We’ll begin with a general and simple understanding of both fields. Then we’ll get into the nitty-gritty when it comes to procedure, perspective, and tools.
Even though you may be unfamiliar with the differentiating factors between mixing and mastering, you're probably still curious about what takes place in the last phases of the process. Even the most knowledgeable musicians are daunted by the jargon and know-how of equipment, so only the engineers themselves know what occurs in these phases.
People may believe the two processes are identical, or they may dismiss them as superfluous if the music composition is good enough.
We will look at five key differences between the two phases and provide an understanding as to why they are important to the music you create and consume.
To begin, we will examine the similarities between the two fields. Then, we will examine the differences in workflow, perspective, and tools in detail.
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What is the difference between mixing and mastering?
After you record an album, mixing is the final phase of audio production in which you polish the entire track to prepare it for distribution. An engineer carves and balances the distinct tracks in a session to sound excellent when combined in this phase. While mastering a song, you put the final touches on a track by enhancing its overall sound, creating consistency across the album, and releasing it.
An artist is similar to an author in that they both create something. The mixing engineer is like an editor in that they help the artist tell their story well. The mastering engineer is like a copyeditor in that they ensure everything is grammatically correct. What do they do in a musical context, then? Let's take a look at their roles one at a time.
What is the process of mixing?
The first step is to establish a rhythm. You (or your band) composed some music and said a few words. You are now attempting to turn that arrangement into a song rather than a random assortment of parts and tracks.
Mixing engineers are responsible for balancing all of the tracks and ensuring that they form a cohesive song. EQ, compression, panning, and reverb are just a few of the tools they can use to eliminate instrument clashes, tighten grooves, and emphasize important song elements. In some cases, mixers might even layer drum hits with outside sample material or mute redundant instrument parts.
When mixing, mixers EQ instruments to shine over others or fit into the right context. They compress individual tracks to reign them in or punch them up, for example. They add a variety of wacky effects when necessary—reverb, delay, modulation, pitch fx, and so on.
A mix engineer's second job is to enliven the song, supplying three to 200 tracks of material. You provide them with material and they give you a cohesive song in return.
What is mastering?
Before your song, single, EP, album, or mixtape is released to the world, a mastering engineer is your last line of defense. Their job is to ensure the highest quality possible, therefore their tasks differ from those of mix engineers.
A mixing engineer balances ten, twenty, or more tracks into a single song, which sounds excellent in their studio. A mastering engineer works exclusively with a single stereo track (before sequencing and metadata tagging) and strives to make it appear outstanding on every kind of playback device.
Mastering engineers don’t simply slap an EQ, a compressor, and a limiter across a stereo track and make it as loud as possible.
Their purpose is frequently translational and relational: they wish to ensure that each track matches with the others in the project. In addition, they strive to make your entire project comparable to (and hopefully more successful than) comparable material created by famous musicians in the genre.
They want to ensure that this competitive edge is preserved on every type of playback media imaginable, with the goal of preserving both sonics (a song that will endure in tone) and file delivery (allowing you to adapt your project as media landscapes alter in the future).
Beyond equalization, compression, and limiting, mastering requires tools that enable them to catch any problems immediately. They master in a room, and this is one of the most important tools in helping them catch any issues.
A mixing engineer can usually get by with a pair of NS10s, but a mastering engineer will require a well-tuned full-range monitor setup in a well-tuned room to hear and feel every aspect of the music.
The Quality Control pass (the final QC pass) might use the finest headphones they can afford to catch any artifacts before the song is released to the market.
These days, a lot of mastering involves purging issues at the artifact level using tools such as a mastering engineer is supposed to catch random ticks, pops, plosives, distortions, and spectral anomalies, but mixing engineers caught up in the swell of things might not.
The mastering engineer also “tops” and “tails” the tunes if you have a series of tunes meant to be heard in a sequence. The positioning of the start and stop points is critical to creating the right flow for the album. Whether your material transitions from one tune to the next seamlessly or requires specific pacing to switch from one mood to another, the mastering engineer is responsible for implementing these moves.
Metadata creation is another part of the job known as “topping and tailing.” It's a nice transition, as it implies. ISRC numbers, UPN codes, song titles, and artist information must be collected and embedded into the file, which is usually handled by the mastering engineer.
There are many delivery methods available. Streaming services might desire a high res sample rate and a 24-bit color depth, but CDs require a 44.1 kHz/16-bit file, and broadcast media desire a 48 kHz/24-bit file. Aggregators might require premade mp3s, and how these are encoded makes a significant difference (RX has a fantastic MP3 encoder that naturally fights distortion).
Mastering engineers keep track of all these formats as well as contemporary delivery conventions. If you're releasing your project, mastering engineers will send out dedicated files for specific formats. Each set of files is quality-checked to ensure that no mistakes slip through.
It's a big mistake to think that mastering consists solely of stereo bus processing.
There are obvious crossover points where mixing and mastering engineers use stereo bus processing on the entire song to achieve the desired effects. However, mastering and mixing are in no way the same.
We can now go into more detail about what mixing and mastering are, now that we've established the basics.
What is the difference between a mixed song and a mastered song?
Pete Mancini, a singer/songwriter, requested me to master a live album for him, and this song was one of my favorites. Here is an example of a song pre and post-master to demonstrate the alterations that occur at this last phase.
Here is the master. You will notice that little has changed, but the drums will seem more exciting, the vocals will seem clearer, the harmonic instruments will seem more separated, and the live performance's cohesive groove will seem more reinforcing.
What is the difference between mixing and mastering?
Even though I don't represent all mixing and mastering engineers, there are some major differences in job workflow across fields, regardless of genre. Because mixers receive numerous tracks, a substantial portion of their job is organizational at first—labeling and color-coding tracks, arranging them hierarchically in a DAW, and creating instrument groups and sub-mixes. Once completed, a mixer can move on to the fun part: EQing, compressing, transient shaping, and effectuating.
A mastering engineer must be well organized, but their job is much less complex. Here's how a typical mastering session progresses:
Mastering is a much more subtle process than mixing, and most EQs are adjusted by 1 dB. Compression is used for both box tone and effect, or transparency if dynamic-taming is required, as much as for effect.
It is important to listen for unexpected consequences when working with stereo files since changes are likely to affect the entire frequency spectrum. Has a cut in the low-end unintentionally provided some presence?
How long does it take to mix or master music?
Depending on how a production sounds when it reaches the mixer, a full song mix can take anywhere from a day to a week. This time investment requires mixing engineers to develop a routine that enables focus and avoids ear fatigue. In addition to computer malfunctions and sinus infections, external issues must be dealt with in the face of discipline.
However, mastering usually requires less time. An album can be finished in half a day. Time is spent quickly because of the perspective.
Point of view
It is crucial to acknowledge that each practice has a distinctive perspective. A mixing engineer carefully crafts your music over days or weeks, paying close attention to every little detail and nuance. This is by design and necessary: you want the engineer to pay close attention to everything in every track that contributes to the vibe.
The job of mastering engineers is to provide an impartial and balanced perspective, so they try not to get bogged down in the details. They work quickly, skillfully, and subtly, and still catch every error.
When mixing, mastering, and other engineers think about how certain sounds and samples interact with each other, they are considering the same sorts of issues. In mastering, however, the emphasis is on whether everything sounds balanced or not rather than on what sounds complement each other.
There are several main types of tools for mixing and mastering.
The amount of EQ, compression, and limiting used in mixing and mastering varies between both processes. Let's examine how iZotope tools are employed in different phases of post-production. Neutron and Ozone both provide EQ plug-ins. Look carefully, and you'll see that one plug-in is designed for mixing, while the other is designed for mastering. Neutron's EQ, by default, has a wide range of gain: up to 15 dB can be boosted using a mouse, and down to -30 dB. This is better for mixing. In contrast to Ozone, the gain range is defined with mastering in mind: the mousable range is decreased to make it more subtle—you may only drag up to 6 dB and down to -10 dB. Linear-phase filtering is arguably more well-suited for mastering than balancing a mix, and you can enable it by default in EQ preferences by clicking “Show Extra Curves.”
When you look at the screenshot, you'll notice that Ozone uses a non-linear phase on the low end but a linear phase on the mids and highs. This is a helpful function as you can choose whether or not to use the linear phase on a band-by-band basis; for example, a linear phase might sound better on the low end if it is not used.
Engineers employ EQs of different sorts, each of which may function differently. There are also compressors, among which Nectar offers an Optical mode that mimics the subtle harmonic coloration and non-linear attack and release qualities of vintage hardware compressors, whereas Ozone does not. Ozone, in mastering sessions, enables expansion to increase the life of overly-compressed recordings. Neutron Pro does not.
A limiter is another useful tool for mastering, which can be used to bring loudness levels to market standards. While a song doesn't need to be the loudest thing around, it should be comparable to similar music. Mastering engineers often use brickwall limiters to achieve these targets without causing too much distortion.
Practicing what you have learned
The world of audio mixing and mastering may seem inaccessible to newbies. I hope that the information in this article has given you a better understanding of these post-production processes so that you too might be initiated into the fold. Whether you're beginning to mix or master, you can start a free trial with a all of the core plug-ins you need to get the job done are part of the membership.