Mixing And Mastering: What’s The Difference?

This is a typical beginner question. I remember that when I started in the world of audio engineering I asked myself the same question over and over again: What is the difference between mixing and Mastering ?

Many people believe that they are the same thing. Although both processes are important for putting the finishing touches on an already recorded song, they have very different goals. However, both mixing and mastering are part of music production.

It is quite easy to understand the most important differences. Usually:

Mixing is the process prior to mastering in which individual recordings (tracks) are edited and combined or blended into a single stereo audio file. Mastering is the process after mixing, in which the balance between the different songs on an album is sought.

Every song goes through three phases: recording, mixing and mastering, and always in that order. We can all imagine what recording is like, but the line between mixing and mastering seems very fine.

5 Important Differences Between Mixing and Mastering

  • Mixing ensures that the various individual parts (vocals, instruments…) are balanced with each other and brings them together on a single stereo track. In mastering, the already mixed track is edited and given the final touch. So you can mix and not master, but not the other way around.
  • Mixing is all about adding emotion and balance to the song. Mastering consists of making the already mixed song sound good and coherent with the other songs (radio, album…).
  • Mixing sessions can be huge. Rock or pop songs can have more than 30 different tracks, while other more complex projects (classical music, for example) can have more than 100. In contrast, mastering usually works with a single stereo track.
  • In the mix, many adjustments are made, some of which completely change the original sound. This is possible because each change only affects one track. In mastering, however, the changes are much more subtle because they affect the entire song at once. That’s right: In mastering, you can’t (or it’s very, very difficult) to turn down the bass without also affecting the kick drum.
  • Mixing is about expressing the artist’s vision and conveying their feelings, while mastering focuses on sound quality and the technical requirements of the various music platforms (digital, CD, vinyl).

Now that we know the main differences, I’m going to explain in more detail what each part is made of.

Mixing and mastering: What is mixing?

Once the individual tracks have been recorded, the project is ready for the mixdown phase. Of course, every Sound Engineer has their own workflow, but we all agree that organizing your tracks is a good first step. Start by giving each track a meaningful name.

“Lead Vocals” makes much more sense than “audio_track_25.wav”. Adjust the volume of each track to make sure it’s not too loud or too soft, and that it’s about the same volume. Use the faders on your DAW or its mixer to roughly determine the levels of the individual tracks.

It then pans each track to create a balanced sound image and give each element its own spatial position in the stereo image. Have you already done it? Congratulations. You have now created the so-called “raw mix”.

It then applies various effects such as compressors, noise gates, and equalization to the tracks to give each element space and create a sonically balanced mix. These mixing methods ensure that each track is heard and that energy is properly distributed across the audio spectrum when the tracks are played together.

Compressors are used to manipulate and contain the dynamic range of each track. Additional EQs and compressors, as well as reverb, delay, modulation, saturation, and other creative effects are also applied to each track (and can also be applied to the entire mix, depending on your tastes and preferences).

During mixdown, you edit tracks, adjust pitch and timing, change crossfades, optimize track levels, and apply automation if you want your adjustments to happen in real time during playback.

It’s important that your mix sounds equally good on various playback systems, otherwise it will sound great in your studio but like nails on a blackboard somewhere else. That’s why it’s important to test your mix with headphones, in-ear headphones, and alternate speakers (your car is great for this).

Mixing and Mastering: What is Mastering?

Mastering is the last step in the production of a song. In this phase, you work with the already mixed track and make some final adjustments to it before releasing it to the market.

The mastering process has three main goals:

  • Increase the volume
  • To make the song sound better
  • Make sure the song sounds good on all speakers

As with mixes, it’s about creating a sense of balance, but between different songs and not between different individual parts of a song.

Within an album, for example, the mastering engineer decides the order of the songs so that they are consistent and levels them so that they are all the same. They also work with volume crossfades, spaces between tracks…

Nowadays it is very common to master songs to put them outside the context of the album on social networks to distribute. In this case, the mastering process is more focused on making the song marketable and comparable to other songs in the genre.

Mixing and mastering, one depends on the other.

Note that the mastering engineer does not normally have access to the mixing process. You work with a finished stereo track, you don’t have access to separate instruments. Therefore, he cannot turn up the volume of a certain instrument or fix problems in the mix, such as an instrument that already sounds distorted.

To solve a problem where, for example, the frequency of a certain instrument is missing, you have to raise this frequency on the master channel. The result is that you raise this frequency on ALL instruments, since you only have access to the final mix when mastering. A friendly reminder: always fix individual volume issues in the mix!

Mastering is a subtle process that is often considered the finishing touch. To make the engineer’s job easier, he should master the tracks at low levels, ie with plenty of Headroom . Export the track so you have enough headroom to work with, equalize, compress, and finish the track without clipping or distortion. You should be aware that it is often considered bad practice to end a mix near the 0-db level or an extremely high LUFS value in your DAW. This should be avoided because it makes the job of the mastering engineer very difficult.

Mixing and mastering: what’s the difference?

When mixing, a lot of attention is paid to very small details. As you adjust the equalizer, add compression, and adjust the reverb time of the reverb at 2:34 in the song, you easily lose track of the entire song. That is why the production is divided into two parts.

The mastering engineer can see that the entire song is missing low frequencies, for example, and give it a final EQ. Metaphorically speaking, while we work with the trees when mixing, we work with the forest when mastering.

On the other hand, mastering engineers usually work in very well isolated and acoustically treated rooms. It is true that mixing engineers also benefit from these qualities, but they tend to move from one studio to another. In mastering, it’s more important to have a good reference point, a room that the engineer knows well.

Once the song is mixed, it won’t look much different after mastering. Most EQ changes only add or subtract 1 dB. That is why the recording and mixing processes are so important.

In the mastering phase we can no longer amplify a kick or equalize a vocal, only general adjustments to market standards are made.

The process the mastering engineer goes through might look something like this:

  1. Critical Ear: What does this song need to reach the industry standard? Is there something that needs to be changed?
  2. Adjust song volume based on genre, personality, and format.
  3. You can emphasize frequencies more or less and add compression to improve tonal balance and increase or decrease dynamic range.
  4. Determine the settings by comparing the song to the rest of the album so they are consistent.
  5. Select the export settings based on the final format. This includes working with conversion levels, resampling…


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