A quick rundown on what mixing and mastering really is.
So you’ve dropped a ton of money on your new music production studio and you believe you have a great handle of the process. You’ve probably cranked out your first song or two. Before releasing it into the wild, you’ve likely heard the terms “mixing” and “mastering” thrown around as steps in the production process. You’ve also probably seen plenty of mix and mastering engineers and websites offering your track services. But wait…do you really need this? Wasn’t the point of getting your studio for this very reason, so that you wouldn’t have to spend more money and depend on someone else?
Do we need to consider mixing and mastering as part of our production process?
The answer to that basic question: a resounding YES. Even as a producer or audio creator, mixing and mastering are essential steps to the process and shouldn’t be skipped on most releases that you’ll do. It’s an indispensable art form that you’ll want to invest in for your truly care tracks.
A few quick definitions:
- Mixing: Mixing is exactly what it sounds like – the process of blending and balancing each of your separate tracks into a single, cohesive sound. Each instrument, voice, sample, etc. that you’ve included in your project lives in its own sonic space and needs to be cleaned up to remove unwanted noise or audio interference . The mixing process continues to allow these sounds to play together with the other sounds you’ve included without competing with each other for center stage.
- Mastering: Mastering is the finalization of any audio project. Once you’ve completed your entire track and have gone through the mix stage, mastering is the last step before distributing your song. This post-production process involves tools such as compression, equalization, and stereo augmentations to boost the overall audio volume beyond what can be done in the normal mix. Mastering guarantees that your listener will hear it the same way you intended, regardless of whether they listen to it in their car, on Spotify on their cellphone or YouTube off their TV or laptop.
Both steps are crucial to almost any project you’ll work on and it’s important to note that most digital distributors won’t accept tracks that aren’t mastered to some extent. Both mixing and mastering can be done either on your own using plugins or services, or most preferably, handled by audio engineers who specialize in each.
Mixing and Mastering at Home
Mixing can be handed directly within your own DAW if you understand sound design basics including automation, compression, limiting, etc. Countless videos and tutorials exist and getting familiar at an introductory level with these are an important step for any producer. Each instrument or vocal track you record will have its own unique qualities that need to be polished for it to truly shine through on a track.
For example, Bass sounds sit within a space unique and specific to its layer – cutting out higher EQ ranges and enhancing the lower ranges will ensure your bass track is vividly present and not overpowering. Similarly, each track will need to be massaged and balanced for it to really come through. As you add plug-ins for reverbs, delays, echoes, etc. understanding timing and controlling these elements will ensure your mix doesn’t become muddy or overrun with sound. This mix phase is critical, it’s where you add a sense of elegance, dynamic range and refinement to the audio and get it to a point where it’s ready beyond just the original recording.
Mastering for home recording producers can be accomplished by using products such as iZotope Ozone, which provides preset templates for your specific genre. Online services, such as LANDR and eMASTERED, provide automated options for uploading your track and using algorithms to boost your track to radio-quality levels.
Hiring Professional Engineers
Mix and master engineers have trained ears and expertise in understanding wav forms for specific instruments and vocal types. Often, mixing and mastering engineers aren’t musicians or producers themselves – they are highly customized and will focus on specific genres because of their expertise in handling those tracks’ styles. A true mix engineer has a different set of ears and looks at the individual layers from a different angle.
An engineer will often cut out the unnecessary fat on a song, making sure that the sonic balance is there, taking that extra time to make sure the lows are kicking as low as possible and the snares are snapping extra hard. They’ll EQ and compress the audio where necessary, bringing out details that you probably didn’t hear during the build. Similarly, the mastering engineer will optimize the volume so your song can sit right alongside other commercial or radio mixes, fat and loud and boasting all the clarity and work that went into the mix.
It’s important to state that there is also an added benefit of hiring out for these services in that having an unbiased set of ears to listen to your project can bring out details that you may have not noticed. An incredible mix and master engineer can take your work and level up more than you could have ever accomplished on your own.
Almost all commercially released projects in the music industry will seek out specific mix and master engineers for the sole purpose of using their guidance and expertise in honing in the sound of a project. Like a trained session player or a lead vocalist, these engineers are highly in demand and can often make or break a project.
Does EVERY project need Mixing and Mastering?
Are any of these steps skippable? Can we just go straight from your creation to mastering the track, skipping a proper mixdown? You will need both of these phases for most scenarios if you want your music to sit alongside others and sound professional. Mixing is almost always needed at some level, however, there are some instances where mastering might not be completely necessary:
- TV/Film Sync: Many times, musicians who are already part of a catalog or collection of libraries will only be requested to submit tracks that haven’t been mastered. The mastering process is often handled by the post-production team along with the other audio elements such as dialogue or sound effects. Often times, submissions will typically only ask for the original, uncut raw file. You’ll be sending in a project that is mixed, but not mastered. It’s important to note though, if you pitch your music for the first time, you will likely want to master your track.
- Podcast / Vocals: There is some level of processing (de-essers, compression, etc.) for podcasts, but for most vocal-based audio, there isn’t much to mix. However, you will most likely require the audio to be boosted or mastered before digital distribution.
- Casual Listening: If you’re creating music for your projects without a plan to distribute or release commercially, you can skip mastering a track.
Mix and master wrap up
An incredible mix and master of your project, whether you do it on your own or hire out, can take your work and level up more than you could have ever accomplished on your own. Often, these two steps, if done right, will allow elements to come through in your work and have it stand out. While your home studio might not have the same equipment as an expensive professional studio, solid mixing and mastering will still allow your work to compete and play on the same field as anything put out by the larger industry.
In the end, you’ve created something beautiful and doing these steps right will ensure your hard work comes through to your listener.