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I am a musician, and I have amateurish-ly recorded my own musical inspiration. I am curious to learn, though, and one of the most confusing things is - as so often - in terminology. I am looking for tutorials to get a better, warmer sound after recording on lower-end gear using software tools. The problem is that I don't know what keywords to search for. I've seen the terms mixing and mastering come by a lot, but it seems to me that they are either synonyms or a lot of people misuse one or the other.

Tl;dr: what is the difference between mixing and mastering recorded audio?

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I too am an amateur "recording engineer" from the standpoint of I record my original songs in my home studio on inexpensive gear to produce what I consider a rough demo - capable of conveying the general idea of the song. When I want a more professionally produced "radio ready" cut, I will go to a professional studio.

To simplify the answer to your question, let's talk in terms of one song so we don't get confused between mastering an entire album and mixing a song.

A song that you record will consists of more than one track (otherwise there is nothing to mix). You might have your rhythm guitar on one track, your main vocals on another, backing vocals on a third, lead guitar on a 4th etc.

Once you record each individual track (while monitoring the others as the new part is played) you will need to do some mixing. This is where you adjust the parameters of each individual track in your song to achieve the optimal balance between tracks as it relates to the overall mix. You will adjust the relative volume of each track, the stereo pan, perhaps add compression to some tracks, maybe a little reverb or chorus or delay or whatever is needed to enhance each track so it fits into the mix of the overall song the way you envision it.

In your application, most of the shaping and control you will impart on the song will be during the mixing process. This is where you will make sure that the guitar does not mask the vocals, the lead guitar part stands out above the rhythm guitar during a solo, the bass guitar can be distinguished from the kick drum, the background vocals don't overpower the lead vocal and so on.

Mastering is done after all the mixing is set just the way you want it. During mastering, you will capture the mix you created and fine tune it and prepare it for saving as a digital file you can use outside your home studio.

During mastering you are working with the entire mix (consisting of all the tracks in your song) as a whole. During mastering you will adjust the amplitude to eliminate any inappropriate spikes or drops in volume, perhaps apply some compression to the song as a whole, add some limiter parameters and so on. It is also during mastering that the song is formatted and encoded into something you can convert into a usable digital format such as a .wav file or something that can be stored on a CD. It's even more complex if you are going to master your song for vinyl. Without mastering, you could not save your song in a format that could be distributed to others. You would only have your mix on your home recording software/hardware.

To use an analogy - suppose you want to take a group photo of a tennis team or other group of people. You will first want to arrange the group so that everyone is visible in the picture (tall people in the back, everyone close enough together to fit in the frame etc.). You want to frame the photo so the group is centered, and perhaps be sure the lighting is optimal. After a little shuffling and repositioning and zooming in or out, you now have composed the picture just the way you want it. That's the mixing part.

But you want to be able to share what you can now see in your viewfinder with others and preserve this image for posterity. So you take a photograph with your camera and your camera captures the image and "masters" it so that you can save it as a .jpg image or print it on photo paper. Of course you can tweak the image with digital photo editing software (or in the darkroom if using film) to enhance the end product (also part of mastering). But you can't change who is in the picture or where they appeared in the picture. All that was done during the mixing.

Recording and mixing is a fun part of the creative process of songwriting and composing. Have fun with it and good luck.

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The mixing engineer takes the individual recorded tracks (drums, vocals, guitar, bass, etc) and consolidates them into one single entity: the song.

The mastering engineer takes that single entity that the mixing engineer produced, polishes it further, and prepares it for use and distribution.

In a jigsaw puzzle, the mixing engineer would be the one that takes the individual pieces and solves the puzzle, and the mastering engineer would be the one that makes sure everything is fine to then apply glue, polish, and then frame the solved puzzle.

Mixing involves many different things: panorama (positioning each element in the mix), volume control (compressors, limiters, vocal raid), effects (reverb, delay, harmonic enhancers, distortion), pitch correction, cleaning audio from unwanted sounds and artifacts, quantizing, adjusting the frequency balance (equalizers), to name a few.

Mastering involves many different things: frequency balance (sometimes the mastering and mixing engineers don't completely agree on this, so the mastering engineer can adjust it further), volume control (now that they don't have all the tracks individually the volume control is very limited, but some adjustments are possible through multi-band compression), applying RIAA curve, adjusting stereo width, adjusting loudness (through compressors and/or limiters, possibly applying limiter at 0 dBFS), adding metadata, adjusting start and end of songs, conserves coherence in relative volumes among tracks of one album, to name a few.

The production chain is: recording -> mixing -> mastering -> distribution

Some explicit differences:

  • Number of tracks. For each song, the mixer works with several different recorded tracks, while the mastering engineer works with one (the song itself, produced by the mixer).

  • Relative volumes. The mixer will adjust relative volumes among instruments, not among songs. The mastering engineer will adjust relative volumes among songs and possibly among instruments (with some limitations since he can't adjust the volume of each instrument individually, he has to work with frequency bands instead).

  • Processes. The mixer will apply equalization to each individual element, and not to the whole song. The mastering engineer will apply equalization to the whole song. Same applies to other processes (compression, reverb, etc).

  • Final touches (metadata, RIAA curve, etc). The mixer is not involved at all, it's 100% the job of the mastering engineer.

  • In other words, it seems as if you mean that the mixing engineer makes sure that the song itself sounds as it should, considering relative volume and volume normalization. The mastering engineer can then make the song as a whole, but also individual instruments, sound better? Because that's different from what Steve is saying, I think. (He's speaking about a whole CD and mixing tracks relatively to each other) – Bram Vanroy Nov 27 '15 at 12:26
  • @BramVanroy One works with multiple audio sources (mixing), the other works with only one (mastering). That's the fundamental difference. But both involve a lot of other stuff, with some overlap. Not everything is mutually exclusive. I edited my answer to add more detail. – Lyd Nov 27 '15 at 12:45
  • Why the downvote? – Todd Wilcox Nov 27 '15 at 18:55
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Producing an audio creation is usually a 4 part process:

Recording is quite obvious, as the name says it means recording the musical creation itself. As much as you've probably heard, using great gear for recording infact does make a difference later when it goes to the mixing and mastering stages. Low quality gear tends to add unneccessary noise to the recording, and also may not capture the sound and miss some depth. Not something that you can't get rid of, but still recording a singer with a 2000$ Shure Microphone -vs- recording him with a computer home microphone is a HUGE difference.

Sequencing is the next part of an audio production, its mostly the creative process of composing the musical track itself - arranging your audio tracks, what piece comes first, what comes next, what goes together, audio effects (Reverb, delays, etc). During this stage, usually the artist itself will perform "mixing" in terms of balancing the volume of audio tracks, but that is far from what professional mixing is...

Mixing is the process of balancing the different audio tracks in terms of volume, and frequencies (EQ), to make them "heard" together. This is a little bit more than just balancing the volume itself. On some instruments, you need to add more brightness (for example: on Hihats or Cymbals of drums), on some you need more bass (for example: Bass drum, Bass guitar, etc), and also good mixing involves knowing how to balance the instruments realy well in terms of frequecies and sometimes even seperating a few instruments that share the same frequency range using sidechain ducking. For example, if a Bass guitar and a Bass drum both share the audio spectrum of 60-200hz, simply mixing them together will create an overload in this frequency range that will "swallow" other instruments, which is not good at all. So SOME techical knowledge is required from a realy good mixing producer.

Mastering is the final process in the production of audio. And this, plus the mixing part, are usually the parts that makes the whole difference between a commercial breakthrough album to an amateur one. A great example would be Nirvana's "Nevermind" album. In terms of the music itself, it is ok. But combined with a great mixing producer and a great mastering, that album became one of the best albums ever sold. So what is Mastering? Mastering is the process of taking the final mix, which is usually "low" in volume, and usually made on reference speaker, and doing all sorts of things in order to get it to be "ready" for a commercial release: Amplifying the overall volume, Balancing the instruments correctly (in case the mixing producer missed them), monitoring it on high-end speakers instead of reference speakers, testing it on a wide variety of different speakers, and much more. Mastering engineers are usually people with both very accurate hearing ears, and both technically gifted in terms of perfectly controlling a wide range of audio processors that the average person have no idea of, and that are neccessary for cleaning, polishing, and balancing the final product for commercial release (For example: Multiband compressor, Noise gates, Hiss removers, and more).

I hope this answered your question.

  • Wait... are you saying that "Nevermind" was successful because it was mastered well, and that its success had nothing to do with the music? That's just absurd... – Dietrich Epp Dec 2 '15 at 22:56
  • I know. Don't feel upset about it though. I myself love Nirvana and "Nevermind" is one of my all time favourite albums, and I also like it in terms of the musical composition. But the way Nirvana sounded on stage -vs- how they sound on this album is the same difference as between the ground and the sky. Do a Youtube search for some of the songs from this album on a live performance. You'll then realize that Nirvana don't sound all that great anymore after listening to a live version of them. – Miki Berkovich Dec 3 '15 at 16:58
  • It's no secret that many bands sound radically different on stage and in the studio, but that difference does not come down to mastering. "You can't polish a turd," so they say, and this applies to music as well. If Nirvana had come in to the studio with a bunch of crap songs, they would have left with a crap album. A lot of the differences are going to come down to the studio environment, how they interact with the producer, micing and EQ, and a million other choices that have nothing to do with mastering. I'm not upset, but this is a terrible and inaccurate answer. – Dietrich Epp Dec 3 '15 at 19:47
  • You're realy just more justifying my answer. Mixing and Mastering are both the two pieces of the same thing. You probably aren't familiar with this enough, but did you know that Mastering engineers, especially ones that have to compose albums.. actually work on the multitracks received from the mixing engineer and correct mistakes? Did you think that mastering is only the final mixdown? And regarding "Nevermind": That album was the main reason for Nirvana's commercial success. even Kurt Kobain himself, in multiple interviews, stated how surprised they were by how good this album sounded. – Miki Berkovich Dec 5 '15 at 13:24
  • Stop making this about me... this is not about me, so don't say things like "You probably aren't familiar with this enough" or "Don't feel upset about it though"... this kind of language is not acceptable on the Stack Exchange network. We should probably move this to chat, but your statement that the mastering engineer works with the same multitrack sources as the mixing engineer goes against my understanding of how multitrack mastering works. Can you cite sources? From what I understand, when you get something mastered that way, you're only using the stems, not all of the original tracks. – Dietrich Epp Dec 5 '15 at 18:04
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Someone will be along in a while with a more detailed response; but in a nutshell

mixing is adjusting the relative volume levels, effect and eq levels, stereo placement, etc. of the various recorded elements of your track to achieve the overall sound you want for your recording. So if you can't hear the singer over the guitar (or vice versa) that's a problem in the mix.

mastering is taking the various individual completed mixes and preparing them for release - so you would ensure, for example, that the relative volumes of the various tracks match, and that the tracks have an appropriate run-in and run-out both for the track itself and in relation to the track either side of it in your intended sequence on the released version. A CD or a collection of MP3s where you have to adjust the playback volume between each track would be an extreme example of poor mastering. Mastering was also where the 'loudness wars' of the 1990s were fought, as every pop producer tried to master their song to sound louder and brighter on the radio than everyone else's.

Mastering would also involve ensuring that the tracks individually and as an 'album' are technically ready for pressing to vinyl, burning to CD or encoding to MP3, and the preparation of the physical / digital master from which all other copies were to be made.

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A vernacular phrase for the difference between a mix engineer and a mastering engineer is this: "A mix engineer's job is to put in as much goodness as he can. The mastering engineer's job is to remove as much 'suck' as he can."

The mastering engineer can't really ADD anything...by virtue of their position in the workflow, they can only really minimize deficiencies.

Historically, "mastering" was a very straightforward part of the process. It was a purely technical final production step where the finished "master recording" was prepared for duplication. In vinyl duplication, the mastering engineer would be taking the mono or stereo final tape, and evaluating it for the characteristics that affected the cutting of the master lacquer on the cutting lathe. This involved fine-tuning the final level and perhaps some minor EQ (above and beyond applying the RIAA curve), as these parameters affected the groove pitch, and thus the playing time of the platter.

Today, the term "mastering engineer" has lost almost all meaning. Today it means any and all stupidity and nonsense and second-guessing of the original mix that you can possibly think of. There are mastering engineers that apply multiband compression, demand stems so they can completely re-work all the balances decided upon by the mixer/producer, apply all manner of effects, etc. This sort of "mastering" is really better called "remixing."

In today's music production workflow, it is common to have a mixer working in a room or environment that isn't acoustically/sonically optimal, perhaps with prosumer equipment that isn't of the highest fidelity. In this scenario, the final mix can be "colored" by the deficiencies of the mixer's environment.

According to many "A-list" mix engineers and producers, the new role of the mastering engineer here is to be an "objective ear" that listens to the project with fresh perspective, on high-quality equipment in a highly-optimized sonic environment. In such a place, the deficiencies and idiocyncracies of the mixer's listening space become apparent, and can (hopefully) be compensated for, such that the final mix will sound LIKE THE MIXER INTENDED across a wide variety of reproduction systems.

The role of the MIX engineer is very different. The mix engineer has the task of taking a set of recorded tracks and turning them into a single presentation that conveys the musician's musical and emotional intent.

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I am a mixing and mastering engineer myself. So I believe I can help you the best.

Mixing - audio mixing (or “mix down”) is the process which commences after all tracks are recorded and edited as individual parts. The mixing-process can consist of various processes but are not limited to setting levels, setting equalization, using stereo panning, and the addition of effect. I.e mix engineer takes the flaws out of the rough mix that has been given to him by the producer or composer.

Mastering - Basically In this process a mastering engineer works on the final mix that has been given to him by the mix engineer and process on it to make it consistent over the playback system. What I mean is if only a mixed audio is played on a different systems they would sound different on different devices. On hi-fi they would sound fab, on phones they would sound low in volume or brittle, in the mastering process the engineer does some processing that encodes the audio file with certain codings that when you hear it on any device the audio would retain its basic characteristic. Features. That is if its a hip hop song which tends to have more bass good low end if play the mastered track on any device. The track won't feel like its lacking the low end it will still retain the lows.

All in all the track become uniform for playback after mastering.

To sum up - Mixing is the foundation process where mix engineer builds , furnishes all the ideas that the musical would have had while making the song where as mastering is like icing on the cake its like painting the house to keep it beautiful for ever.

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