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To take your music to the next level, you need to have your work mixed and mastered. Mixing and mastering are both necessary for the overall quality of the music you are producing to be good.
Sure, a song can sound good without either mixing or mastering, but it will leave a lot of potential on the table if they are not utilized. Mixing and mastering help bring the musicians’ true artistic talent forward by ensuring everything sounds as good as possible.
While both are essential to the song’s overall quality, it is often asked if mixing or mastering is more important. Typically, mixing and mastering will be done together, but there could be situations where budgetary or other reasons would prevent someone from using both.
So, which is more important? Mixing or mastering?
Mixing and mastering are both important, but if one is essential and ultimately more important, it is mixing. A well-mixed song will still sound good even if no mastering has taken place. On the other hand, mastering a poorly mixed song will not improve it very much.
If you head to a music forum on the subject, you are likely to see the consensus in agreement that mixing is more important than mastering.
Below I will talk about why mixing is the most important of the two and why it should be mixing over mastering if you have to choose which to focus your resources.
Mixing and Mastering 101
Before I dive into why mixing is ultimately more important than mastering, I want to say that this does not mean that mastering isn’t important. Mastering is like the icing on the cake. It is the final step that will make your song ready to be broadcast across multiple listening platforms.
Check out our article here for a more detailed explanation of the differences between mixing and mastering. In the meantime, I will briefly explain the two, so we are all on the same page.
Mixing is where the bulk of the work takes place. Mixing is done before mastering and ensures that each component of the music (drums, guitar, vocals, etc.) sounds good solo and together in the overall mix. Mixing is also where the EQ is dialed in, and other effects like reverb are added.
Mastering is the last step in the process, with the primary goal of ensuring the track’s overall loudness and frequency are balanced perfectly.
Why Is Mixing More Important Than Mastering?
Based on the description above, mixing is more important because this is where most of the sound engineering process occurs. So many complex processes take place during the mixing stage.
These include components such as the EQ to ensure the frequencies of each individual track and part mesh with one another, as well as adjusting individual volume levels on each track so that one piece is not overpowering or drowned out.
Several other important things need to be considered in the mixing stage, such as adding reverb and compression and panning the sound, so everything doesn’t sound all bunched up in the middle, among many others.
In terms of time investment, the mixing stage will often take considerably more time than mastering, primarily due to how many complex processes must be accomplished in this stage.
My main kit is a six-piece kit with four toms, one bass drum, snare, and two overhead mics for a total of 8 tracks dedicated to my drums. Some of the tracks, like the snare and bass drum tracks, will take considerably more time to edit to remove unwanted sounds and EQ properly as they are used more frequently than the toms, but you can see how much time just working with the drum tracks take.
Of course, after the drums are complete, the same process needs to be repeated for all of the other instruments, followed by ensuring the volume levels of each track are complimentary and then finally adding effects to the tracks.
This is the order I work in as I am, first and foremost, a drummer, but this is not the only order that you can mix. I suggest experimenting until you find what works best for you.
As you can see, if a song is mixed poorly, there is little mastering can do to make it sound better, even if the person mastering the song is an expert. So many things can go wrong at this stage to decrease the quality of the song that no amount of mastering can save.
Mixing Is the Foundation
The mixing stage of music production is like the structural foundation that mastering is added on top of, and we all know that if your foundation isn’t strong, whatever is built on top won’t work as well as it could with a stronger foundation.
Of course, being able to play the instruments well and knowing what works well is essential, but here we are assuming that those prerequisites are already established.
How well a song is mixed can be the difference in how well received it will be by your audience. Even if you are a very talented musician, a poor mix will not be able to highlight that talent and often will ultimately take away from it.
A good example is to listen to some famous bands’ mix tapes, particularly those from the 70s and 80s (as the home recording quality was nowhere near what it is today), and then listen to the professionally mixed and mastered versions once they had been signed to a major record label.
The quality of the two versions can be startling. Sure, sometimes the song changes a bit as the sound engineers make creative suggestions. Still, the song’s original structure is often the same, but the sonic quality is vastly different.
In these situations, the musicians’ skill has, in all reality, increased as well, but not to the point that can fully explain the massive increase in song quality. It is the mixing and mastering, but largely the mixing, that has improved the quality.
Mixing Is Important, So Practice
If you can afford to have your music professionally mixed and mastered, that is a good route. However, for me, I enjoy the mixing and mastering process as much as creating the music in the first place. To me, it is just another way to express my creativity.
Like everything else in music, getting good at mixing will take lots of practice, but it will be worth it in the long run. Being a fully functional home musician is much easier than in past decades, as the technology is relatively affordable and easy to come by.
With Digital Audio Workstations (DAWs) like Ableton, which are intuitive, most home musicians can begin mixing their songs within hours. If you are just starting your mixing journey, check out our article here, which provides several tips on practicing.
Mixing is one of the most important aspects of sound production, so it is a good idea to learn how to do it. Even if you do not intend to mix your own music, having some practical mixing knowledge will help you determine what songs should sound like. This will be helpful so that you know what a quality mixed song sounds like if you are paying someone to do this for you.
While mixing and mastering are important, mixing should be your top consideration. A poorly mixed song will not sound good, even if excellent mastering is added, whereas a good quality mix will still sound good even if it has not been mastered.
Good luck on your mixing journey, and until next time, stay creative!
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.