and technically creative, and proficient in modern recording technology and technique. Throughout the program, students are involved in hands-on exercises and real-world studio projects that enable them to apply their knowledge and refine their skills.

At the end of the Audio Production and Engineering program, each student presents a portfolio — a selection of his or her best work to date. This serves as a demo reel for potential employers and clients — an audio resume with professional content that highlights the graduate’s talent and skill.

Contact us today to learn more about the audio production programs and starting a rewarding career.