Kim Lajoie's blog

The difference between mixing and mastering

by Kim Lajoie on May 23, 2011

Are you still confused about the difference between mixing and mastering?

Do you think you’re mastering when you use a limiter on your mix bus? Do you avoid the term ‘mastering’ because you’re doing it yourself? Do you have trouble explaining what you do when you’re finished mixing? The difference between mixing and mastering is becoming more and more blurred.

In simple terms: Mixing is what you’re doing when you’re balancing the individual elements of a song. Mixing starts with several individual tracks (usually one track per instrument or sound), and finishes with one (usually) stereo track – the ‘mixdown’ – that sounds like a combination of all the individual tracks.

You know you’re mixing when you’re working with the individual sounds within a song.

Mastering, on the other hand, is what you’re doing when you’re preparing a mixdown for duplication or publication. This is often within the context of a ‘release’ – a collection of several songs that are published as a package. Mastering starts with a mixdown for each song, and finishes with audio that is ready for the world to hear.

You know you’re mastering when you’re making the final adjustments to a mixdown before the audio is considered ‘final’ and ready for your audience.

Notice that I didn’t mention tools. The tools you use don’t define the process – you’re not mastering just because you’re using a ‘mastering’ limiter. You’re not mixing just because you’re loading plugins into a mixer window. Instead, the process defines the tools – it’s the intent of what you’re trying to achieve the counts. Choose whatever tools are necessary to get you there, regardless of how they’re labelled.

For example:

  • Sometimes a single is ready for publication as it comes out of the mixer (perhaps with the help of a limiter on the mix bus ). It doesn’t matter that the whole process happens within the mixing environment – mastering is choosing the start and end points and applying the mix bus processing. Hopefully it also included a reference to other comparable commercial releases.
  • Sometimes a song requires some compression on the mix bus. This can make the individual tracks gel together, and even produce a distinctive pumping sound. It doesn’t matter that this is achieved by processing the mix bus (or even the stereo mixdown) – mixing is focussing on the sound of the instruments to make them blend well and express the creative direction of the artist and producer.
  • Sometimes a song needs to be converted to MP3 (or other lossy format) for online distribution. The processing that happens as part of the conversion is a part (hopefully the last!) of mastering because its goal is to prepare the audio for distribution. It doesn’t matter whether this is achieved by an external program program or your built into your software’s export function.

If you confuse mixing and mastering, you’ll lose focus of what you’re trying to achieve. If you try to master when your mix isn’t finished, you’ll waste trying to solve problems on the mix bus that are best addressed in balancing individual elements within the mix. You’ll also be waste time fine-tuning a treatment (processing chain) for a mix that will later change. On the other hand, if you try to adjust the balance of instruments when you’re mastering, you’ll find it difficult to do it effectively without unintentionally changing other parts of the mix. If you try to ‘mix into’ a mastering chain, you’ll easily find yourself chasing your tail in an infinite loop of adjusting the mix, adjusting the mastering chain, adjusting the mix again to compensate, adjusting the mastering chain again…

It’s important to separate the two processes – not necessarily by using different tools (although that helps), but by being clear in your own mind where mixing ends and mastering begins. It will help focus your workflow goals and ultimately make your work more efficient, effective… and more fun!

-Kim.

9 thoughts on “The difference between mixing and mastering

  1. Very well explained, Kim! Thank you!

  2. Rich says:

    “a distinctive pumping sound”

    Are you referring to the effect that one gets when the mastering level is set too high?

    Rich

  3. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Rich
    I’m referring to applying mix bus compression to a track that has a very prominent kick. The compressor will respond to the rhythm of the kick, making the whole mix move to the beat.

    -Kim.

  4. TNGlive says:

    This is the clearest explanation I’ve come across for a burning question I’ve had for a longtime. Thank you Kim.

  5. Kim Lajoie says:

    Thanks. I think it’s something that a lot of people get confused about. There are a lot of people trying to explain it on forums and blogs but they end up making the whole thing even more murky. Hopefully my attempt clears it up a bit!

    -Kim.

  6. Music World says:

    Great blog this cleared up a bunch of issues i was having there should be more sites like this one

  7. Chonburi Sam says:

    Thanks Kim, you are awesome. After reading this, I realized that I’ve been trying to master as I mix. Thankfully I’m not too far along and I can undo a few things and just focus on balancing each track instead of trying to adjust frequencies for the overall mix before my mixing has even been completed.

    I also came across a great article before this one on mastering technique and tools for those using FL Studio.

    http://howtomakeelectronicmusic.com/how-to-master-a-song-in-fl-studio#comment-2611

  8. Kim Lajoie says:

    @Chonburi Sam
    Cheers – glad to hear you’re learning how to separate the two processes.

    If you haven’t already, you should check out my other posts on mastering. You can get a full list here: http://kimlajoie.wordpress.com/tag/mastering/

    -Kim.

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