Why does a song need to be Mixed & Mastered? What's the difference?

I remember being a young aspiring musician and recording my first album with my bandmates. We spent weeks perfecting our recordings, making sure the takes were just right. The engineer assisted us throughout the process by adding amazing effects, EQ, and panning to make it sound exactly how we wanted it to.

We smiled and patted each other on the back when it was all finished in the studio, and we truly believed this was the finished product we had all been waiting for.

The engineer then said something that will stay with me for the rest of my life:

“All you have to do now is master these songs and you're good to go.”

uhhhh... What are you talking about?

That was the start of my quest to comprehend the complexities of audio work and, in particular, the role of mastering in the recording process. I knew that both mixing and mastering were used because I had performed music live for years and dabbled in the studio, but I had never heard of mastering.

Mixing is a process that you may already be familiar with. If you're reading this, you're probably aware that sound mixing boards are used in live performances to balance out the volume levels, panning, and EQ of each instrument and microphone line to ensure that the performance sounds properly balanced.

You may be familiar with studio-based mixing techniques, which involve not only what I just described but also effects processing such as reverb, chorus, delay, saturation, and auto-tune, which can be applied to individual tracks or the entire mix. Mixing is used to achieve balance and to bind songs together, whether they are recorded live or in the studio.

So, we all know what mixing is, but what does mastering entail?

In a nutshell, mastering encompasses all audio work performed on a mixed song's or album's master recording.

Although mastering was originally intended to be the mechanical preparation stage for converting music to its final media format for playback, it soon expanded to include additional post-mixing audio enhancement work in order to customise the sound for the various intended playback formats (ex: vinyl, CD, digital, etc.).

As digital audio formats became the norm for playback, mastering's primary role shifted almost entirely to the audio enhancement of the mix's master output, also known as the "sweetening" step.

Isn't it the task of mixing to optimise and "sweeten" the music for a desired playback sound?

True, your goal when mixing is to make the song sound the best it can. However, your primary objective during the mixing stage is to achieve the right sound flavour and balance for your album. As a result, it's almost as if mixing is internally based on the song and the artist, while mastering is externally focused on the listener and playback format.

As a result, mixing does not always entail worrying about the final volume level, dynamic range, stereo image width, or any other concerns about how it will sound on the various playback systems that listeners may use.

When we look at the song as a whole and how it will be presented to the world, all of these things will be taken care of in mastering. After all of the mixing work is completed, mastering is a set of processes aimed at the final combined stereo output.

It's generally recommended that you hire different engineers to mix and master your tracks, or at the very least use different sound systems. The sound as a whole is the focus of one stage, while the combination of individual elements is the focus of the other. One is gazing at trees, while the other is gazing at the forest.

How do I know when I'm done mixing and ready to have my music mastered? If the mastering step begins after mixing, but my song isn't truly "done" until it's been mastered, how do I know when I'm done mixing and ready to have my music mastered?

Here are some indications that your song is ready for mastering:

  1. Your song sounds "almost there," but no matter how many mix tweaks you make, you can't quite get it to sound the way you want it to.

  2. It sounds good on its own, but you think it could use a little more professional polish.

  3. Everything sounds good when you listen to the mix, but when you play it elsewhere, such as in the car, it doesn't sound quite loud and/or full enough.

There are a few things you can do to improve the mastering process.

To begin, always provide a high-quality audio file to your mastering engineer, such as a WAV or AIFF file with a 24-bit or higher resolution and, preferably, a 48kHz or higher sample rate.

Second, avoid over-compressing any of your tracks, especially on your master output channel, by using heavy compression, limiting, or maximising plug-ins. As Joe Lambert says in the video above, leave the master compression adjustments to your mastering engineer. Make sure all of your volume faders are set to “under the red” to avoid clipping distortion.

Finally, don't use too many blending effects (reverb, chorus, delay) in the mix because they'll stand out more after mastering boosts volume and brings out details in the sound.

Keep mastering in mind as you near the end of your mixing project and start thinking about what mastering can and cannot do to help finish the sound. Always keep in mind that mastering is only concerned with the combined stereo (or multi-channel surround) audio file. So, if you want a particular voice or keyboard to be turned down or up, you should do so in the mix, where you have access to these controls.

With some EQ, dynamics, and imaging adjustments, mastering can fine-tune the blending of sounds within the entire song, but it won’t make any major volume level or sonic flavour adjustments to individual components. When mixing, you don't want to put too much emphasis on trying to increase the overall song volume level because that is an aspect that applies to the mix's master output and, thus, to the mix's master output and, thus, to the mix's master output and, thus, to the mix's master output and, thus, to the mix's master output and, thus, to the mix's master output. The only overall volume level issue you should be concerned about during mixing is ensuring that your levels are not clipping, as this will result in digital distortion that will not be corrected in mastering.

So now that we know what mixing is, what mastering is, and how to make sure mixing is done properly to maximise the mastering phase's results, we should think about when mastering is or isn't necessary.

Because mastering takes more time and effort, it will cost more and take longer until you have a finished song or album to release. Is it really necessary to have a song mastered if you're just making a nice song to celebrate your great aunt's 75th birthday party? Most likely not. Should you spend the time getting those songs mastered if you're putting together a demo of songs to send to a venue as part of their requirement to book you for a show and they need it this Friday? It isn't required. In these cases, boosting the overall volume level with a compressor, limiter, or maximiser plugin applied to the master output channel of your mix should suffice.

Should you have your song mastered if you're submitting a track to a publisher to be considered for a music collection they'll pitch for an upcoming Netflix series? Yes, absolutely! Should a full album that has been mixed and is ready to be released on iTunes and shared with the world be mastered? Certainly! Producing a fully mixed and mastered song will always be the best way to go when you need to put your best foot forward.

If you're still not sure if your mix is ready for mastering, send it to a mastering engineer for feedback. Any professional engineer can assist you in identifying potential sound issues and providing advice on how to address them in your mix to ensure the best possible final results for your mastered song.

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