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What is the Difference Between Mixing and Mastering?

If you’ve ever listened to a professionally produced record and compared it side-by-side to someone’s rough-cut demo, then you’re likely aware of the importance of mixing and mastering. These two steps can take a track from sounding just fine to making it fully immersive and ear-grabbing. In the most extreme cases, it can clean up a sloppy record that is difficult to listen to, bringing out the good parts and fading out the bad.

No matter what type of music you’re creating, professionals can all agree that mixing and mastering are essential. Nowadays, there are a number of ways you can finalize a track. Whether you choose to do it on your own or take it to the professionals, there’s plenty to learn and lots of money to be spent on this important aspect of audio production.

What are the Steps of the Music-Making Process?

Those who have never created music but have a strong appreciation for it might wonder how music producers come up with such amazing tracks and what goes into the process. In truth, there are numerous approaches to composition, songwriting, and producing. New technology puts the creative power and flexibility into the hands of those who are actually making the music, giving listeners a more genuine and from-the-heart creation.

Regardless of the genre you’re creating in, whether you’re working with software and programs alone or with acoustic, electric, and digital instruments, creating music always starts with an idea. You might start by exploring different beats, chords, and melodies and from there use your tools and musical knowledge as an audio producer to put together the different pieces of the track, letting your inspiration serve as a guide.

Once a track has been forged, it’s time to clean up and sweeten each individual part and fine-tune the way the different parts all fit together. This is where you make sure your low end isn’t too muddy, which would make it hard for listeners to pick out and appreciate individual bass notes, which often help carry the rhythm, and ensure that your lead parts are brought sufficiently to the foreground without disrupting the overall balance.

This process of fine-tuning your work comes in the mixing and mastering stages. It’s the way that true professionals take the work that they’ve put so much effort into and perfect it, so they get the most out of it.

What is Mixing?

When it comes to post-production, mixing is almost always the first phase of the process. Once the studio musicians go home, your work begins.

One of your main tasks is to get every track at the right level so everything is balanced. This is simple enough when one track is consistently louder than all the others, but it might become a more complex job when some tracks max out in volume only in certain sections. It takes a carefully trained ear to pick out all these sections and make sure they’re taken care of before proceeding. EQ and compression are important techniques that you will become very familiar with.

Panning is also an important part of mixing. When instruments or voices of a similar range are put on the same channel, it can lead to a convoluted mix where it’s difficult to hear and appreciate individual parts. You can improve your intuitive sense of how to pan instruments in an audio production program, where you will learn how to optimize the stereo sound and get the most out of every element. This is how professional records make you feel completely surrounded and enveloped by the music when you put on your headphones or turn on your speakers.

In some music genres, specific instruments are traditionally panned on either the left or the right. This is particularly the case for orchestral music, which pans the voices based on their placement in an actual orchestra. Other times, you can be more creative and experimental with your panning. It all comes down to what sounds good when you listen to the track, and it often comes down to a matter of taste.

Effects, like reverb are also added to some voices during the mixing process. While a responsible use of reverb can really add a lot to the music, it’s important to know how much is too much. It’s easy to drown out the subtle background voices when all you can hear is the sustained reverberations of your lead singer. In many cases, more is less, and it’s up to you as the audio producer to make the right call.

What is Mastering?

When it comes time for the mastering phase of production, you are getting your music ready to be played across all devices. When people all over the world are listening to your hit song, they are hearing it through different mediums, and not everyone will be listening on an optimal device. That’s where mastering comes in, it helps split the difference and make your music as enjoyable as possible for everyone.

A large part of mastering is correcting problems that were left unfixed in previous steps. In many ways it is a safety net and is the last line of defense before your track is released out into the world, it is an important time to catch any sonic errors that haven’t been tended to yet.

The mastering process involves looking for balance in all of the tracks, much like mixing, but from an even broader perspective. The mastering phase takes into account all the songs in a collection or album and makes sure that the volume is consistent across all tracks and that there are smooth transitions and playback throughout the entirety of your work.

When there are multiple styles or genres being used in a single album, it’s up to you to find a way to bridge those differences. While it doesn’t happen as often as making a single-genre album, those daring artists who like to combine pop and less accessible genres like EDM fused into one collective work require the work of a good mixer to have it all make sense to the average listener.

It takes a considerable amount of attention to detail to work in the mastering phase of production. So much of the artistic process lies on your shoulders, and if there are any mistakes left in a track by the time it goes out to the public, it’s hard not to feel responsible. Correcting a track once it has been released can be timely, expensive, and almost impossible, not to mention the damage it can do to an artist’s career.

What Tool is Best for Both Mixing and Mastering?

When it comes to sweetening your mixes and perfecting the final product for the various versions of consumption, such as digital downloads of an entire album, the vinyl version, or the single downloads via Spotify, where it will potentially reach millions, you can’t do better than Pro Tools. Their powerful suite of features puts everything you need all in one software. While you should expect to spend some time learning Pro Tools in your audio production program, as far as user-friendliness goes, Pro Tools is also a top choice for most any mixing job.

For mastering, programs like Sequoia, WaveLab Pro, and Pyramix are top names among industry professionals. This will give you complete control of your pans, fades, and compression, which is a must in the mastering process. Logic Pro and Cubase can also be used for this phase of production, but these are more specialty programs. During your audio production program, you will learn about different software and DAWs that will help you with mixing and mastering.

What Happens if You Don’t Master Your Tracks?

So then, the ultimate question becomes, “Do I really need to master my tracks?” Considering the cost of sending your work to a professional mastering studio or taking the time to meticulously study the process and arduously bring it to bear, some audio producers are tempted to throw their hands in the air and skip this critical step, and it’s almost always to the detriment of all their hard work.

While there are some cases where you’ll end up with a fine record by the end of the mixing phase alone, for most, there is always something to do in the mastering phase. Without a proper mastering process, EQ might be so inconsistent that it distracts the listener from your amazing melodies, and poorly managed volume levels can cause potential fans to crank the volume just to hear your lyrics at one moment only to have their speakers blown out when the bass finally drops.

Getting all your fades just right is difficult without proper training and the right tools and determining just how much compression to use is an enigmatic thing to the untrained ear. All in all, if you don’t think you’re track needs mastering, it might be time to get a second opinion from someone experienced in the industry who you trust. It might be just the sweetening your album needs to get your music streaming on playlists around the world.

Audio Production Program

Ready to work on your music, and go through the many phases, like mixing and mastering? 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.