Mixing vs Mastering: What’s The Difference?

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  • Find out the differences between mixing and mastering.
  • Discover the distinction between the roles of the mastering and mix engineers.

The Difference Between Mixing & Mastering (In A Nutshell)

Mixing involves working with multiple stems, or tracks, in order to achieve a balanced ‘mix’ that serves the song’s purpose. This is usually done right after all instruments have been recorded.

Mastering, on the other hand, involves working with that completed mix and making necessary last adjustments. They also bring the mix up to a reasonable volume, and export the final project in their appropriate formats for distribution and release.

The Role Of The Mix Engineer

The Mixing Process

The mix engineer will usually begin by listening to the ‘dry’ recorded tracks (meaning there are no effects applied to them such as reverb, eq, compression etc.) to get a feel of the song, what each instrument is doing, the dynamics and where they may want to apply certain effects.

It may be that the producer or studio engineer has added some subtle effects during the recording process such as compression or EQ however the bulk of creative and functional processing would be made during the mixing process.

Mixing Involves The Entire Multitrack Session

For mix engineers to effectively do their job, they need to be sent the individual tracks from the session (ie kick drum, snare, cymbals, bass, vocals etc.). This gives the mix engineer control to edit the instruments and vocals separately.

From there the role of the mix engineer is to create a balance between each instrument and find a way of adding clarity and separation to each element in the song.

In broad terms this is done by raising or lowering levels of each instrument, adding compression and using EQ to carve out space for each instrument.

Another role of the mix engineer is to make informed and creative decisions that help bring out the vision of the song.

For instance, if a track’s thematic content and lyrics are airy and delicate — should the drums be mixed like a death metal track? In most cases, probably not. It’s a case by case basis, and it is the mix engineer’s duty to serve the track as best as he/she can in order to bring the artist’s vision to life.

Mastering engineer, Emily Lazar.

Preparing For Mastering

Headroom is super important; mix engineers often aim somewhere between -12 to -18 dB in order to leave enough space for the mastering engineer to do his thing.

This is because any plugins that the mastering engineer uses can add gain, meaning the track could potentially clip if there isn’t enough headroom.

Once the mix is accepted, whether by the client or the mix engineer themselves, the track is bounced down into a single, high quality .wav or .aiff file to be sent to the mastering engineer. Barring any requests from the mastering engineer to revisit the mixdown, the mixing engineer’s job is now considered complete.

The Role Of The Mastering Engineer

The Mastering Process

Once the track is balanced, all creative ‘ear candy’ has been laid down, and both the client and mix engineer are happy with the mixed product, it will then be sent to a mastering engineer for the final step in the process.

Think of mastering as adding the final 10% to get a track to commercial standard.

That’s not to say that the role of a mastering engineer is any less important, far from it. A good mix can easily be ruined by a bad master, but a good master can also make a great mix really shine.

That 10% in extra ‘oomph’ can be a matter of getting a track to a loudness that can compete with other tracks in their genre. It’s also a final chance to iron out any balancing issues with the mixdown.

A mastering engineer will work off the overall mixed track (as opposed to the mix engineer who works off the individual elements). Their aim is to increase the loudness, punch and overall musicality of the track while retaining balance and overall quality.

(Besides The Artist) Mastering Engineers Have The Final Say

The mastering engineer will be the last person to touch the track before it’s final release so it is imperative that they iron out any creases and clear up anything that may cause issues upon release. 

It isn’t uncommon for a mastering engineer to communicate with the mix engineer should there be anything in the mix that is having an adverse effect on the mastering process.

Once the mastering engineer is finished the final track will be sent to the band to be prepared for release.

Typically, Mastering Engineers Work Off One Track

A mastering engineer will work off the mixed track, bounced down (or exported) as a single file.

In “stem mastering” though, mastering engineers work with multiple tracks, though much less than the original project file. To prepare a stem mastering session, a mix engineer would export just a few groupings of tracks, e.g. All Drums, All Guitars, All Vocals. This is done in circumstances where the mastering engineer has requested a higher degree of control over the mix.

The single file is loaded up into their DAW to work off. If the track has been mixed correctly there should be plenty of headroom left, and the mastering engineer can get to work without worrying about clipping.

Our favorite Mastering EQ plugin? Easy: The Award-Winning PSP MasterQ

Mastering Engineers Have Different Metering Considerations

The way you monitor your levels also varies from mixing to mastering.

In your DAW, your meters run-up to 0dB, which is the point where the software cannot handle the signal volume and starts to clip.

For both mixing and mastering engineers, being aware of headroom is crucial, however, mastering engineers have to take into a few extra considerations in order to get their job done, specifically: LUFs.

Each streaming site (iTunes, Tidal, Apple Music, YouTube etc) all measure the volume of their track with a measurement called LUFs.

LUFs are a generic way of monitoring the loudness between platforms and where applicable, knowing when to turn the track volume down. 

To add complication to the process, each site has a different LUFs limit. Mastering engineers need to keep this in mind as if their track is too loud, then each platform will react differently. The last thing anyone wants is a track that sounds different across multiple platforms.

Many DAWs come with a plug in to measure LUFs, such as the Logic Multimeter but 3rd party plugins can be downloaded as well.

K-Meter is a fantastic plugin with one of the most attractive displays for metering.

Other Mastering Considerations

If needed, fades are added to the beginning and end of the track, and start & and endpoints are often adjusted accordingly for radio/streaming/DJ play.

If working on a track in the context of an album, they may have to place higher consideration on start and endpoints, to achieve an album experience that flows seamlessly from one track to the next.

Tracks on an album are often intended to be a cohesive listening experience, and so mastering engineers place deliberate attention to ensuring that levels match accordingly from track to track.