In the most basic sense mixing is taking many individual tracks and combining them together (mixing) to create a stereo version of the song. This is the “knob twiddling” part where you’re making sure all of the different elements that have been recorded separately work together to create a great sounding track.
In a music production, once the mix is sounding right all of those tracks are bounced down or mixed into a single stereo audio file. This stereo file is then ready to be mastered before it is released for streaming, on CD, vinyl or even cassette tape.
Mastering is taking that stereo version and applying certain types of processing (EQ, compression, stereo widening, loudness maximising etc.) to finalise the song before release.
Back in the day when music was produced for the vinyl medium, mastering sometimes didn’t apply any processing and was simply the process of cutting the stereo mix (or back in the early, early days before stereo, mono mix) onto a “master version”. This master version was then used for reproductions in the vinyl pressing plant.
As time went on and music equipment and formats progressed mastering became less of a physical art form – e.g. making sure the physical cutting head of the vinyl cutting lathe didn’t jump grooves because their was too much bass in the track – to a more artistically complementary art form e.g. make the music sound as good as it can for whatever medium it will be distributed on whether streaming, CD, vinyl etc.
The bottom line is if a mix is killer the mastering engineer’s job is much more straightforward however if your tracks have been mixed in a less than perfect mix environment or by less experienced mix engineers (even experienced engineers miss things too), the mixes might need a little help.
Mastering performs 3 roles in the final step of the music production process:
- Continuity – Making sure all tracks in a release work together as a whole.
- Compliance – Making sure every track meets certain benchmarks for commercial release.
- Corrective – Making sure the track is free from errors and correcting any inconsistencies that might not have been addressed in the mix.
Hopefully this article helps give you a better understanding of what’s involved in the mixing process and how this differs from music mastering.
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