Updated: Apr 1
Mixing and mastering are two different stages in the production of audio recordings that these days - often get confused and merged into one process. Let’s unpack that confusion and look at mixing vs mastering!
Mixing is the process of adjusting the levels, panning, and effects of individual tracks in a multitrack recording to create a balanced, cohesive final mix. The goal of mixing is to make all elements of the recording sound good together so that each instrument or vocal line can be heard clearly and contributes to the overall sound.
Mastering, on the other hand, is the process of finalizing the mix and preparing it for distribution. This typically involves balancing the overall volume and tonal balance of the mix, applying any final equalization and compression, and adding any necessary processing to ensure compatibility with different playback systems. The goal of mastering is to create a polished, finished product that sounds good on a variety of playback systems and meets industry standards. As mastering legend Bob Ludwig described the process: ”Mastering is the final creative step in the record-making process. The purpose of mastering is to maximize the inherent musical values of a given recording. This is accomplished by enhancing details, re-balancing levels, adding or taking away dynamics, correcting treble, midrange and bass frequencies and so much more!”
In short, mixing is about making individual tracks sound good together to create a final mix, while mastering is about making the final mix sound its best for distribution.
A little history of music mixing
Music mixing has a long and rich history that dates back to the early days of recording technology. In the early 20th century, a recording was done live and all musicians had to perform together in a single room, with the recording equipment capturing the collective performance. This resulted in a more natural balance of sound but a more limited ability to control the levels of individual instruments or voices. You could at best edit several performances together to make one master take ( yes, this has been done since the beginning! ), but generally, it was all about capturing the performance as it happened.
As technology advanced and multitrack recording became possible, the process of music mixing emerged as a distinct stage in the recording process. With the introduction of magnetic tape in the 1950s, it became possible to record multiple tracks of audio and then mix them together to create a final recording. This allowed greater control over the individual elements of the recording, enabling engineers to adjust levels, panning, and effects to achieve a balanced mix using the early mixing desks of the day - in fact, the first mixing engineers were then known as balance engineers which makes total sense!
In the 1960s and 1970s, music mixing became an increasingly important part of the recording process, as musicians and producers sought to create ever more complex and dynamic recordings. The advent of digital recording and editing in the 1980s brought even greater flexibility and precision to the mixing process, and the widespread adoption of digital audio workstations in the 1990s and 2000s has made it easier than ever to have access to the tools needed to produce high-quality mixes.
Today, music mixing continues to be an essential part of the recording process, as engineers work to create polished and professional-sounding recordings that meet the demands of the modern music industry. The rise of digital music distribution and home recording has also led to the development of new mixing tools and techniques specifically designed for the needs of online and streaming platforms.
...And a little bit of mastering history
Music mastering of course also has a long history dating back to the early days of analog recording as the mixes needed to be prepared for release on some kind of physical format! The earliest forms of pre-mastering involved simply adjusting the volume and tone of recordings using equipment such as equalizers and limiters, and then actual record cutting, or creating master tapes that could be used for duplication. Record cutting is the process of literally creating and cutting grooves on a blank master disc that will later be used to create the stampers that press vinyl records allowing listeners to play music on a turntable. A cutting lathe is used to cut the grooves into the disc, which is done by the mastering engineer who changes the amplitude, frequency and stereo image of an audio signal to fit the constraints of the vinyl format. This results in a master disc, which is then used to create the final vinyl records.
As technology advanced and the music industry grew, the process of mastering became more complex and sophisticated. The introduction of digital recording and editing techniques in the 1980s led to the development of new mastering tools and techniques, such as digital equalization and compression. The widespread adoption of compact discs in the 1990s further emphasized the importance of mastering, as the format required high-quality, consistent audio that could be replicated accurately on multiple discs.
In recent years, the rise of digital music distribution has had a major impact on the music mastering industry. The popularity of streaming services and the increasing importance of loudness in music production have driven the development of new mastering tools and techniques that are specifically designed for these platforms. Despite these changes, the basic principles of music mastering remain largely the same, as the goal remains to produce high-quality, polished recordings that meet industry standards and sound great on a variety of playback systems.
Want more? Here's an article on tasks to help you become a better mixer