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As I have written before, mixing and mastering are necessary steps in the music-making process. Without these vital steps, you will ultimately leave much to be desired with the quality of your songs.
Even professional musicians need to have their music mixed and mastered, which means that the rest of us do as well. For many of us, this vital step is something that we will end up doing ourselves unless we can afford to have our music professionally mixed and mastered.
Thankfully, mixing and mastering is something that can be learned and accomplished at home. Of course, as with most musical endeavors, there will need to be an investment of time and money to mix and master effectively at home.
If we are going to handle the mixing and mastering of our music ourselves, a logical question is which is more difficult, mixing or mastering?
Mixing is a more complex process involving numerous techniques, focusing on ensuring the individual tracks mesh with one another to create a final track, and it’s often more time-consuming than mastering. On the other hand, mastering is the last step in the music production process, with the primary goal of improving the song’s overall quality.
At the end of the day, it is all about perspective! Some will say mixing is more difficult, while others will say mastering is more challenging.
Below, I will compare and contrast mixing and mastering and discuss each process’s unique challenges and difficulties.
Is Mixing Harder Than Mastering?
Mixing is not inherently more difficult than mastering, nor is it inherently easier. However, as I stated above, mixing is a much more complex process and typically takes much more time than mastering, leading some to believe it is more complicated.
So let’s talk about some of the reasons why mixing might be viewed as harder than mastering.
Reason #1: Time Investment
I am not talking about the overall duration it takes to learn mixing versus mastering, which can take a few days to get your bearings, but potentially years to truly master the more advanced techniques. Instead, I am referring to the amount of time mixing takes per song.
Mixing will typically take considerably more time than mastering because you are dealing with all the individual tracks rather than the final mixed “master” track you do when mastering.
For example, look at one of my recent projects in the picture below, showing 6 of the 12 tracks I have recorded. While not every song that you work on will have 12 tracks, many songs will have even more than that number.
Not every track will require the same amount of work. For example, the picture below shows my snare drum, kick drum, and tom tracks.
As you can see, the tom tracks have very little going on in this particular song, and the mixing for each of these tracks will be relatively easy and not very time-consuming.
However, the snare and kick tracks usually take me a significant amount of time to edit before I even begin adjusting levels and messing with the EQ and other effects.
I am very picky about how my snare and kick sound, as they are essential to a song’s overall sound and feel. Because of this, I will zoom into the snare and kick tracks and remove all excess sound not associated with a specific hit from the drum in that particular track.
This method has worked very well for me in bringing out a very clear and crisp sound, although I know of many others who do not do this. I suggest playing around with both options and seeing which one works best for you.
To recap, I will eliminate unwanted sounds and consolidate the track before doing anything else with a track. This, of course, can be very time-consuming, especially with tracks with a lot going on, like snare and kick drum tracks.
If the recording is low quality, this step might take longer. It is also important in this stage to not just look at the soundwaves but to actively listen to the tracks. It can take quite a bit of practice to know what to cut out and what to leave in at this stage, which contributes to the difficulty of the mixing process.
Reason #2: Many Complex Techniques
Once all of the cutting and consolidating is complete, the next step is to administer all of the EQ, volume adjustment, and effects like compression and reverb. This also contributes to the time investment consideration.
One of the most complex techniques is not actually about adding any effect but instead developing the ability to hear what sounds good and determine what needs to be adjusted, both volume-wise and EQ-wise, for all of the instruments, vocals, and sounds to mesh well together.
This is a skill that can take years to hone. While this is certainly partially subjective, there is typically a clear difference between a good-quality song and a poor-quality song, at least in terms of sonic quality.
Beginners tend to over-mix as opposed to not doing enough. It takes lots of practice to know when enough is enough.
Learning about frequency ranges and how to EQ each instrument properly is another difficult part of mixing, but luckily DAWs like Ableton have many EQ presets as well as compression, reverb, and many of the other most popular effects with good presets as well.
Is Mastering Harder Than Mixing?
Depending on whom you ask, mastering can be harder than mixing. In my opinion, it is neither harder nor easier, just different. However, I will say that overall I had more difficulty learning to mix rather than master.
That being said, there is one major reason that can potentially make mastering harder than mixing in some cases, which is that little adjustments make big changes.
Reason #1: Little Adjustments Equal Big Impact
The bulk of the work and time investment will be done in the mixing stage. By the time the song reaches the mastering stage, the song is nearly complete. You can think of mastering as putting the final touches on the track.
However, that doesn’t mean that mastering is an easy process. While it is not as complex as mixing, it can spell disaster for the final product if something gets messed up during mastering.
The main goal of the mastering step is to make tiny adjustments to improve the song’s overall quality. If significant changes need to be made, you might need to go back to the mixing stage. Although the adjustments are usually small, they can make a massive difference in the sound quality and song readiness for the multitude of listening platforms available.
A few effects are often implemented at the mastering stage, but again, the majority of that has already been taken care of in the mixing stage.
The challenging part of the mastering phase is not to overdo it. It is about making what is already mixed sound as good as possible, not drastically tweaking things.
Mixing and mastering are difficult for their own reasons, and one isn’t inherently more difficult than the other. Mixing is more time-consuming and complex, but mastering also has its share of challenges.
I hope this article was helpful, and best of luck with your own 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 rock/folk cover bands and write and produce many genres of music in my home recording studio. I am also an avid guitar and drum collector.