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At last, you have finished recording your song. Every piece has been recorded flawlessly with no mistakes. So now you are all done and ready to upload and have all your fans listen, right? Not so fast.
The next step after recording your tracks is to mix and master them. Even if the recordings are clear and sound good, they can usually be improved.
Mixing comes before mastering and involves a detailed dive into editing the audio tracks with the intention that all of the tracks complement each other rather than clash, as explained by Rich Mendelson of Berklee Online .
Whereas mastering is one of the last steps of audio production, where the finite details are focused on to produce the highest possible song quality.
So, is mixing and mastering necessary?
Yes. Mixing and mastering is an essential components of the music production process. If done correctly, mixing and mastering will absolutely improve the quality of your recordings. Mixing and mastering eliminates unwanted audio frequencies, improves wanted frequencies, removes unnecessary noises, and adjusts volume levels to ensure each instrument/voice blends well together.
Let’s dive in below and take a more detailed look at why mixing and mastering are necessary for quality music production.
Do You Need Mixing and Mastering?
Mixing and Mastering is a fundamental component of the music production process. Without it, musicians leave a lot to be desired regarding their songs. Even professional musicians who record in state-of-the-art recording studios must have their music mixed and mastered.
If professional musicians with all of the best equipment still have their music mixed and mastered, it is a safe bet that everyone else should mix and master their music as well.
While recording your music in a professional studio or sending your tracks to a professional is the ideal scenario, it is often cost-prohibitive. (Range of Sounds does offer mixing and mastering services at a very reasonable price).
For many musicians that are just starting out, have their own home studios, or cannot afford to hire a professional, it falls on us to handle the mixing and mastering of our own recordings.
In my recent article about how to make a quality recording using a smartphone, I mentioned that investing in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW) is worth the money for any musician recording their music at home.
I use Ableton Live 11 Standard, which currently costs USD 359, but there are cheaper options, like the Ableton Live 11 Intro version, for just $99.
My DAW, while not as detailed and intricate as what you would get from a professional sound engineer or other more expensive software, provides me with everything I need to mix and master my home recordings. It’s relatively easy to use, especially compared to other DAWs.
Mixing and mastering, if done right, will noticeably improve the quality of your recordings. While professional training is ideal, numerous free (or cheap) resources will provide the fundamentals to get you started mixing and mastering today.
Think of mixing and mastering as the copyediting process of songwriting. Many famous authors agree that the first draft is no good. While I am not saying the first “draft” of your recordings is no good, they will be improved by mixing and mastering.
Mixing and mastering are often used in the same sentence, but they are different processes. Let’s separate the two and discuss why each is important for increasing the quality of music production.
Is Mixing Really That Important?
Yes. Mixing is essential for the overall quality of your piece of music. A well-balanced mix where all the parts contribute appropriately is vital for a high-quality song.
You do not want to produce a song where the drums are so overpowering you can’t hear anything else or the guitar solo is so low you can hardly make it out.
Take the famous example of the lack of bass guitar in the And Justice For All album by Metallica. While the album overall is still of good quality, many fans and music critics often comment on the lack of this vital low-end instrument in the mix.
Check out the video below featuring Steve Thompson, who worked on the album:
Sometimes, emphasizing or deemphasizing specific components of a song will be done for artistic reasons. Still, in general, each component piece of a song should be in balance with one another.
There are certain situations where a particular instrument in a song is louder, such as a guitar solo, but even then, the volume shouldn’t be so over the top that it is all the listener can focus on.
Let’s discuss the various areas commonly focused on in the mixing process that make the mixing process so necessary for musicians to think about when producing their music.
It should be noted that I am only focusing on some of the main focus areas when mixing; this is not an exhaustive list.
Perhaps the most important aspect of mixing is balancing the tracks with one another. As I mentioned above, it is important that all parts of the song cut through the mix. Otherwise, it can be unpleasant to the ears.
Further, you typically do not want to opt for a “And Justice For All” type sound, where one instrument is almost entirely out of the mix.
Although I play a few instruments, I am a drummer above all else, so that is what I first listen to when I hear a song for the first time.
On the other hand, the average listener will often listen primarily to the vocals. This might lead some to believe that the vocals need to be the loudest element. While this is sometimes true, it must sit well in the mix and not be overbearing.
If the vocals (or any other part) do not sit well in the mix, or other key instruments are not at high enough volume levels, the song will not sound great.
Even if someone doesn’t typically listen for something, like the bass guitar, they will notice when it is missing. This is why mixing to ensure each track is at the correct volume levels is so crucial for the overall sound quality of the song.
Panning is an often overlooked piece of the mixing process and, frankly, something that I didn’t even think about in my own music productions until very recently.
Simply put, panning is where the audio sits in space. By manipulating the panning of instruments, you can move the sound to the left or the right within the mix.
If you have earbuds, you will be able to notice that certain instruments are more prominent in either the right or left earbuds.
Panning creates more space within a mix, which can help to emphasize the individual instruments and often makes for a much more sonically pleasing listening experience.
The video below explains in detail how to pan individual instruments and vocals in a mix.
3. EQ and Compression
The next important area that makes mixing necessary is EQ. EQ or Equalization is all about frequencies.
Instruments and vocals will have varying frequency ranges, such as someone with a baritone versus a soprano vocal range. In that instance, the frequency wouldn’t really compete for the same space.
Instruments with similar frequency ranges (such as the kick drum and the bass guitar) can compete for that given frequency space, which can cause issues in your overall mix.
This is where mixing comes in. Most DAWs will come with a built-in frequency application from which you can see in real-time what the frequencies are doing for a particular instrument. From that point, you can cut out the unneeded frequencies for a given instrument and increase the frequencies that need to be emphasized.
Next, compression pulls the highs and lows closer to the middle, which can clean up the sound and keep the volume levels more consistent throughout the entire recording. Both of which improve the quality of the song.
4. Adding Other Effects
Lastly, mixing is where you can add all sorts of effects to improve the quality and ambiance of your recordings, such as reverb, delay, and other interesting effects that will draw the listener to your song.
Reverb is probably the most common effect that is added to songs to give them a little extra creative flare. There are many ways to manipulate the reverb of a track, but the overall idea is that the sound stays around longer than normal after a note is struck or sung.
Ableton has several built-in effect options that can add unique layers to the music. Effects are a great way to separate yourself from other musicians, but remember that too much of a good thing can turn into a bad thing.
Does Mastering Really Make A Difference?
Although it can be more nuanced than this, mastering a piece is essentially about putting the final touches on the music piece before uploading it to streaming platforms or wherever else the music is destined to go.
Mastering is all about small changes, primarily focusing on the overall volume level and sound quality of the arrangement as a whole.
This doesn’t mean mastering is easier than mixing, but there are not as many things to be done at this stage.
You may still mess with the EQ and compression of the whole song at this stage, and you also pay attention to limiting the loudness of the overall mix.
In Ableton, the master track (as well as the individual tracks) have real-time feedback of decibel levels. Essentially, you do not want the master to frequently (or ideally at all) goes in the red, which means the decibel level is too high.
When the loudness is too high, the sound quality will suffer and will not be as clean and crisp as it could be. This is what I focus on the most when mastering, although I pay attention to the other components as well.
Mastering is necessary to ensure your song will sound good across all streaming platforms and devices. The last thing you want is for your recording to sound good in your home studio but terrible when someone streams it through Spotify on their phone.
Do You Have To Mix and Master Songs?
No. You do not HAVE to mix and master songs, but should you if you have the capability? Yes. It will only improve the quality and appeal of your music.
Mixing and mastering your songs will accentuate your talent, regardless of the instrument you play or the range you sing in. Mixing and mastering are not cheating; it brings out the best possible quality in your performance.
Now, are there situations where you can overdo it? Absolutely! Some artists may manipulate the recordings to a point where it barely resembles the actual performance. This isn’t an inherently bad thing, but you do run the risk of disappointing fans if you cannot replicate your recorded performances in a live setting.
Mixing and mastering your songs is something that you should invest some time into learning. It will pay dividends later because people won’t listen to poor-quality recordings (unless they are from the mid to early 20th century, as those recordings are expected to sometimes be of lower audio quality).
You now better understand why mixing and mastering are so necessary to have high-quality production.
Mixing and mastering allow your true musical talent to shine through. Will so many things fighting for your potential listener’s attention, they will not waste time listening to a poor-quality song, even if the musical talent is high.
I hope you have enjoyed this article, and good luck mixing and mastering!
Hi everyone! I have been involved with music most of my life, beginning in grade school with the trumpet. I am a largely self-taught multi-instrumentalist (drums, guitar, bass, and starting the piano and violin). I currently play drums in two bands and write and produce many genres of music in my home recording studio. I am also an avid guitar and drum collector.