Mixing vs. Mastering: Understanding the Difference
For a lot of artists, post-production can seem like a mystery. Mixing usually makes sense - sure, it’s when you balance and clean up all the recordings, got it - but then what does Mastering do?
And can the mixing and mastering engineer be the same person, or is it better to divide up duties? Is it even necessary to go to a real mastering engineer anymore, or can you use one of those automatic mastering services?
Or maybe you’re someone who already has a good understanding of post-production. And perhaps, even though you may consider yourself an amateur, you’re wondering if it’s wise to mix your music yourself.
In this guide, I’ll go over the differences between mixing and mastering and how to set yourself up for success during each stage when working with professional engineers. Additionally, I’ll discuss how to know when it makes sense to handle things yourself and mix your own songs.
Let’s do it!
First, let’s get specific and clarify exactly what’s going on in each phase:
Mixing is the process of balancing and treating all of the individually recorded tracks in the song’s session. This usually includes applying EQ, compression, and saturation in order to make sure every instrument has its “space” in the song and to get the song sounding “punchy” and clear. The engineer then might apply different effects to the tracks like reverb, delay, chorus, phaser, octaves, autotune, etc. Finally, the engineer might write volume automation to highlight any special moments and to make sure the entire song feels “live” and exciting. The specifics of the process vary wildly depending on the needs of the song, but ultimately, it’s combining all of the individual elements down into one awesome sounding stereo track.
Before the early 2000s, mixing was usually done in studios on the “board”, or the main console. When you think of a big fancy recording studio, the board is the enormous machine that’s front and center in the control room, the one with all the knobs, faders, and buttons.
Nowadays, most professional mixing happens “in the box”, meaning exclusively within the DAW on the computer. Sometimes, professional engineers own pieces of “outboard gear” to complement their “in the box” workflows - physical audio processing units that, in order to use, the engineer must route the tracks “through” them. It’s not uncommon for engineers to have one or two fancy outboard compressors, for example, but keep everything else “in the box”.
When considering what mixing engineer to work with, it’s largely unimportant what gear they own or how they work. Is it an industry vet who owns a big studio and mixes exclusively on a massive console? Great, bet they’ll do a killer job. Is it a friend of a friend who works entirely out of their laptop and turns out amazing productions? Go for it.
What’s actually most important to consider when choosing a mixing engineer is
1- Their portfolio
2- Their communication skills
Are you impressed with their past work? And, after having reached out to them, do they communicate clearly and effectively? Whoever you bring on to mix your music, you can assume you’ll be emailing or messaging them back and forth a ton - prioritize working with someone who’s responsive, down-to-earth, and engaged with you and your work.
Mastering is the process of turning the final stereo mix into a polished, competitive final ready for distribution. Mastering utilizes some of the same tools used in mixing, like EQ, compression, and saturation. But while the mixing engineer’s job was to really zoom in and get detail-oriented with the tracks, the mastering engineer’s job is to zoom way out - they’re considering how entire frequency regions are balanced with each other.
They’ll be looking at the low-end (kick drum and bass), for example, and making sure there isn’t too much or too little overall, and then treating that frequency range with compression or saturation to make it sound it’s best. The same idea applies to the other large frequency groups - they’ll ensure the mid-range feels punchy and not nasally, that the high end feels bright without feeling harsh. After all that, they’ll apply compression across the track to help make sure every element is clearly heard.
Finally, the engineer will add what’s called a “Limiter”, which, a little counter-intuitively, will bring the overall volume of the song up to industry-standard loudness. Loudness is most commonly measured in LUFS, or Loudness Unit Full Scale, which is essentially the song’s aggregate loudness measurements. Most modern loudness metering tools and plugins that engineers use offer either “integrated” or “momentary” LUFS readings - the song’s average volume versus the song’s volume during a specific moment.
For context, with 0db being the loudest possible volume, most modern commercially competitive songs clock around -14db to -7db integrated LUFS.
This is handy to know - if you were to receive the first master from your mastering engineer and the song, overall, feels quiet, you can say to them something like, “The song feels a bit quiet... what’s the integrated LUFS reading? Is there any room to push it a bit more?”
Should the Mixing Engineer Master?
While there’s nothing keeping a mixing engineer from potentially doing an awesome job mastering their own mix, there is a solid case to be made for going to a dedicated specialist. The idea is that a seperate, equally qualified and experienced set of ears can hear things the other person might have missed - overly resonant frequencies, an under-present frequency range, etc.
For my clients, I always master projects that I mix. The mixing workflow that I’ve developed is that I mix to the master - throughout the mixing process, I periodically apply a rough mastering chain to double check that my mixing choices will translate the way I want them to. It’s only natural for me to see it through to the end and deliver the project mastered, as I envisioned all along.
But! That doesn’t mean an artist couldn’t take my final unmastered mix and take to a separate mastering engineer with excellent results.
Ultimately, your best bet is to have a candid conversation with your mixing engineer about their preference.
Should I Use an Automated Mastering Service like LANDR?
In short, no - but not because of the quality of the masters.
While I’ve never heard any bad LANDR masters, I've never heard any great masters either. Certainly nothing that has blown me away like when a real human does it. But that’s entirely subjective - the best way to find out is to just try it yourself and see if you like it. You might discover that the LANDR master cranks!
The true reason why LANDR, or any other automated algorithm-driven mastering service, isn’t the way to go is that you’ll be missing out on an opportunity to learn. When you work with a human mastering engineer who’s friendly and communicative, during and after the process you can have a conversation with them about what they are specifically doing and how they are treating your mix. Unless they are extremely busy or generally aloof, most engineers are happy to share their thoughts with you about what they did to bring your mix to the next level. It’s a chance for you to deepen your understanding of the production process and build a relationship with someone in the industry.
When and How to
Handle Things Yourself
If you’re someone who has experience producing and recording your own music, you most likely have had at least some experience mixing, even if it was just adjusting the volume balance of your tracks.
If you’ve been outsourcing your mixing to a professional engineer, is there a skill threshold at which it makes sense to take on mixing yourself? A point in your growth as a mixing engineer where you should go solo?
Or alternatively, maybe you’ve already been mixing your own music for a while with less-than-excellent results. Should you outsource mixing so you can focus your energy on other things you’re more skilled at?
No matter which situation you’re in, you only have to ask yourself one question in order to know how to move forward...
Do you have a PASSION for mixing?
The truth is that there are ample resources online to teach yourself how to mix music. From YouTube Channels through dedicated one-on-one bootcamps and courses, it’s possible for anyone to develop and build the skills necessary to mix music to a professional standard (Including my own mixing course "Mixing Fundamentals:EQ"!). But just because you can doesn’t mean that you should.
If you’re considering mixing your songs yourself solely to try and save money and cut production costs, you’re headed for frustration and a long, drawn-out process that’ll most likely end with a weak final product. You’re better off investing your money in a mixing engineer you trust, building a new industry connection along the way, and then focusing your time and energy on what you actually care about, what actually got you in the game in the first place (songwriting, performing, etc.).
But if you’re considering mixing your own music because you like mixing music, independent of anything else, then absolutely - go for it! So long as you genuinely enjoy moving the faders, carving out frequencies, balancing instruments and voices, it doesn’t matter how “bad” you think you are. It’s a positive decision and an investment in yourself as an artist and you should keep going.
Learning how to mix (well) is a long and difficult journey that requires disciplined focused effort - as long as you're prepared to commit to this game plan for the duration of your career as an artist (at least until you make it big), you should follow your gut and mix your own music.
But! There is a smart way to go about doing it. Alongside continually consuming music production educational content online, you should…
Find a Mastering Engineer who can act as your Quality Control!
The best choice you can make for yourself, should you choose to mix your own music, is to link up with a mastering engineer who you can develop an open and on-going dialog with. This will serve two purposes:
Quality Control. Having a dedicated and recurring non-robot/LANDR mastering engineer will provide a final quality check on all your releases. They’ll catch everything you didn’t and get everything sounding polished and ready to distribute.
Mix Feedback. This is the big one. Find a mastering engineer who is willing to provide feedback on your mix before they master it. Perhaps it might cost extra, maybe it’ll be included in their fee - but establish with them a workflow where you send them your mixes and they provide detailed feedback about what you can to improve them. Establish that you’d like to be able to do this as many times as necessary until the mix is as good as it can be, and only thenwill you send over the final mix to be mastered.
More than anything else, high quality and specific feedback from an experienced professional is what will allow you to improve as a mixer. It’s a win all around: you get to nurture your passion for mixing and growing your skills significantly faster than if you were on your own, all while releasing high quality music that you can take pride in knowing that you mixed.
Thank you for reading!
If the above-mentioned "Mastering Engineer as a Quality Control" workflow appeals to you, I encourage you to reach out! I’ve worked with dozens of artists doing exactly that - they will send me their mixes and I’ll provide detailed feedback about what they can do to improve.
Check out this email exchange I had with an independent London-based Bedroom Pop Artist:
...and after a few messages back and forth...
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