What is the difference between mixing and mastering?


After a recording session in a studio, if you ask the audio engineer about when you will get the finished song he will tell you that it might take one or two days.

This is because after recording a song two processes called mixing and mastering are required to get a polished song that can be released on streaming platforms.

Without mixing and mastering the song will sound blunt without any dynamics to its elements.

Most people are not aware of mixing and mastering. They think that you just go to the studio and sing. That’s it the song is done. This is not the case.

Even if someone has heard of the term mixing and mastering, there is always so much misconception about what each of them means in the audio production process.

There is so much difference between mixing and mastering, you might even need to hire separate people to do it if it’s a really big project.

Mixing and Mastering are two entirely different processes. Mixing is a process by which audio tracks are put together in terms of dynamics, space, and control. Mastering is a process by which audio tracks are made to sound loud and clear in all audio systems.

Just knowing the names or even a defining won’t suffice in understanding the process of mixing and mastering. In this article, I will walk you through the nuances of mixing and mastering.

This will open your eyes to why mixing and mastering, requires more attention to detail. Let’s get started on this shall we?

What is mixing? 

As we talked about before, mixing is a vital part of the whole audio engineering process. There are even courses offered by colleges just on this topic called mixing.

Mixing engineers are even paid more than artists and signers sometimes because of the complexity of some projects.

Mixing is a process in which several audio editing techniques are performed to make the track sound cohesive and pleasant. You can check my article on 7 audio editing techniques here.

One mistake made in an audio editing technique could even ruin the whole song. This is why mixing is done with so much care in a music production studio.

The process of mixing requires three steps

  • Audio levelling
  • Compression
  • Space creation

Audio levelling

When a mixing project is started, usually the tracks in the project are at different audio levels. This is one of the reasons why mixing is used to make things sound cohesive.

The audio levels of each track/instrument in the project are brought down below -12db.

The levels are then adjusted to make sure that the output volume stays at a level at -6db. This is done to leave room for the audio engineers who are going to master the song to make it loud and crisp.

This is one of the first steps in mixing music.

Compression

This is the second most important step in the mixing process. Compression is a process by which the dynamics of the audio (the difference between the lower and higher volume) is reduced.

If an instrument in a song has way more dynamics, let’s say that the volume is at -30db at one point and -12db at one point.

A compressor is used to bring the levels to an optimum average of -18db. Attack, release, and compression ratio are the three values or inputs used in the compressor.

Attack just means how fast the compressor has to act on the audio track and release is when it should stop the attack. The compression ratio is nothing but the amount of compression that is needed to be applied over the audio track.

This process of applying compression reduces the overpowering that is caused by one instrument in a song or audio track over the other. Compression makes the instruments to stick together and produce a well-rounded sound.

Space creation

The space creation process is the last Step in the mixing process. Space is created around sounds that are dry and sharp. This is done by using audio effects such as delays, reverbs, and panning.

Without having space around sounds, the 3d effect of a song in a listener’s ears will be completely gone.

Space creation is an art and requires a lot of time in the studio to learn and implement in audio tracks.

What is mastering?

Once the track is processed in mixing at -6db, it’s sent to the mastering engineer. Mastering is a process in which the final touches are made in a song or audio track.

What makes mastering interesting is the fact that mastering engineers can’t switch things or change huge portions in a song.

They are meant to make minor adjustments to make the audio track sound loud, crisp, and translate the same across all media playback devices.

Mastering a song is nothing but pushing the song or audio track to its limits to make it sound loud without damaging the quality of the audio. This is crucial in making the audio track to translate well from a computer speaker to even a concert speaker.

There are two important steps in mastering a track

  • Equalization
  • Limiting

Equalization

Equalization is the first process in the mastering of an audio track. Equalization involves the process of adjusting the frequency spectrum of a song from 20 Hz to 20 kHz. The minute adjustments that are made will impact the quality of the song.

Usually mastering engineers will be looking to remove the resonances that are not clean in the spectrum by listening to them. This is one of the reasons why mastering takes a long time to get good at.

Limiting 

The last and final step of the mastering process is limiting the track at 0db. Any track that is above 0db in the volume meter will cause distortion and scratchy noise.

A limiter is applied over the audio track and the LUFS (loudness unit relative to full scale) value is adjusted to -14 LUFS.

The value -14LUFS is widely used in mastering because nowadays streaming platforms optimize their songs based on -14LUFS.

Just like compressors limiters have the attack, release, and limiting threshold as well. The attack is when the limiter should start to act on the track and release is when it should stop the attack.

The limiting threshold is the value that is used to push the sound to the maximum level without distortion.

The Main Difference between Mixing and Mastering: 

If you look at mixing and mastering, you would not find any similarities are common ground between them. These are a completely different process which is very crucial in making a song sound better to the listener’s ears.

If there is any contrast to be made then it would be in the amount of time it takes to mix and mastering a song.

Mixing takes more time than mastering but this cannot be considered as a difference because they are two separate giants in the music production process.

What is more important, mixing and mastering?

Both mixing and mastering are important processes in audio engineering. Eliminating any one of them from the audio engineering process would result in a mediocre product in the end.

Mixing and mastering usually shape the success of a song or audio track.

What does it mean to master a song?

Mastering increases the volume of the song to make it fit optimally when played on all different playback devices. Mastering is the last process before getting the song out to the public. Without mastering a song would feel powerless and blunt.

How much do mixing and mastering cost?

On Average Mixing, a normal song with about 100 tracks would cost around $240 to $3000. Mastering a track on average would cost around $150 to $5000. The value usually depends on the mixing engineer and the equipment he uses to mix and master the song.

How much should I charge to mix a song?

The price range to mix songs usually depends on the number of tracks provided to mix. A typical 100 track song would cost an average of $240 to $3000 based on the reputation of the mixing engineer. The price varies according to the experience of the mixing engineer as well.

Is mixing and mastering hard?

Mixing and mastering will be hard for a new audio engineer as it will take years to get good at mixing and mastering. The process of learning mixing and mastering will take less time than actually getting good at it by training our ears.

Conclusion

As explained in the article, Mixing and Mastering are two completely different phenomes in the audio engineering process. Hence comparison between them would sound silly.

The sonic coherence of a song usually depends on how the song is mixed and mastered.

Acknowledging the importance of these two processes in the production of a song would yield more value to the artist and the success of the song.

Recent Posts