Even as an experienced musician, when I first started producing my own music it was incredibly frustrating trying to get it to sound how I wanted it to. I soon realized that mixing and mastering are their own distinct skills completely separate from musician’s skills, requiring a lot of time and practice to get good at them.
On average, it takes 5 years to learn mixing and mastering to a highly proficient level. Basics can be learned in a few weeks, but more experience will be needed to produce satisfactory mixes. You can be producing respectable demos within 6 months, but these will not be of professional standard.
Obviously, everybody is different. Some may develop the required ear very quickly, others may never get to that stage. Let’s take a look at how long it can take you to get to various stages of competency in mixing and mastering as a whole, and for each individual skill required.
I also wrote an article about why mixing and mastering are so important, that I would encourage you to read if you are starting to learn mixing or mastering.
Skill levels in mixing and mastering
I should just state right at the start that the lengths of time stated in this article are not hard and fast rules, for obvious reasons – everybody is different, everyone has different amounts of time they can dedicate to practicing, etc. There is no guarantee whatsoever that you will reach any skill level in any particular period of time.
The lengths of time are designed to give you a general idea of how long it might take to get to a certain standard in mixing and mastering. These are educated guesses based on my own personal experience, and the experience of others who produce their own music.
I’m also assuming that you are learning this on your own, not taking any paid-for courses or going to any sort of recording school. I’ll assume that you are…
- Learning by doing
- Learning from free resources available on the internet
Let’s define four skill levels. These will be used to show roughly how long it might take to get to a certain level of proficiency…
- Novice – you know physically how to do stuff
- Competent – you can produce a respectable demo that sounds pretty good
- Proficient – you can produce a commercial quality track
- Expert – you can produce a track on a level with anything you hear on the radio, and know how to get whatever sound you want
Maybe you have already begun your mixing education, and are looking to improve your skills. A common complaint amongst beginner mixers is that their mixes sound muffled, flat or dull. That’s why I wrote this article on how to prevent muffled mixes. It’s highly recommended reading if you are a novice mixer and are suffering from lifeless mixes.
How long does it take to learn to mix?
Here is a summary of how long it can take to get to certain levels of proficiency with mixing and mastering…
|Novice||3 weeks||Can perform basic mixing operations|
|Competent||6 months||Can produce respectable sounding demo mixes|
|Proficient||5 years||Can produce a commercial quality track|
|Expert||10 years||Can produce mixes to sound exactly as you want, including just like big radio hits|
You can learn to mix to the standard where you can produce a respectable demo within about 6 months. After learning the basics in the first few weeks, lots of practice will be required making many mixes. A good level of proficiency will take about 5 years to develop.
This all assumes you will be practicing pretty much every day. You will need to be soaking up information from YouTube videos, online tutorials, etc., and immediately putting it into practice. Novice mixers often try to do far too much with far too many tools, so don’t try to learn everything at once. Concentrate on one thing at a time, and really learn it in detail.
While doing this, you need to be listening to songs with production that you like and want to emulate. Using what you have learned, try to get your songs to sound similar. Be prepared for a frustrating experience! Stick at it, and try to accept the frustration as a fundamental part of the learning and development process.
Developing the necessary ear for mixing takes time. Abandon perfectionism! Don’t be afraid to make bad mixes – it’s part of the learning process. Experience is everything; repeating the same mixing tasks over and over again will slowly but surely train your ears, brain and muscle memory to get where they need to be.
As it can be difficult and confusing to take your first steps in mixing, I wrote a beginners’ guide to mixing. You should check it out as part of your mixing learning, to help you clear up some confusion novices often have.
Getting to expert level in mixing
It is generally considered that to get to an “expert” level in anything requires 10,000 hours of doing that thing. There is some disagreement over this figure. What is not in dispute, is that it takes many thousands of hours practicing something to get to be an expert.
With mixing and mastering, those 10,000 hours need to be taken up with making mix after mix after mix, both for yourself and other people. Release lots of music, act on feedback from those songs, both good and bad. Learn from as many sources as you can, seek out mentors and learn from them, and be constantly aiming to improve.
Let’s assume you can practice on average 3 hours a day. This may be a completely unrealistic figure for you personally, but we need to pick some number for our calculation…
- 10,000 hours ÷ 3 hours = 3,333 days
- 3,333 days ÷ 365 days in a year = 9.13 years
Let’s round that figure up to 10 years to give us a ball-park figure for getting to expert mixing/mastering level.
To use me as an example… I consider myself to be somewhere in between the Competent and Proficient levels, and I have been mixing for just over 20 years. I certainly have not averaged anywhere near 3 hours a day in that time though; I have had whole years where I haven’t done any mixing at all.
But I do believe that if you are prepared to dedicate the time and effort, those timescales are achievable.
When you get to that highly proficient level, you will have developed a good sense of what makes a good mix. That takes time! For those of you wanting a little help in knowing what a good mix should sound like, check out this article entitled “What makes a good mix?“. You’ll learn the main characteristics of a quality mix, and the things that should be avoided.
Some free mixing learning resources
These are some YouTube channels that I have found to be extremely helpful in learning mixing…
One thing is for certain; you need to be able to hear your mix clearly. For this purpose, you are definitely going to need either a decent pair of open-back reference headphones, or a pair of quality studio reference monitor speakers. The headphones and speakers I recommend for mixing are…
- AKG K-702 Reference Headphones (Amazon affiliate link)
- Kali LP-6 Monitor Speakers – link is for one speaker (Amazon affiliate link)
Both of these devices allow you to monitor your mixes with great results, and are available from Amazon at very reasonable prices.
Component skills in mixing
Mixing can be broken down into certain component skill areas that you will need to learn. But it’s important to note that these areas are not totally separate things that you can learn in isolation. They all work together, and the knowledge crosses over between skills. For example, to properly balance levels, you really need to know how to EQ.
Here are mixing’s core component skills…
- Gain staging
- Level balancing
- Reverb / ambience
- General sound shaping
To learn more about the challenges in learning the above skills, I highly recommend that you read my article on why mixing and mastering are hard. It goes through the areas in turn explaining the unique difficulties in each, giving pointers on how to make learning each one a little bit easier.
How long does it take to learn to master?
In many ways, the skills in mastering are a subset of the skills in mixing. They are just applied differently.
The basic aim of mastering is to prepare your song for release and distribution. This typically involves increasing the volume of your track up to commercial levels. This is so it will be at a similar volume to other songs played on the radio and digital streaming services such as Spotify, Deezer, etc. The process typically involves using compression and limiting, so this is where your learning focus will be.
EQ is often involved in mastering, but used a little more subtly than in mixing. It is often used to add the final sonic polish to your track, making your track sound similar to other tracks in the same genre. Certain frequency ranges can also be emphasized e.g. 6-10kHz to add a bit of high-end sparkle.
Other tools can be used such as harmonic exciters, vintage saturation plugins, stereo expanders, tape emulation etc.
I would include the time it takes to learn to master in the time it takes to learn mixing, and view it as part of the same process, so the table of learning times shown above for mixing also includes mastering. When you have mixed a song, the next natural step is to master it, so continue your learning into the mastering realm.
I have been talking about mastering a song for a digital release in this section. Traditionally, mastering was preparing your song(s) to be released on vinyl. This was, and still is, a highly specialized job requiring many years to master.
Do you really need to learn to master?
There are options available to us these days that mean we may not actually need to learn mastering at all, such as…
- Automated online mastering services (e.g. CloudBounce)
- All-in-one mastering plugins (e.g. Isotope Ozone)
- Mastering services where you pay someone else to master your song(s)
When you have a mix of your song ready, it is worth considering using one of these services to do the mastering for you. Obviously, these will cost some money but could save you some time and frustration if you can afford it.
Role of recording in mixing and mastering
The one last thing to discuss in this article is the importance of recording.
You may have heard the phrase “fix it in the mix”. I hate that phrase, largely because fixing it in the mix isn’t really possible. If you have something that hasn’t been recorded very well, you are going to struggle when it comes to mixing. Often the best solution is to go back and re-record that part. Garbage in = garbage out!
So developing a knowledge of recording is in my view an essential part of becoming a mixing engineer. Learning to record well will hugely help in getting your song to sound good at the mixing stage. If you are learning in your own home studio, this shouldn’t be a problem for you as you are likely to be doing everything yourself.
A great place to start is with my beginner’s guide to recording music at home. A huge amount of work has gone into this guide! It is a complete resource to take you from never having recorded before all the way through to making your first home recording.