Mixing vs Mastering | Do You Need To Master Your Music?

Written By Kyle Mathias  |  Mixing, Recording 

I remember wondering, “What is mastering?”, “Do I need to hire a mastering engineer, if I want my music to sound professional?”. Well in this post, I’m answering these questions, but if this is our first time meeting, my name is Kyle. Welcome to Audio University!

What Is Mixing A Song?

I think mixing is a concept that’s pretty straightforward for beginners to understand.

A recording engineer captures the sound of each individual instrument to a separate track. The mixing engineer is tasked with adjusting the individual tracks to sound balanced when played together.

The mixing process can include a countless number of things, from simply balancing the level of each instrument, to creating space with panning, EQ, gates, and compression, or even to adding to the ambiance of the recording by adding a little bit of delay or a little bit of reverb. In any case, the goal of mixing music is to take the individual components of the song and mix them together into (usually) a stereo track.

Even with this understanding of the mixing process, I still asked myself, “If the mixing engineer makes the components sound good together, what is there for the mastering engineer to do?”.

What Is Mastering A Song?

Mastering a song is the process of making the final changes to the song and preparing it for distribution. This could include a final quality check, using compression and EQ to alter the tone and dynamic range of the song, and optimizing the level and format of the song to meet industry and platform-specific standards.

Some will say that the mastering engineer’s job is to place the finishing touches on the mix provided by the mixing engineer, acting as a second opinion or a second set of ears.

Others would say that the goal of mastering is to make sure that the song sounds good on a variety of playback systems, from hi-fi systems to smartphones. This might also include adjusting the level and perceived loudness of a song to make sure it meets the standards set by the genre or the publishing platform.

Finally, some believe that the mastering engineer is responsible for taking each individual song and making sure that they’re consistent and cohesive when presented as a full album.

In any case, one primary difference is that, while the mixing engineer has control over each individual track, the mastering engineer only has control over the stereo left and right track provided by the mixing engineer. This difference might have an impact on the strategies, tools, and techniques that a mastering engineer would use when compared to a mixing engineer.

Do You Need To Master Your Music?

Perhaps the question you’ve been waiting for me to answer is this: Do I need to master my song?

If you mix your songs in a way that sounds good on a variety of playback systems, it meets industry and publishing standards, and it sounds like a unified album, well then you don’t necessarily need to hire a mastering engineer, because you’ve already mastered the song.

But remember that mastering is an art just like mixing. So, getting someone who specializes in their craft could yield great results. Plus, there’s something to be said about getting a second set of ears to add their artistic and technical contributions to the song.

Let’s face it. When you’ve spent hours listening to a song in the context of mixing, it can sometimes be difficult to take a step back and look at the big picture like a mastering engineer would.

How To Learn Mastering

In making this video, I called upon the opinions and perspectives of professionals from around the world on a Facebook group, called Hey Audio Student. If you’re not already a part of this Facebook group, join us!

One of the members of the Hey Audio Student group, Jonathan Wyner (who’s the current president of the audio engineering society), put together an awesome video series on mastering with iZotope.

In the beginning of that series, Jonathan suggests that we treat mastering and mixing as somewhat separate disciplines so that we can “zoom out and look at the forest instead of the individual trees”. After explaining the basics, he gets in depth on various topics within mastering.

I highly recommend you check it out. The series is called, “Are You Listening?”. You can watch the first episode below.

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