Mixing and mastering go hand-in-hand. But many musicians may be curious about what the difference is between the two. Since most people refer to both mixing and mastering together, they must basically be the same thing, right?
Well, not quite. They are related, though. They are both part of the post-production process of recording an album. They both involve using equipment to tweak the sound of your recording to get it sounding like a professional product. But they’re not exactly the same, and they are never done at the same time. Mixing and mastering are two distinct and separate steps of making an album.
Mixing always comes first. After recording your tracks, they go to the mix engineer, who listens to the song and adjusts each track individually—every guitar track, every vocal, even individual drum microphone tracks. He makes sure each one’s volume is at a good level and in the right proportion to the others. He puts effects on each track individually—like reverbs, delays, and compression—plus he puts effects on the overall mix as well. He also pans everything left or right, and sets up automation to make sure all volumes, effects, and pans are adjusted exactly right for every part of the song, every time he plays it back. Finally, the mix engineer bounces the mix to a stereo audio file, usually in full-quality WAV or AIFF format.
Next is when the mastering happens. Mastering serves a similar purpose to mixing, but instead of being applied to each individual instrument, mastering is applied to the completed mix, (two-channel stereo audio track). It is the final step of the process, the cherry on top of the recording. Mastering gets the finished product to sound sonically full and balanced, plus it brings the volume up so the recording can compete with other professionally made albums. To dive into a few more specific parts of mastering, check out our What is Mastering? page.
So although mixing and mastering similar, they are not one and the same. A good general rule to remember: if your song is mixed and not mastered, it’s not finished!
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