So, you’ve recorded your instruments, MIDI and vocals into your DAW – now what? Well, to apply the finishing touches to your work, you’re going to need to mix and master it. These two disciplines can sometimes appear slightly blurred from the outside looking in, with both mixing and mastering sharing certain tools and functions, however, you should really regard them as their own distinct processes, with their own nuances. They are both as important as one another if you want to produce a professional sounding piece of music.
What is the Mixing Process?
Mixing comes after you’ve captured any vocals, instruments, MIDI etc and then arranged them within your DAW (digital audio workstation). These sessions will likely be made up of a lot of tracks. It involves balancing the separate parts (be it instruments, vocals or other textures) of your session against one another, making sure that they all sound good when played together. It makes these disparate parts become one cohesive whole, combining them into a multichannel/stereo format.
What is the Purpose of Mixing?
To make your music sound good, and to prepare it for the mastering process.
The first thing that’s usually taken care of in a mix is sorting out the volume levels of each track. You’ll want to ensure that no one element is too loud, or too quiet. Each track should compliment each other without getting lost (or standing out too much) in the overall mix. Each instrument/vocal should then be panned appropriately to create a balanced and varied sonic picture. For example, a lead vocal will usually remain in the centre, but you might pan a rhythm guitar slightly to the right or left etc. This gives each part of your mix space, and prevents masking and a muddy, messy sound.
Other basic housekeeping will involve making edits to tracks (e.g. cutting parts off, splicing pieces together), tweaking the pitch, and automating parameters that will change during real-time; this can be used to effect pan, volume levels, and other settings within plug-ins.
Your workflow can also be made easier by naming each part of your mix correctly – e.g. drums (split out into snare, hi-hats, kick etc), lead guitar, vocals and so on. These can then be colour coded and organised into similar groups.
Mixing will always involve a suite of plug-ins. Compression should be used to maintain the dynamic range of each part; EQ will help to develop a gap for an instrument or vocal to sit in (which can be augmented further with a low pass/high pass filter); creative effects such as delay, reverb, modulation etc can add flavour and intrigue to certain tracks, or the whole mix if you prefer.
When you think you’re done, it’s worth regularly checking your mixes on a few different systems, like speakers, studio monitors, in-ear headphones etc. This will ensure that your mix sounds consistent and as good as possible on different gear – reflecting the variety of equipment that will be used by your audience.
What Does Mastering Mean?
Mastering is one of the final stages of any production, and is seen as a bit of a dark art. On a simple level, it’s meant to add the last layer of quality and polish to your piece of music once you’re completely finished with your mix. Think of it as optimisation. However, it shouldn’t be seen as a crutch to lean on; if your initial mix is poor, mastering won’t be able to save it. Mastering is all about enhancing what is already there, not fixing the unfixable!
Is Mastering Necessary?
Yes. It’s here where you’ll be processing and balancing your mix to be the best it can be. If you’re working on more than one song (whether it’s an EP, or a full album) this can also involve working on smooth transitions, and sequencing the order of the songs themselves. For example, you may want to alter the volume slightly of each song, or apply fades to the end and beginning of every track. Mastering is therefore especially important if you’re thinking about distributing your music too – no matter whether it’s going to be via a physical format, or digitally. When done correctly, it should make your songs sound more cohesive, flowing nicely from one to the next. You should ultimately aim to achieve a professional sound that can be appreciated on any source.
How Important is Mastering?
Very important. Unlike the mixing stage – where you’re working across individual tracks – during mastering, you’ll likely be working with just a final stereo bounce of the mix, or a few stems. These formats mean that you’re limited to what you can actually achieve. You can’t go in and fiddle with a bass part, vocal harmony, or snare drum for instance.
The main tools that you’ll need to consider using will be compressors, limiters, and EQ’s (all used for broader tonal balance), augmented by stereo wideners and appropriate metering. However, any alterations made using these tools should be subtle, and used only where they’re required. This is because it will broadly effect your entire track(s) instead of individual elements. Using them in the incorrect way can be detrimental to your final product.
Critical listening is extremely important here. You may not even need to change anything at all. You’ll also need to consider the genre of music you’re working on too, as different styles will require different work.
Sometimes it’s worth having a second person master your mix. This is because listening fatigue can set in once you’ve spent a significant amount of time working on your own mix. Another pair of ears may pick out certain details that you either haven’t noticed, or haven’t considered.