Mixing and Mastering

Mixing and Mastering engineers Lu Diaz and Chris Athens
Mixing and Mastering

Today we are going to go over the relationship and differences between mixing and mastering.  In the process of producing a commercially acceptable piece of music (Song) mixing and mastering are probably the two most important factors concerning the technical sound fidelity of a production and in many cases even the feel of the song.  Let’s start with the mixing process (Read this post for even more information on Mixing) when it comes to mixing, experience is monumental, because of how much money is typically put into a project before the mixing engineer touches it.  Let’s consider the cost, producer fees can run up words of twenty thousand dollars, recording studio three thousand dollars, recording engineer, musicians, and sometimes a featured artist.  You could have fifty thousand dollars invested into a single song before a mixing engineer even lays a finger on it.  So you can see how a label and or producer would want the most capable mix engineer.  Ok so now that you’ve chosen a great mixing engineer,  you should have an amazing mix of the song that is not only technically great, but the mix reflects the vision the producer and artist saw for the song.  Once the recording process is done the recording engineer will gives the mixing engineer what we call the the complete master session.  This master session has all of the music elements and vocals on their respective individual tracks.  For example Kick, Snare. Hi Hat, Crash, Toms, Tambourine, Percussion, Bass, Piano. Synth, Guitar. effect, Lead vocal, Harmony Vocal 1, Harmony Vocal 2, Harmony Vocal 3, Harmony Vocal 3, Chorus vocal 1, Chorus vocal 2, Chorus vocal 3 and so on.  A master session can have 100 tracks in some cases.  So the mix engineers task is to mold each element in reference to each other to find the most appealing blend for a commercial release.  This is no easy feat and the mixing engineers who have mastered this ability are in very high demand in this industry.  What a lot of people do not know is how much in some cases a mixing engineer contributes to the actual arrangement and feel of a song. In some isolated cases the mixing engineer can dramatically affect the success of a song.  Let’s consider Dj Khaled’s “All I Do Is Win”, when mixing engineer Lu Diaz received the master session, it had all the musical elements playing along in the same fashion every eight measured over and over again. In other words nothing changed musically speaking from a verse to a chorus. Typically a song will be arranged so that it builds up to a crescendo into the chorus (Hook).  “All I Do Is Win” was produced by the Nasty Beat Makers and they decided to simply loop eight bars of the beat and leave the arrangement and drops to Lu’s discretion. Because the Nasty Beat makers have a high level of trust in Lu Diaz’s ability , they simply said “Lu have at it”.  So let’s look at what the mix engineer did in this case.  With automation Lu decided what instruments should be muted and un-muted for each one of the verses, giving each verse an individuality, but the most impressive move he made was to mute every instrument after T-Pain’s Line in the chorus “Everybody’s hands go up”  and then brought every instrument back after T-pains says “And they stay there”.  This gave that song an undeniable hook that anyone who hears it, puts their hands up, that is the power of a mix engineer with experience.  So not only can a mix engineer make a song sound polished and pleasant but can in many cases take the song to a whole other level.  Now we enters the mastering phase, once the mix engineer finishes putting the final touches on the mix, he now prints down a stereo version of the mix (The Final Mix) which will go to the mastering engineer for the final process.  Actually more than one mix goes o the mastering engineer, the mix engineer will send a final main, clean radio version incase there are curse words, a version with the verses muted so that the artist can perform the song (The TV Mix), the instrumental version and the acapella.  The mastering engineer receives these files and is tasked with the job of compressing and limiting and equalizing the mix in a way that give the mix the most perceived volume without unpleasant frequencies jumping out of the mix.  In simpler terms the mastering engineer gives the mix a controlled sound that still keeps the integrity of the final mix making it sound the best it can in all sorts of sound systems from the smallest hand held radio to extravagant sounds systems in clubs.  Mastering engineers are also in charge of entering all sorts of information about the song  into the meta data of the mix.  This information includes title of the song, playing time, art work, UPC and ISRC codes to keep track of sales and downloads as well as meta data that your cars stereo system and radio station will use to display the artist information and artwork.  Like we mentioned earlier, a producer will develop a certain level of trust with a mix engineer, the same is true with a mix engineer and their mastering engineer.  This makes the relationship between mixing and mastering very unique and vital.  After years working on projects a mixing engineer will also develop a working relationship with their mastering engineer.  In this industry it matters greatly who are the professionals are in the mixing and mastering of a production, if you enlist the right team you will be that much closer the release of a hit song.  Mixing and mastering are two important steps in a professional recording process.  It is definitely a topic of confusion for many do it yourselfers. If you are recording an album that you plan to release commercially and sell,  the right mixing and mastering is of upmost importance. If you are only recording a demo, you’ll probably get away with just mixing.

Now that we have discussed examples of mixing and mastering let’s define these two processes some more

Mixing – Blending Multiple Layers of instruments and sonic elements together

Mixing, refers to the process of blending multiple layers of audio together to achieve a final mix.  Mixing is basically modifying and or enhancing all of the recorded elements to complete your songs. Things like effects, adjusting the volume, Equalizing each individual sound and so on. Think of mixing as assembling a car.  Putting together parts , adjusting all sorts of angles and making sure everything fits together properly and works smoothly.  When you’re done with the mixing process your song should feel pleasing to the ear and confident in its structure.

Mastering – Leveling, controlling and enhancing the overall sound of a mixed song

Mastering is adding the final shine and making sure there are no sonic imperfections in your music. This refers to the process of enhancing and correcting by means of compressing, equalization, stereo expansion.  Basically, when you master your album, the outcome should be a nice even sonic flow between songs.  Song one should sound as good as song three and five etc. To many people mastering sounds a little vague and that’s because it is.  Apart from correcting obvious mismatches in volume and equalization, mastering is a very subjective process. In many cases, when it comes to mastering, you either have the golden touch or you don’t.  Although there are many audio plug ins and programs can help you to master your recordings yourself, hiring a seasoned professional is definitely a investment,  if you plan on releasing your song commercially.

When Can You Just Mix?

If you’re plan is to just record a demo, then mastering isn’t necessarily a must.  It requires quite an extensive amount of experience and knowledge, which is why it is costly when hiring a professional.  Mixing, although it is just as difficult if not more difficult than mastering, it is something you should make an effort to get done because it is an essential part of finishing a recording off right.  It will be difficult to achieve professional results, but you should try to give your songs at least a rough mix when possible.  You can do your mix at home, but keep in mind It requires practice and time, but with some dedication, you can get decent result.  Musicians and producers are aware of what mastering can do to their mixes.  Mixing and mastering are complex art forms, and are best left in the hands of seasoned professionals. Now keep in mind that mixing and mastering engineers can only do so much and are bounded by the material that they are given to work on.  The better job a recording engineer does, then the better off the mixing engineer is in accomplishing a pristine mix and obviously with a pristine mix the mastering engineer is left with an easy time at leveling and maximizing the mix to its fullest potential.  When DIY musicians and producers decide they are going to attempt to mixing and mastering their own music, they inevitably make some common mistakes that trips them up in the process.  Here we will discuss a few of them:

 1. Way Too Much Bottom End

Too much bottom end is a frequent mistake made by non-professional mixers and there are a variety of reasons.  One of the most common is the room is not treated correctly.  Two the mixer does not know that room well.  Three, the lack of experience the mixer has fails in judgement.  Four is what we call mixing with your eyes and not your ears.  Many non professional mixing engineer will use a plug in because they “Heard” it was the best.  The begin by adding low frequencies to the kick drum and just keep adding without any sense of dynamics or sonic judgement.  What ends up happening is they doom the mix and take it over a cliff.  Bottom end is as much about adding and removing low end frequencies.  A professional mixing engineer with decades of experience seems to do this with such ease meanwhile a newbie will spend hours just trying to achieve moderate results.  Like we’ve mentioned in prior post this is why they get paid the big bucks.

2. Ginsu Knife Treble

So this is the exact problem from above but the opposite frequency spectrum.  In this case the novice engineer or musician discovers how nice a little bit of 10k sounds on everything.  So as they listen to each sound individually they add treble without concern how each sound will affect the next sound.  To add insult to injury high frequencies are quick to fatigue the human ear and cause the mixer to hear less high frequencies, which cause them to add more high end….. tail spin!! by the time they figure out that they are swimming in high end they are practically deaf on the high end and the mix is wrecked.  Mixing is a difficult balancing act that is truly a craft that is finely tuned by the shear hours spent doing it.

3. Way too loud!

Over the past ten years this has become one of the most discussed and debated issue in the pro audio world.  As hip hop music made its mark on the music industry, it also influenced other styles of music.  Basically what happened was one artist would sit in a night club and was annoyed that his competitors mix sounded louder at the club.  He runs back to his mix engineer and insist that they turn everything way up.  The mixing engineer of course tries t explain that it would be better served to have the mastering engineer maximize the volume on the mixes.  So the Loudness wars began.  Unfortunately what many of these artist as well as producers do not realize is that after a certain level we are now producing a perceived loudness through compression and or limiting techniques,  That may very well sound louder but the dynamic range is pretty much gone.  The irony of all this is, dynamic range preservation is exactly what gives a great mix and master job the punchy and loud level we used to long for.  We are now living in a world of perceived loudness and the dynamic range is basically fallen by the way side.  Mix and mastering engineers alike are tasked with balancing a technically sound mix with a loud as possible mix. This is not an easy feat.  In conclusion this just emphasizes the dire need for professional mixing and mastering engineers.

4. No imaging

Another factor that is often overlooked by a novice mix engineer is the proper use of the stereo field.  Manipulation the stereo field is another balancing act that is not always easy to control.  Merely panning sound elements left or right is one thing but having the know how to place elements in a stereo field is more important that you may think.  When an inexperienced individual crowds the center field, it leave little space for the lead vocal.  In many cases instead of bringing the level of the lead vocal up, an experienced mixing engineer might just pan a few elements out of the way of the lead vocal giving you the impression that the vocal was turned up when in actuality room was made and now you can hear the vocal in better perspective. Often what a newbie engineer will do is say “I’ll leave all that stereo spreading business to the mastering engineer, but like we mentioned earlier, a mastering engineer can only do so much.  When it comes to mixing and mastering there are so many variables that it is almost impossible for an individual with little experience to figure in a short period of time.


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