What’s the Difference Between Mixing & Mastering?

October 8, 2021

If music is running through your veins and you’ve been spending years mastering your craft, writing your own songs, and refining your talent, then it’s a great time to think about laying down a professional track. The world of sound engineering can be pretty complicated if you’ve never recorded before, especially when it means getting to grips with new processes and terminology. If you’re wondering what the difference is between mixing and mastering, then this article from our recording studio team will answer all your questions and help you through the important milestone of your first professional track.

Tracking, Mixing and Mastering

When you first visit a studio, you’ll start by tracking your song. This is a pretty simple process that just refers to recording your song on a digital audio workstation (DAW) so that sound engineers can get to work on it. Now things can start to get a bit more complex and technical.

What is Mixing?

Mixing is the process of balancing individual elements within the tracks, including vocals and different instruments. This process dates back to before the 1950s when mixing engineers were called balance engineers because they worked to balance the volume of each instrument. Today, as technology has advanced, the job is much more complex and deals with many more variables – but it still starts with balance at the foundation!

Some of the most important elements of an audio mix include:

  • Balance – This is the volume-based relationship between the different audio elements. It brings the different elements to the same or an appropriate level, so no element is drowning out another.
  • Panorama – Every audio element needs to exist within the sound field, making it fully accessible by panning it through to create a stereo mix.
  • Frequency – This is about representing all the audio frequencies appropriately and requires a very sensitive ear. While this can be done during the tracking stage, it is more effectively achieved during mixing.
  • Dimension – This is the ambience of the track, where reverberation and delay tools are used to create what is called a ‘wetter’ mix filled with effects that bring the track alive.
  • Interest – These are elements that are used to evoke the optimal emotional response from the song in the listener. The part that brings a tear to your eye or causes you to break out in dance.

Today, mixing can be a massive project with even sessions generating well over 100 tracks. This is also where the most dramatic changes to the track occur, and it’s common to make sweeping adjustments to different elements, tweaking it and changing it with broad strokes. This makes mixing one of the most complex and demanding phases of song production, breaking each track down to its basic elements and rebuilding it to make it far greater than the sum of its parts.

The sound engineer will be able to look at each element separately (usually each instrument or audio component is saved separately, named and colour-coded for clarity) to look at each element’s volume, dynamics, frequencies, and spatial placement. This is to make sure they are not too loud or too soft, aren’t drowning each other out, that the transients aren’t too obtrusive, and that they sound appropriately close to or further away from the listener. If you need more lead vocals, a stronger drum beat, gentler base line, or a softer lead guitar, your mixing engineer can deliver them.

Every mixing engineer has their own workflow to help make this happen, but it tends to include two distinct stages. In the first stage, the engineer focuses on technical elements to create an authentic and best-result version of the song. This is the more methodical and scientific stage of the process, where you’re trying to create a result that meets a specific set of criteria for a professional track. It can be incredibly repetitive, and mixing engineers need to be able to hear a track over and over and over again in every detail throughout this process.

The second stage is where the true value of a great mixing engineer comes in. Here, creativity is as important as expertise, and your mixing engineer will use their talents to make the mix as attention-grabbing, as striking, and as emotionally engaging as possible. 

This stage is about tweaking variables to create the right response in the listener and fine-tuning each element to be as clear and evocative as possible. Stereo wideners, phasers, chorus, saturation, and automation are all tools that are commonly used in this stage to make a track as hyper-realistic and all-encompassing as possible, and mixing engineers can edit parts of the track by cutting parts off and splicing in new sections to change the final track. It’s commonly said that this process accounts for the majority of the track’s final sound, and readies the track for the final mastering process. 

Popular mixing software that allows you to access every instrument and audio element separately include Adobe Audition, Logic Pro X, FabFilter Pro-Q3, Waves Renaissance Maxx, and iZotope Neutron 3 Standard.

Once your track has reached this level of precision, it’s not yet finished. Now it’s time to move on to mastering.

What is Mastering?

This is the final refinement process that a track will go through before distribution – the cherry on top that takes the hard work completed in the mixing process and elevates it to an even higher level. This is what will take your track to the same level as professional mixes, making it sound the same fully finished quality as any other track you hear on the radio, stream off a playlist, or hear on a soundtrack. It’s also what brings an entire album to life, bringing each song together to create a cohesive and exciting unit.

To do this, mastering engineers process the entire mix to make the track louder, refine the quality, and make sure that it works on all types of audio systems and formats used for distribution. This is achieved by using volume, equaliser, and compression tools as well as a limiter. Limiters are one of the most interesting pieces of sound mastering equipment, as they make a song seem louder than it is, giving the track the same power even at a lower volume.

Some of the most important elements of audio mastering include:

  • Dynamics – Compression, limiting, and gating help keep each sound element at an enjoyable level, making sure no single element becomes too intense in the overall sound.
  • Equalisers – These shape the tone of the track by boosting or reducing specific frequency ranges.
  • Harmonic filters – These filters help to create a sense of energy and excitement in the mix.
  • Bit depth reduction and sample rate conversion – Also called dither, this converts higher word-length recordings to lower bit depths while keeping the same dynamic range, ensuring the quality stays the same across formats.

Whereas mixing engineers have access to every instrument and audio element on an individual level, mastering engineers work with the whole track as a single item to polish it, brighten elements, and clarify the track. Having a fresh set of ears listen to a mix is like having a professional editor look over an article before it’s published, addressing the song holistically to create a more cohesive flow and a more impressive result.

Mastering is also an essential level of quality control that’s needed if you want your song to have the same professional feel as a Grammy-winning track. It gives a second, experienced professional a chance to look over the mix and catch any errors or opportunities for further refinement that may have been missed in the busy and highly repetitive mixing phase. Their role is to make final decisions that help the track to really shine and show off the aesthetic and message you want it to.

Popular mastering software applications include Steinberg WaveLab Elements 10, FabFilter Pro-L2, Magix Sequoia, and FI Studio.

Professional Mixing and Mastering in London

Both mixing and mastering are complex roles, and while there may be some overlap between them, they have distinctive parts to play in the creation of a professional track. While mixing brings together elements to create your sound, mastering refines and elevates the final product to its most exceptional level. The most important thing to remember is that, at their essence, mixing and mastering help elevate your track to a professional and world-class standard, presenting your voice, style, and message in the most effective and impactful way. 

At Kore Studios in London, we have a team of experienced sound engineers who will work with you throughout each step of this process, from tracking your song to creating your mix, and finally refining it to distribution-level quality in the mastering phase. Our team has worked with artists who are just starting out their journey through to established professionals such as White Lies, Florence and the Machine, and Manic Street Preachers. In addition to offering all artists an exceptional recording studio space for recording sessions, we also offer a wide range of high calibre audio recording equipment that we have curated over the last 15 years.

To record with us, get in touch and book your session – and see where our sound engineers can take you.