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Mixing Vs Mastering Explained (For Beginners)

beginners mastering mixing May 08, 2020

Mixing and mastering often get blended into one but they are quite different and each play their own part in creating a song that sounds it’s best for release.

Both use similar tools and equipment but the goals for each process are quite different.

So what is mixing?

Mixing is the blending together (or balancing) of the multiple tracks from a recording session into one stereo mix in a way that’s balanced both in frequencies and volume, where everything can be heard clearly in its own space.

What about mastering?

Mastering is the final stage your mixed song goes through to get it into an optimal state for release on to your format of choice and is applied only to the final approved stereo mix.

Mastering involves getting the mix louder and to the correct specification for its destination, for example, online streaming, CD or vinyl.

It also involves trying to correct any sonic imbalances that might be present in the mix such as an overly loud low end or a muddy mid-range which often happens when mixes are done in rooms that might not have much in the way of acoustic treatment and on monitors that don’t represent the full frequency range and therefore influence your mixing decisions in a negative way.

Lastly, mastering can add the final polish or sheen to your mix to help it sound its absolute best and to compete with other commercial releases. Mastering can bring clarity to muddy mixes, create more separation between instruments and add width and, of course, loudness.

Check out the video where I explain the differences between the two and why you should get all your releases mastered if you want them to sound awesome online.

Video Transcription

There's definitely some confusion around mixing versus mastering, especially for beginners today. I want to help clarify the difference between the two by explaining what happens during each stage and how they combine to create a song that's ready for release. Hi, I'm Sara Carter from simply mixing .com, where each week I bring you simple, practical advice to help you get better at mixing.

So what's the difference between mixing and mastering? When you talk about what you do to the average layperson, they think mixing is what DJs do on a Friday and Saturday night and mastering is, well, just... Who knows?

And if you're a beginner trying to make music for the first time at home, then it seems doubly confusing as you try to create mixes that sound like your favorite records, but you don't know why they're missing the mark. Now, once you've watched this video and have a clear idea about mixing versus mastering, check out the link in the description to download my free guidebook, the seven steps to Preparing Your Mix for mastering. It'll talk you through exporting your mix, the formats you need to consider and how to get the best sounding result from a professional mastering engineer.

Let me know in the comments if you have any questions about the differences between mixing and mastering and as ever, please consider subscribing to the channel so you'll never miss a new video.

So what is mixing?...

Well, mixing is the blending together or balancing of all the multiple tracks from a recording session into one stereo mix in a way that's balanced both in frequencies and volume and where everything can be heard clearly and in its own space. At its basic level, mixing uses fader positions and panning to place each individual element in the desired place in the sound stage, taking into account the loudness, width and perceived depth of each element.

To help this process even further, the mixer will utilize tools such as EQ, dynamic control and effects such as delay and reverb to create a stereo mix that's ready to be sent off for mastering. Now you can use commercial reference tracks that you've pulled into your mixing session to periodically check how your mix is progressing and to help you decide if the mix is finished.

Bear in mind, though, that commercial tracks are likely to be a lot louder than your mix. So reduce its level to match your mix level before you make your comparisons. When you start a mix, first, try balancing your mix using just the faders until you're happy that everything is sitting together nicely and only needs a few automation moves to finish things off. Next, move on to EQ to balance out your frequencies in your mix. Remove frequencies that are causing muddiness or harsh and unflattering resonances and boost frequencies that you like and will enhance each element in such a way that nothing pokes out of the mix as being too bright or too bassy.

Finally, use the pan pots to create width your mix and to help you place an element where you can hear it clearly. Now, I appreciate this is a very simplified overview of mixing but it's a good place to start to understand how mixing and mastering differ from each other and what happens in each phase. OK, so what is mastering, mastering is the most misunderstood of the two. Mastering is the final stage your mixed song goes through to get it into an optimal state for release onto your format of choice and is applied only to the final approved stereo mix.

Mastering involves getting the mix louder and to the correct specification for its destination, for example, online streaming services, CD or vinyl. It also involves trying to correct any sonic imbalances that might be present in the mix, such as an overly loud, low end or a muddy mid-range, which often happens when mixes are done in rooms that might not have much in the way of acoustic treatment and also have been done on monitors that don't represent the full frequency range and therefore can influence your mixing decisions in a negative way.

The same tools are used in mastering as in mixing, so things like EQ and compression, but used in much smaller movements because the adjustments the mastering engineer makes affects the entire mix. A professional mastering studio is equipped with top quality monitors that are capable of reproducing the full frequency range. And it's got specialist equipment that allows for very accurate changes to be made to the volume and the frequency balance. STEM mastering is also an option, and that is when groups of instruments are mastered separately and then summed back together as a stereo mix.

Groups of instruments are typically your drums, your bass, your guitars, your keyboards. They get summed back together after any frequency imbalances have been corrected on each group. Now this is a more granular approach and isn't as common as the more traditional stereo mastering. But it can be useful sometimes to fix specific problems in a mix, if the mixing session can no longer be accessed for some reason.

Why have your tracks mastered at all? Well, Mastering is a vital part of quality control and it ensures your music can sound the best it can possibly sound and stand up to its peers on the same playlist.

It's a fact. If something sounds louder, it's perceived as sounding better than the previous track on the playlist. In fact, your mix might be loads better than the preceding track, but if it's one dB or even half a dB quieter, your listener will think it doesn't sound as good. Now there's great value in having your mix assessed outside the studio it was mixed in, to check its ability to translate to other systems and devices and to have that final quality check from another experienced engineer to catch any major mixing mistakes or noises from dodgy edits or rumbles that you couldn't hear on your studio monitors because of their limited frequency response.

If you've been mixing songs for an EP or an album over the course of several weeks, then it's possible that the tone of each song and the loudness of each mix may have changed subtly as the project has progressed because of the time it's taken for you to mix the whole album. Now, Mastering will even out the tones and track levels of an album project, usually over the course of one day, so that it will sound like one coherent body of music, all with the perfect gap between the songs so that it flows and sounds like a finished record.

Lastly, mastering can add the final polish or sheen to your music to help it sound its absolute best and to compete with other commercial releases. Mastering can bring clarity to muddy mixes, create more separation between instruments and add width and of course, loudness.

So can you master your own music? Yes, of course you can. But you might have to introduce some additional quality checks and extra monitors into your space to do so. You'll need some understanding into the specifications required to get the best results once your track is converted by the streaming services and you'll need some specialized tools and meters to do that. Well, you can master your own music, but it can be very reassuring to know that your mix has gone through a separate mastering studio, listened to by an experienced mastering engineer, and has been given the seal of approval before releasing a record with an annoying mistake that could have been avoided.

One last important thing to know about mastering is that mastering cannot fix a bad mix. If the mix is poor, then mastering won't fix it. Now, don't forget to download my free guide seven steps to prepare your mix for mastering by clicking the link in the description. Then subscribe and turn on notifications so you don't miss more videos helping you to mix and master your music, thanks for watching and I'll see you in the next video.

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