Mixing and Mastering: Demystified

Updated: Jan 13, 2021

The arts of ‘mixing’ and ‘mastering’ are often shrouded in mystery for those just getting into music (even for many who’ve been doing it for some time). Over this blog post we'll be breaking down these two processes which are very much at the heart of what we do here at The Sound Kitchen. Often grouped together, these two steps can literally make a night and day difference to music. Firstly, we’ll start by separating what each actually mean, then we can get to talking about why they’re so important in achieving professional results.

Mixing desk outboard processing

Mixing explained:

When creating a song, it will be made up of many different parts or types of instruments. These separate parts could be anything from: vocals, bass, drums, strings, guitars, synths or many, many more exciting or unique elements. These may take up anything from a few recorded parts, all the way up to literally hundreds of recorded parts, for some larger projects. The role of mixing is to make sure that when all of these parts are combined together, they are done so in a manner which is well balanced. They all need room to sing and dance harmoniously together, in their own little space on the proverbial dance-floor, if they are to fully shine. If not executed properly, some parts may stick out like a sore thumb, some parts may not be heard at all. There is only so much room for all of these parts to fit in the spectrum of sound. It is the role of a mixing engineer to systematically process each of these separate channels of sound with the best combination of effects and techniques, to produce some order and clarity to the madness.

When listening to all of the parts of a song combined, prior to mixing, you’d expect to draw descriptions like ‘muddy’, ‘lifeless’ or ‘week’. Following a professional mix down, you’d hope that the piece would be in possession of positive attributes, from clarity, strength and depth, to having character in abundance. Mixing can animate sounds, making key elements shine. In terms of vocals, they can literally be made to sound more confident, or even in tune, with an added brilliance that you just can't get from an unprocessed recording. Mixing brings about the idea of a foreground and a background, as well as a left and a right image, creating a sense of depth, width and even height. A good mix can literally make something appear 3D or even 4D, comparative to being the audible equivalent of a 2D stick drawing.

Mixing Desk

Mastering Explained:

Often described as the final polish, mastering is the last step in the chain to a radio ready sound. During this final stage, you process all of the parts that make up a track together, as one unit. This is made possible as all of the separate sounds should be feeding their audio into one channel, known as the master channel.

At this stage, various techniques of compression and EQ are utilised to create a unity between the parts, while enhancing them as a collective. Mastering also serves a purpose of bringing audio material up to the relevant loudness levels of the desired playback method, such as streaming services or vinyl. Anything that’s not mastered will generally sound perceivably quieter, even when seemingly showing the same amount of signal flow/levels on some meters.

The corrections that you can make at this stage can be very restricted as any processing done will often affect every other part. For example, if a certain part, let’s say the guitar channel, is sounding particularly bad and needs some work, this should be done in the mix stage, rather than expecting a good master to be able to fix this. This is because as said earlier, the master channel consists of all of the other parts combined, so any processing applied to fix on part, would actually be applied to all of them, potentially ruining the overall sound. With that in mind, it is crucial that any serious issues are fixed prior to reaching this stage.

How Can We Help?

Feel free to speak to us today about our mixing and mastering services via the contact form below. Alternatively, if you’d like full creative control over your own mix and masters, our next online Zoom masterclass course with Sound Kitchen engineer Mitch Wellings is taking place on the 18/02/21, with limited spaces remaining.