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So, you’re recording a new album.
Or maybe you’re a budding sound engineer.
The recording process can be a little confusing, especially if you’re new to it.
Two terms that are bound to come up as your project is nearly reaching completion are “mixing” and “mastering.”
But how are these different?
Does your project need to be mixed and mastered?
Can you mix and master your project yourself?
Should you find separate mixing and mastering engineers?
Let’s get into it.
What is Mixing & How is it Different from Production?
In short, mixing is like solving a puzzle. You’ve been given a lot of pieces, and you have to figure how to best fit them together. Unlike your typical puzzle, however, you get to modify the shape of the pieces to make them fit better.
You can only do so much before the quality of the piece deteriorates, though. The higher the quality of pieces you have to work with in the first place, the better the final picture can turn out. In this case, the pieces you are working with are the various elements of your song – instrument and vocal tracks.
High-quality production is like an expensive nature puzzle that when solved makes a beautiful picture (or song). Low-quality production is that old 50-piece clown puzzle in your closet with broken pieces. Even if you put it together perfectly, it’s still a clown puzzle.
It’s important for artists to keep mixing front of mind when creating their songs because without a good mix, no audience will enjoy listening to the music they’ve worked so hard on.
The Basics of Mixing
At its core, mixing is about balancing volume levels between instrument and vocal tracks. Because this is the most important and fundamental purpose of mixing, there are a myriad of tools a mix engineer will use to create a great-sounding mix.
We’ve covered the basic building blocks of mixing in a previous blog post on Sounds Sphere. To offer a refresher, here are some of the most used tools:
- Equalization (EQ): Increasing or reducing volume of certain frequency ranges. Can be used to help similar-sounding elements not cover each other up, or enhance the tone of a given element.
- Compression: Reduces the dynamic range of an element, although you can also use compression in creative ways to shape tone.
- Effects: Reverb, delay, and other effects can create space or a more natural sound.
Of course, there are plenty of other mixing tools, but these are the most fundamental. Artists aren’t interested in becoming professional mix engineers, so there wouldn’t be much point to us opening that can of worms.
More importantly, let’s discuss what differentiates mix engineers from one another, how you should select one, and what to expect from the process.
How to Select a Mix Engineer
Selecting a mix engineer is like buying a shirt – the most important part is that it’s a good fit.
Sure, there are other factors like price, brand, design, and quality, but none of those matter if the shirt isn’t your size.
Picking the right mix engineer for your project is critical to the final quality of the product. A bad mix might act as a barrier between the emotion of the music and the ears of the listener.
A good mix allows the message to translate but doesn’t add any excitement. A great mix enhances the emotional response of the listener and drastically increases the chances of them re-listening.
Mixing is an art form, and the difference between a good mix engineer and a great one is their ability to incite an emotional response from the listener.
Up to a certain point, mixing is just about getting tracks to fit well and sound good. Beyond that, it becomes the art of creating a sonic landscape that the listener can close their eyes and live inside.
A professional mix engineer we talked to said “When I’m mixing, if I put on headphones and I don’t feel engulfed in the vibe, I’m not done yet.”
Of course this all depends on having good production to work with in the first place. No matter how great the mix engineer, they won’t be able to turn water into wine.
Here are the most important factors to consider when looking for a mix engineer (in order of importance):
- Listen to their portfolio. Do their mixes sound good? Do their mixes reflect the emotional intention of the composition and enhance the vibe? Does their portfolio fit your genre? Great mix engineers tend to specialize in one or a few specific genres or sub-genres of music. It’s gotta be a good fit!
- Check out reviews or testimonials. Do people enjoy working with them? A HUGE part of the mixing process involves having great communication and being personable, and not all engineers are great at this part. To ensure that the mixing process won’t be a headache, look for reviews that speak to the engineer’s character and communication skills. Better yet, reach out to someone that’s worked with them and ask them about their experience.
- Get a price quote. Most engineers don’t post their rates online for a number of reasons. Generally, they will have a quote form or way you can reach out to ask about their rates.
- Check out their credits. An engineer having major credits is generally a great testament to their skill and reputation. If you’re going to hire someone because of their big credits, just make sure that the credits are in the discipline you’re hiring them for. For example, we’ve seen a few mix engineers out there who interned at major studios at the beginning of their career and have a few big credits as an assistant engineer, but none as a mix engineer. None of this is ever a problem if they’re great at mixing. Just keep in mind that their mix portfolio is the most important thing you should be assessing.
With all other things being equal, you can expect an engineer with major label credits to cost a lot more than one without. If you hire an engineer with major credits, you should hire them because they’re a great fit for your music’s needs, not simply for the name recognition.
Note that finding a mix engineer is largely the same as finding a producer. You can get referrals, find one online, or sometimes the producer you hire also mixes, which makes for a convenient “one stop shop”.
Finding a great mix engineer who you can trust with your music is an important part of your creative process. Now that you understand mixing and how it works, you can feel more confident getting your songs mixed. A great mix certainly goes a long way.
What’s the Difference Between Mixing & Mastering?
Do you smell that? No, not what The Rock is cooking… the freshly baked cake coming out of your grandmother’s oven. Bet you’ve never thought about a cake when discussing mixing have you?
Mixing and mastering can be confusing. But by using an analogy of a cake, hopefully you will better understand the difference and the function of each.
When it comes to mixing your song, you can think of it as laying out all the ingredients for your cake out on the table. What ingredients do you have? Do you use only organic? What kind of flour are you using?
The mixing process is about taking all the ingredients and putting them together in the best way to make a cake that tastes good. Some important factors to consider about mixing:
- How much of one ingredient are you using?
- The proportions of each ingredient have to be right for it to end up tasting good.
- How many ingredients do you have?
- If you have too many ingredients your cake can end up tasting bad. Too few, and it will taste bland.
- Do you have quality ingredients or cheap ones?
- Using cheap, low quality ingredients ends up making your cake taste worse than high quality, fresh ingredients.
To bring this back to music, your mix is the balance between all the parts of sound that make up your song. The drums, bass, guitars, keys, synths, and vocals all working together to create a beautiful (or not) piece of music.
Use too much kick drum and your song sounds like it belongs in a nightclub. Too many guitar parts and it sounds like a disjointed band practice. If you’re using bad session players to play your keyboard parts, your song will suffer because of it.
When mixing a song, levels have to be right, the ingredients (tracks) have to be balanced and careful choices have to be made about where things sit in the mix and how to process them. You want the best tasting cake possible using the ingredients you have, so make sure you find someone who knows how to bake!
Mastering doesn’t happen until after the cake is baked (mixed). Once it’s out of the oven that final layer of frosting goes on. Some people would say that’s the best part! Frosting doesn’t change anything about the underlying cake, it enhances what is already there. It provides the extra sugar boost to make it sweeter.
Mastering is an art. Similar to The Great American Baking Show, or Cake Wars, too much frosting can ruin the recipe.
However, one thing to keep in mind is no matter how much frosting you put on, you can’t make a bad cake taste good.
Similarly, you can’t “undo” what’s already baked into the cake. I’ve had tons of people ask about pulling out the guitar from a song, or pulling the vocals out of a song to get the a cappella. Have you ever tried to pull one egg out of an already baked cake? It just doesn’t work that way.
A big part of mastering is standardizing the levels with other comparable songs. Whether it’s other songs on your album, or other songs on the radio, you want your song to compete and sound similar to other songs.
Mostly though, mastering is about the final details and polish to make your song the best it can possibly be. This includes EQ, compression, spacing, limiting, and tone. Because it’s so detailed, it’s no surprise that it takes a highly trained ear and years of practice to become a good mastering engineer.
If you want the best tasting cake, you must use premium ingredients and find a chef that knows how to combine them properly. Don’t sell yourself short by trying to bake your own cake if you don’t know how.
A badly mixed song, no matter how good the song itself is, will never be appealing to a mass audience. If your goal is fans and millions of streams, you must have a good mix. Most people don’t understand mixing, but they understand if their ear is pleased by a sound or finds it displeasing.
So how do you select the best mastering engineer for your song? Let’s find out.
How to Select a Mastering Engineer
Mastering engineers are typically sourced in one of four ways.
- Hiring them locally, in person
- Finding one online
- Using a service online to do the mastering
- Using the same producer or mixing engineer that worked on your song
There’s not one way that’s better than the others. It depends on your goals, budget, and how quickly you want the song turned around.
Here in Nashville, there are world class mastering studios, so many artists opt for in person engineers with decades of experience. Not all artists have a $200+ per song budget though, so finding someone online or using a service might be more budget-friendly.
Let’s break down the options.
Hiring a Mastering Engineer Locally
If you live in a city with a thriving music scene (Nashville, L.A., New York, etc…) you have an abundance of mastering engineers you can work with. Typically, mastering engineers only do one thing – mastering.
Most have spent decades perfecting their process, equipment, and craft so you typically can’t go wrong if you hire a mastering engineer in person.
Because a lot of these men and women are industry veterans, they might not have the most up to date website or online presence. Oftentimes referrals are the only way they get clients, but because they do a fantastic job, the jobs keep piling up.
If you get a recommendation for a mastering engineer from a friend or industry contact, take that referral seriously. Mastering engineers are not easy to find so when you find one value that relationship.
Finding a Mastering Engineer Online
Of course, most engineers are probably available online as well. When working with an engineer remotely, it’s important to keep in mind some of the same things we mentioned above about working with a producer online.
Freelance sites have mastering engineers from all over the world. If you have a specific nuanced type of music, your best bet is using a freelance site to track down a mastering engineer with experience in your style of music.
Let the music speak for itself. If the engineer’s profile has examples of before and after songs, use those to gauge how their quality is. A long list of clients and referrals, and positive reviews, is great too.
Using an Online Service for Mastering
Computer algorithms and AI are everywhere these days, so it’s no surprise that mastering has largely been taken over by digital services. We won’t get into the heated debate around different mastering practices, but suffice it to say that digital mastering does pack a punch when it comes to quality.
Services like LANDR, Cloudbounce, and eMastered offer “mixing as a service” or on demand mastering. Hands down using an online service is the fastest way to get your song done. But is the quality as good?
My personal opinion is no. Granted I do have over a decade of ear training to hear sonic qualities, but I think there’s a slight, if noticeable difference between a human mastering engineer and the AI digital mastering services out there.
That being said, services online definitely have appeal. They are fast, affordable, and typically get your tracks 95%+ of the way to top notch quality mastering. It also depends on the track and the style of music whether online mastering services will get your song sounding as good as a real human mastering engineer.
Using The Same Producer Or Mix Engineer
Many producers and/or mix engineers also do mastering. Some even prefer to master their own tracks and build it right into their process. If you can find a jack of all trades like this, mastering becomes a lot easier.
The main benefit of using the same person to do mastering is they already know the song and have the context of having worked on it already.
If you want top notch quality masters, you should absolutely work with a skilled and experienced mixing engineer and a separate mastering engineer.
That said, this can sometimes be a costly proposition, and these days, you’ve got many tools right at your fingertips.
Don’t skimp on production, because your music will suffer. There are many reasons for this, but if you get the opportunity to ask your mixing or mastering engineer, do so.
Thanks for reading, and have fun working on your next release!