There is a vast amount of information available online on mixing and mastering, with a huge number of tutorials and courses available. So why are they considered to be so important, and what can they do for your music?
Mixing and mastering are important as they enhance a song to present it in the best way possible. Mixing ensures all instruments are heard clearly and are balanced against each other. Mastering produces a great sound across all listening systems, and brings the volume up to expected commercial levels.
Let’s look at some reasons why it is worth taking the time to learn mixing and mastering in some detail, or to employ professionals to get your music sounding the best it possibly can.
If you are interested in checking out the best recording gear such as audio interfaces, studio monitor speakers, microphones, etc., you can find them at Amazon by clicking here.
1 You only have a few seconds to grab the listener
The amount of music available on digital streaming platforms today is enormous. For example, Spotify has over 50 million songs, with 40,000 new songs added every day. That is a lot of competition fighting against your song to be listened to.
This makes it incredibly important that your song sounds the best it possibly can. If your lead vocal is a little muffled, or the bass is overpowering the rest of the song, or the volume isn’t comparable to other songs on the platform, then within a few seconds your listener will be gone. It’s not like they don’t have any other songs they can listen to!
There are certain standards for music produced today that listeners expect. This is the case even if they are not musicians or music producers themselves – they may not be able to exactly describe what they expect, but will know if a track falls short of those standards. Things like volume evenness throughout the track, the distribution over the stereo space, clarity of the vocals, or a strong but not overpowering low-end.
Deviate too far from these expected norms, and the listener’s ears will tell them that something is “wrong”. Mixing and mastering can help achieve what the listener expects to hear.
Imagine you are an artist, and you paint a painting. Now imagine you then wanted to show that painting to people. You wouldn’t place it 10 meters away so it’s too distant to see any detail, light it badly so it’s too dark, or place an obstacle in front of the main feature of the painting. You’d bring people close, light it properly and ensure a clear view.
This is the job that mixing and mastering can do for your music – present it to your audience in the very best light.
As a novice trying to get started with mixing, it can be incredibly overwhelming with so much information and tools out there. Take a look at my “Mixing – where to start” beginner’s guide, which will take you gently step-by-step through the basics without confusing you with complicated stuff you don’t yet need to know.
2 Mixing ensures elements are heard and balanced
Full band mixes in modern music will typically include…
- Rhythm guitars
- Lead guitar
- Lead vocal
- Backing vocals
Each one of these elements needs to be heard clearly, otherwise there is no point in them being there. That does not mean they all have to be at equal volume; you may want some sounds in the foreground and some in the background, for example lead and backing vocals. But you should be able to hear each one.
This is the fundamental job of mixing – balancing the sounds against each other. This is not just a case of setting the faders so each track is at a certain volume. Some other common mixing techniques are…
- EQ – Some instruments contain frequencies similar to each other. There is a danger that these will build and cause muddiness or overpowering, especially in the low-end. EQ gives very fine control over all the frequencies in all the instruments in your mix.
- Panning – Stereo gives us the ability to place an instrument at any point in space from extreme left to extreme right. Typically at the mixing stage you would pan the instruments evenly across the space. e.g. bass/snare drums, bass and vocals are usually in the center, guitars left and right, backing vocals spread out, etc.
- Compression – A track may not be recorded with even volume – there may be some quiet sections and some loud sections. Compression automatically evens out these differences, making the volume of a track more uniform.
- Reverb/Delay/Effects – These can be the icing on the cake, that can make the difference between a good and a great track that really grasps the listener’s attention.
Getting each track clearly heard, particularly the lead vocal and any other foreground parts, can be the difference between capturing the listener or them moving on to someone else’s song.
For more details on what makes a good mix, check out this article – “What makes a good mix?”. It goes through in detail the things you should be listening out for in your mix, and gives you tips on how to make your mixes have those desirable characteristics.
3 Volume consistency and uniformity
If you have ever tried to listen to classical orchestral music in the car, you’ll probably be familiar with the following situation…
There’s a loud part in the music, so you turn the volume down. Then there is a quiet part, that you can barely hear over the engine noise. So you turn it up – ah that’s better, you can hear it clearly now. Then suddenly there’s a really loud part again, and it’s almost deafening as you frantically reach for the volume knob again, trying not to crash the car.
This is because classical music is very dynamic. The difference in volume between the quietest part and the loudest part is huge. In modern pop/rock, the dynamic differences are nowhere near as pronounced. Think of listening to a modern pop song in the car – you don’t need to change the volume on your car’s stereo at all.
This is not by accident. Compression and limiting during the mixing and mastering processes ensure that the volume levels throughout the song are much more consistent than the classical example discussed. This happens on both a per instrument (mixing) basis and a global master track (mastering) basis.
Your song needs to have this level of volume uniformity when played along with other songs in a similar genre. Otherwise, people will be reaching for the radio dial or the Spotify “Next” button when your song comes on, to get rid of the volume level annoyances.
4 Keeping the good, removing the bad
Even with the best recording, it is likely that some of your parts will benefit from some frequency sculpting using EQ. Put simply, this means using EQ to cut frequencies that you don’t like, and boost frequencies that you do like. This is usually done per-instrument in the mixing process, and to a lesser extent on your whole song in the mastering process.
This allows you to get rid of potentially annoying sounds that have crept into your song, maybe due to the acoustics of your room, or background noise, or maybe due to the particular qualities of the microphone you are using. And you can boost frequency ranges you want to hear more of, maybe to make your track sound warmer or brighter.
This is another tool in the mixing/mastering armory that can help add that little bit of sparkle to your song.
A common complaint from novice mixers is that their mixes sound dull, lifeless or muffled. EQ and other tools can be used to prevent that dullness. Check out my article on how to prevent muffled mixes for tips and tricks on how to make your mixes alive and present.
5 Making all the instruments blend well together
You may have recorded a great electric guitar part, with a tone that sounded great when played on its own. But that does not mean that the part is going to sound good when combined with the other instruments in your mix. Typically, a guitar part that sounds great on its own has too much low end and fights with the bass guitar when played with the whole mix.
Another classic example is an acoustic guitar in a pop mix. Very often in a mix, a lot of the bass and mid-range is taken out of the acoustic guitar, leaving just the higher-end sheen. This sounds fantastic when the whole mix is played, adding a lovely top-end glimmer. But if you played that on its own, it would sound really thin and weedy, and not really like an acoustic guitar at all.
So another vital element of the mixing process is being able to change the recorded sounds so they fit well with the other parts recorded. Typically EQ is used to do this; in the electric guitar example, you could roll off some of the low-end and low mids to make room for the bass. Compression and panning can also help combine the sounds into a cohesive whole.
You’re probably realizing by now that there is a lot to consider in mixing, and it might be scaring you how much there is to learn! There is a lot to learn, but this article will help – “How long does it take to learn mixing and mastering?“. It gives you realistic timings for learning the aspects of mixing to various levels of proficiency, with tips on the best ways to learn as efficiently as possible.
6 Genre expectations
There is an expectation for each genre of modern music of how a song should sound, i.e. its sonic characteristics, instrumentation, character of each instrument, relative levels of different parts etc. Think of say a heavy metal track versus a hip-hop track – they both sound a particular way similar to other songs in that genre.
Mixing and mastering are where this tailoring to a particular genre’s sonic expectation occurs. These are some examples of actions that may be taken to achieve this…
- Putting vocals at the expected level compared to other instruments
- Making drums/beats fat/punchy or thin/cutting
- Putting guitars at the forefront, leading to a guitar-driven track
- EQ’ing individual instruments for a particular character
- EQ’ing the whole track
- Using autotune (pitch correction) as expected in the genre
7 Consistency across listening systems
If you’ve recorded a few of your own songs, mixed and mastered them, you may have had an experience similar to this…
You get your song sounding great on the system you mix it on. You are really pleased with your work! Then you take your song and listen to it on a few other systems, and the results are…not quite as good as you’d hoped. You try your car stereo, a Bluetooth speaker in the kitchen, your phone, your living room HiFi system. And none of them sound as good as you’d expected, given how good it sounded on your music production system.
This is one of the problems that mastering can solve for you. Rather than making your song sound good just on the system you made it on, a good mastering engineer can make it sound good on all sorts of systems. These can range from a simple pair of in-ear earphones connected to your phone, right up to a DJ’s pro-level sound system in a club at very high volume.
What is mastering?
Mastering is the process of preparing your track for distribution. For digital distribution, this involves getting the volume level up to the same as other commercial tracks. It can also involve some EQ, to give your track a particular character similar to other tracks in the same genre.
Note that traditionally mastering was preparing your track for transfer to vinyl. It still is that today, but this is a highly skilled process that takes a professional mastering engineer years of practice to get good at.
Mixing and mastering are not easy skills. Like any non-trivial skill, it takes many years to master them. Take a look at this article on why mixing and mastering are so difficult for a detailed breakdown on the difficulties involved. It should help you realize what areas may be missing from your personal mixing skill-set and what you need to work on.
8 Achieving a similar volume to other songs
You hope that your song will be played before and/or after other songs. For example on the radio, or maybe in a playlist on Spotify, Deezer or one of the other music streaming platforms.
It would be extremely annoying for the listener if they had to adjust the volume when it came to your track, and then re-adjust the volume when it had finished. This may lead to them removing your track from their playlist so they didn’t have to deal with the annoyance. Or it may lead a radio station to not put your track on their rotation in the first place.
Mastering is the key to getting your track at the same volume as other commercial tracks it could be played alongside. Through limiting and compression, the volume will be brought up to comparable levels without causing any unwanted distortion. This will give your track the best chance of staying in that playlist, with no irritating reaching for the volume dial.
This is also important if you are releasing a collection of songs, such as an album or an E.P. All the songs need to be at a similar volume, and have similar sonic characteristics. Otherwise the songs when played together, which is presumably what you want if you released them as a collection, will sound jarring when you move from one to the next.
9 Meeting expectations of how music sounds today
If you listen to a track from today, then a track from the 1970s, then a track from the 1930s, you will most likely to be able to tell which is from which period just by the audio characteristics of the recording.
Try this; go onto your streaming platform of choice and search for “Bessie Smith” (one of my favorites). Listen to any of her songs, and take in how different it sounds to the music of today. If you released a song that sounded like that today, in all likelihood it would not do very well, as it does not meet the current sonic expectations. Even though her recordings are still listened to by millions of people.
There is a certain expectation of how music should sound today, that may have not even been the same 10 years ago. If you want your music to compete against other music released today, it needs to have comparable characteristics. Even if you do something creative to make yours sound different and stand out, there are certain conventions and expectations your music will have to adhere to.
Again (you’ll probably have worked this out yourself by now) mixing and mastering can play a huge part in achieving these expectations.
10 Commercial viability
I guess the last four reasons can be summed up by the phrase commercial viability.
Presumably, you want your music to be commercially successful. That may not mean selling millions of downloads, or getting millions of listens on streaming platforms. It may mean making just a few dollars from streaming, or selling a few more concert tickets due to people discovering your music.
To do this, you need to meet the needs of the market. I know many musicians do not like to think in business terms, but if you are looking to make money from your music then that is what you need to do. The reasons discussed so far should help you present something to the market that it actually wants.
Of course, you may have no intention of releasing your music commercially. In that case, you have a completely blank canvas and can do whatever you like!
11 Enhancing songwriting, performance, recording
You may think by reading this article that I believe that mixing and mastering are the most important processes in the creation of a song. No, I do not believe that!
Songwriting, performances and the actual recording will always be the most important things for a song. You may have heard the phrase “fix it in the mix”. I hate that phrase! That’s because there is no such thing. If what you have going into the mix is garbage, no amount of tinkering with mixing or mastering is going to turn that garbage into gold. A good song mixed/recorded badly will always be better than a bad song mixed/recorded well.
As I said in the first section of this article, mixing and mastering exist to enhance what is already there and present your music in the best possible way. As such they can take a great song, performed and recorded well, and put the icing on the cake turning it from “good” into “great”.
And who wouldn’t want that for their music?
Here is some of my favorite home studio gear…
Thanks for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful in your home music-making activities. Here are a few of the tools that I personally use in my home studio. These are affiliate links, so if you decide to use any of them I’ll earn a small commission.
Audio interface: My personal choice for audio interfaces are the Focusrite Scarlett series. I have been using these for years, and they have always given me great-sounding recordings. For a very reasonable price from Amazon you can buy the excellent Focusrite Scarlett 4i4, or if you don’t need MIDI capability the Focusrite Solo is a great choice.
Amp sim: Guitar amplifier simulator software has come on leaps and bounds in recent years, such that I record all my electric guitar parts using amp sims these days. One of the very best is the incredible Amplitube from IK Multimedia, which I have used on many of my songs.
Headphones for recording: My favorite headphones for recording are the Sony MDR-7506s, which I use for monitoring during all my recording sessions. They can also be found in many pro recording studios. Get the Sony MDR-7506 headphones from Amazon here.
General-purpose microphone: You can’t go wrong with a good ol’ Shure SM-57, one of the most versatile and ubiquitous microphones around. I’ve been using one in my home studio for as long as I can remember. Amazon offers the Shure SM-57 for a very competitive price.
To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations, check out this resource I made for you!