Mixing vs. Mastering Music: Understanding the Main Differences

Learn How to Mix and Master the Right Way!

Mixing vs. Mastering

As a music artist, it is crucial that the final product of the tracks you create and release is at par with the music other artists will also release. And what is going to help you achieve that final, perfect and polished track? Mixing and mastering. They both go hand in hand. You cannot (more like should not) skip either of the processes in the music production process.  

If you are someone who is venturing into the musical world as a budding music producer, the terms “mixing” and “mastering” have probably flown past you a few times. Trust us, we know you have been trying to understand the key differences between mixing and mastering all this time. We are here to help. Read further to know more.

What Is the Difference Between Mixing and Mastering?

While they both go hand in hand, mixing and mastering music are quite different. To sum it up, mixing refers to combining multiple tracks in a song to create a cohesive stereo file. Once this is done, the audio mastering process comes into play to polish the mix and prepare it for release.

Difference Between Mixing and Mastering
Mixing vs. Mastering Music

Let’s understand the difference between these two. 

What Is Mixing?

The process of “mixing” music involves assembling various sounds into one continuous track or sequencing different songs in the desired order. It may also refer to removing unwanted or unnecessary tones from an audio clip. While there are undoubtedly technical considerations involved in the mixing process, the activity serves more of an art rather than a goal. 

Mixing can be done at the beginning of post-production. In mixing, the artist adjusts and balances the different tracks in a recording to sound complete when played together, sometimes with the assistance of a client or reference track.

With the use of tools like eq and compression, panning, and reverb, mixing experts even out the volume and tone of each instrument, tighten up the song’s rhythm, and highlight the track’s most crucial parts. 

What Is Mastering?

Mastering is the final step in music production. It involves polishing this stereo format (entire mix) to make it sound seamless and appealing to the ears. In short, mixing of the tracks is done first, followed by mastering, which uses subtle broad strokes to polish the mix. 

Mastering experts often listen to the whole composition in stereo mixdown form. They consider the final result and whether or not they need to make any adjustments to the audio quality of the playback.

Per research by the Audio Engineering Society, there is a strong tendency for mixing engineers to like their own mixes. Therefore, it’s important to get a mastering engineer to perfect your mixes from an unbiased viewpoint.

What Is the Difference Between Mixing and Mastering Engineers?

Now that you know the difference between mixing vs. mastering, let’s also understand what a mixing engineer or mastering engineer can do. 

Who Is a Mixing Engineer?

A mixing engineer is an audio professional who is responsible for blending and balancing the various audio tracks that make up a final recording. A mixing engineer may adjusting volume levels, add effects, and enhance the overall sound to create a cohesive final product.

Depending on the complexity of the project, their experience level and the number of tracks available, a mixing engineer takes a day or up to weeks to create their mix. 

Mixing professionals also work with musicians, music producers and mastering engineers to ensure the final recording meets the desired quality and creative vision. 

Who Is a Mastering Engineer?

A mastering engineer is someone who uses their audio and technical knowledge to amend a mix to enhance its quality. They are experts in their field, and are an important contributing factor to helping your tracks reach great heights.

In short, mastering engineers use the mixed audio track and work on it to create a seamless final product, which can easily be played across various platforms and different speakers and loudspeakers. Along with this, a mastering engineer also takes care of making the audio track ready for release. 

Will AI Replace Mastering Engineers in the Future?

With technological advancements in the audio production space, time and again we have heard about artificial intelligence (AI) replacing mastering engineers. However, research by Big Data and Society suggests that AI, combined with human intelligence, can shape the future of audio mastering.

“AI in the cultural industry of audio mastering will need to strive toward human-centered algorithm design, encompassing both critical listening and creativity, in collaboration with humans rather than through attempts to replace them.”

Big Data and Society

Is Mastering Harder Than Mixing?

Both mastering and mixing take years to perfect. Therefore, there’s no definitive answer to this question. Different people in the music industry have different beliefs.

Is Mastering Harder Than Mixing?
Both Mixing and Mastering Are Equally Hard

Mixing Involves Multiple Stages Within Itself

The mixing stage includes a wide range of steps within itself, which in turns allows mixing engineers to create wonders with the various possible creative steps. 

Many music experts agree that mixing is one of the most difficult skills to learn in the music industry. This is also because mixing plays a crucial role in the way your final music track turns out, and how it is delivered to the listeners. 

Mastering Involves a More Complex Technical Environment and Requirements

You can think of mastering as “cleaning up” the song, once it has been worked upon. However, the cleaning isn’t easy. Mastering engineers often spend quite a lot of time trying to understand the different requirements needed to play a music track on different platforms and loudspeakers.

Owing to the technical involvement and requirements, mastering (final step in the production of music) is considered more difficult than mixing. Some record producers believe that since mastering requires professionals to pay minute attention to the tracks to create a polished music track. Because of this, the mastering stage can become tedious and tricky. 

Why Are Mastering and Mixing Important for Creating a Polished Final Product?

If you want to be the best, you have to show up as your best. And, your first impression is your last impression.

As a musical artist, the same apply for your music tracks. You have very little time before your audience switches to your competitors, if they don’t like what they hear, or if the sound quality of your tracks doesn’t match their expectations.

This is where both mixing and mastering will hand-in-hand navigate you to your best. Without mixing or mastering, music production is a lifeless exercise.

Mixing and mastering are two key audio production stages that play a highly important role in the way your final track turns out. When combined, they determine how good your music will sound when it is played across different devices, platforms and speakers. 

We recommend putting thorough thought and effort into how you mix or master your audio tracks, as they really help to set you apart from your competitors. 

How to Prepare Your Tracks for Mixing and Mastering?

While mastering is, of course, a very crucial part of the entire song recording and releasing process, you do not want your efforts to be wasted just because the mix wasn’t properly prepared for mastering. Here’s how to prepare your tracks for mixing and mastering. 

1. Envision the Final Product 

When you are gearing up to start mixing your music track, envision what you want the final product to sound and feel like. This will not only come in handy for you if you are the one who is mixing but also for the mastering engineer who will polish your track.

2. Have a Reference Song in Mind

If you are a beginner artist, we recommend having a song as reference to properly envision what your final product will sound like. Of course, it doesn’t mean you copy or plagiarize another artist’s song. Use parts of the song as reference, if you must.  

3. Be Picky About the Tracks You Mix Together

When it comes to achieving the “perfect mix,” it is never a bad thing to be picky. Therefore, be picky about the tracks you are planning to mix together, and delete the ones you won’t be using. Don’t just mix tracks for the heck of mixing them. The more unnecessary tracks you add to the final piece, the more you end up cluttering your the song. 

4. Work on Cleaning Up the Transitions in Your Mixes

Add smooth transition pieces between different tracks in your mixes. If there is any silence between two tracks, work on eliminating it. Do the same with any glitches or external noise. We highly recommend making sure that the volume of all of your tracks is at the same level.

Also, if you sense an issue in the way the tracks sound, let the mastering engineer know well in advance so that they can work on fixing it. Use the best mixing and mastering headphones, such as Beyerdynamic headphones, when perfecting your mix’s transitions as they will help you detect any noise or irregular sounds in your tracks.

5. Make Space Between the Tracks

In order for you or your mastering engineer to create the perfect final track, keep some space between the end of one track and the start of another. A mistake many budding artists make is not keeping enough space between two tracks, which can cause some issues for the engineer when they begin mastering it. 

6. Don’t Forget to Keep Some Headroom

Headroom is another term used quite often in the music industry. It is often used interchangeably with “making space” too. The term “headroom” refers to how much room your music track has before being clipped.

Leaving headroom ensures the mastering engineer has enough space to work with. We recommend not keeping a lot of headroom as this can lead to the addition of distortion in the final piece. Ideally, your mix should peak between 10 dB to 6 dB.

7. Be Careful While Rendering and Exporting the Files 

Nothing is worse than creating the perfect track after mixing and mastering only to find that you exported it to the wrong file format. Believe it or not, the right file rendering and exporting will make a huge impact on the way the final product sounds. All you need to do is select the correct file type as well as the rate of sample, and depth. 

We recommend exporting your track after mixing and mastering as a .wav, since the quality is much better than other file types, like .mp3 for example. Keep this as your go-to for file exports.

Along with this, it is also common practice by audio engineers to have their mix at a sample rate 44100. Following this ensures that you have top quality finished products each and every time. 

How to Create a Polished Mix? 

The ability to mix is a skill you must acquire. And you don’t require a professional studio for the same. Your digital audio workstation, or DAW, is enough for the job. Some people’s mental image of a mixing console is something at least 12 feet long, with more knobs and faders than they know what to do with. You only need a pair of headphones and a comfortable space to learn how to mix. 

To create that perfect, polished mix (or prevent the creation of a bad mix), here are a few things you should keep in mind: 

  1. Calibrate your hearing before mixing. 
  2. Listen to the unfinished mix to get a feel of how is sounds.
  3. Work on your mix and determine which components you want to string together (for example, do you want your rock track to include an electric guitar or a heavy drum?).
  4. Focus on mixing within the song structure. 
  5. Use automation.
  6. Send the mix to the mastering engineer.

Want more tips for mixing music the right way? Check “How to Mix Music” now!

How to Master a Song With Polishing and Frequency Balancing?

1. Use Limiters 

Limiting is one of the last yet crucial steps when you are mastering. It involves using limiters to magnify the loudness of a music track. It does this by enhancing the quest parts of the audio signals and ensures that you avoid clipping at the peaks of the audio signal. 

Example Showing a Limiter

2. Avoid Overdoing Stereo Enhancement 

A common mistake beginner music artists and music engineers make is overdoing the stereo enhancement when they are mastering, which leads to an unimpressive final track. To avoid making the same mistake, we recommend you to use the right type of processor.

While many DAWs have built in processors that take care of stereo enhancement, they aren’t necessarily the best when it comes to mastering. You can, instead, use a linear phase equalizer

3. Focus on Frequency Balancing

Tonal balancing refers to dissipation of power across the frequency range. Proper frequency balancing ensures the sounds in your recording are distinguishable. It also leads to a seamless and wonderful sounding track that sounds all the more put together.

Frequency balancing, in broader terms, refers to balancing the various different parts of a music track, such as the bass and treble. It is all about how various different ranges of frequencies sound together. When it comes to mastering, frequency balancing is often done by mastering engineers by comparing various tonal balances of their track with the tonal balance of tracks they use as reference songs.

How to Troubleshoot Common Mixing and Mastering Issues?

There are four common mixing and mastering issues you may experience:

  1. Muddy mix
  2. Wrong file type
  3. Inconsistent vocals
  4. Over compressed vocals
Four Common Mixing and Mastering issues
Four Common Mixing and Mastering issues

Follow these steps to troubleshoot the four common mixing and mastering issues listed above:

1. Repair a Muddy Mix 

If you find that your mix doesn’t sound the way you wanted, it’s probably a muddy mix.

Therefore, you’ve got to clean up the mud in your mix to ensure your track sounds seamless and cohesive. A muddy mix makes various instruments and fragments of your track lose their shine.  

Here’s how you can fix a muddy mix:

  1. Avoid increasing the frequency range, which is a common mistake many artists do. 
  2. Work on cutting the highs and the upper mids to make everything sound less harsh instead of enhancing the low mids.
  3. Choose tracks that already sound well put to avoid having the final mix sound muddy. 
  4. Use high pass filters if you have tracks with an enhanced low end.
  5. Keep adequate headroom.

2. Fix the Wrong File Type 

It’s important that you export your tracks into the correct file type which does not alter the quality of your final product. Many artists choose to export to .mp3, because they believe it makes the track sound better. This, however, is wrong. To ensure you have the best audio quality, export your files to.wav file type. 

3. Enhance Consistency in the Vocals

Vocals are one of the most, if not the most, important elements of your track. However, a common mistake made in a track is that the vocals are either too loud or way too quiet, leading to the listener not being able to properly hear the lyrics.

Instead, what we recommend is using a compressor to add more consistency in the vocal dynamics. What you need to do is increase the volume of the vocals so that they are heard. Then, using a compressor, take care of the peaks to maintain consistency. 

4. Avoid Over Compressing 

While using a compressor is great to ensure consistency, overdoing the compression can do more harm than good to your track. Here are the signs of over-compression in your track: 

  1. Over compression tends to get rid of the dynamics in your track. 
  2. Over compression can reduce the shine of various components and instruments in your track. 

Ensure to not go overboard with using a compressor when you are working on the consistency and dynamics of your track, and you are good to go!

Final Words

It is a common misunderstanding that simply mastering is enough to create the perfect track. While mastering plays a highly critical role in the way your track sounds, it doesn’t mean you don’t need mixing prior to it. Remember, you can mix without mastering, but you cannot master without a mix. 

We recommend spending adequate time in perfecting your mix and master in order to take your tracks to their ultimate best when producing your own music.

We hope by now you have a fair understanding of what mixing and mastering are, how they differ from one another, and common tricks and tips to keep in mind when you are mixing and mastering your audio track. If you have any questions, doubts or queries, feel free to drop a comment in our comments section below, and our experts will get back to you with an answer in no time!