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What is the Difference between Mixing and Mastering?

Posted on: April 8, 2022

Unless you are a mixing engineer or mastering engineer, it can be easy to (mistakenly) think that mixing and mastering music is one and the same. After all, they’re both processes that aim to make the music better, right?

Yet mixing and mastering are two distinct practices that require their own engineers, technical knowledge and procedures to perfect the final stages of a song or piece of music. Read on to understand exactly how the two are different and why they matter so much to the music that you make and listen to.

 What is mixing? What is mastering?

What is mixing? What is mastering?

Audio and music production is a complicated process filled with minute steps using difficult equipment that can overwhelm or intimidate those that aren’t familiar. It’s no wonder that people often refer to mixing and mastering interchangeably — the technical talk alone could leave an experienced musician confused.

Yet once you break down the basics, it’s easy to identify what sets mixing and mastering apart from each other:

Definition of Mixing

At the simplest level, mixing is the process of balancing, treating and combining multitrack material into a multichannel format. Oftentimes, that format is two-channel stereo.

For example, once a musician or band has recorded singing, rhythm parts and other instruments, they now have multiple tracks of music. If just added together, they could seem like sound layered on top of each other, without a strong affiliation between the parts and tracks. This is where the mix engineer would enter the picture.

Mix engineers utilize pro tools like EQ, panning, reverb and compression to help make the different tracks sound like a cohesive song. They reduce any clashing sounds and help to emphasize certain moments that can increase the music’s impact emotionally. For example, if a certain moment has a powerful bass line, the engineer can punch that up and reign in the other instruments to highlight that groove.

Meanwhile, they can also incorporate additional effects to add even more impact, such as reverb, modulation or pitch fx. Their job is to take multiple tracks and combine them into one ideal song. The perfect mix is the emotional driver of the final product.


Mixing Techniques

Mixing Techniques for Audio

Enhance your knowledge of basic and advanced mixing techniques. Featuring advice from a range of leading mixing engineers, on best practices in music production and advanced mixing techniques and exploring the boundaries of your mix. Ideal for mixing engineers, producers and developers.



Meaning of Mastering

Mastering happens after the mixing process. This is the final step to creating a master, which is then used to generate compact discs, vinyl cutting masters and digital files for streaming or download.

Mastering deals with one stereo track at a time, as opposed to multiple, and adds final touches and adjustments to make sure the song has the right sound and flow by itself and with the rest of the album.

A mastering engineer should be an expert in subtlety and quality control — after all, they’re the last line of defense before the song is released to the public. When mastering, the engineer should be given the individual track along with notes and reference songs to help understand what the artist wants and intends with their music.

With this context, audio mastering uses EQ, compression, limiting, stereo enhancement and more to help achieve a professional sound that works with the music. Ideally, this work should be detailed but not transformative. The final recording product should strive to be as loyal to the original audio as possible since the engineer is mainly prioritizing high clarity enhancements.

Beyond the single track adjustments, the mastering engineer also adds fade-in and fade-outs throughout the album and can offer sequencing services to put songs in the desired order. For information on how to become a mastering engineer, get an inside look with tips from a pro.


 Art of Mastering in Music

The Art of Mastering in Music

Learn the skills required to succeed as a mastering engineer, and make the right decisions on tools to use for each project. Featuring advice from a range of leading mastering engineers, this guide is ideal for music producers, masters, mixers, and DJs.



 What is the difference between mixing and mastering?

What is the difference between mixing and mastering?

For an additional breakdown between mixing and mastering, we’ve highlighted several main differences:

  •  You cannot master a recording without mixing it first.
  •  Mixing requires multiple tracks that are combined into one track, while mastering works to fine tune a single track.
  •  Mixing works with individual instrument tracks to create a complete song and achieve balance within itself. Mastering works with a complete song to make it achieve balance with other songs.
  •  Mixing emphasizes artistic emotions and visions, but mastering is about the final sound quality of the whole piece.
  •  A mixing engineer and mastering engineer will use different equipment and gear to complete their job. For example, while a mixing engineer may only use high-quality headphones to listen to tracks and mix, a mastering engineer may use that as well as high-quality room speakers and more audio devices to make sure every detail of the song is top tier.

Want to dig deeper into the world of mixing music? Check out our recommended pick for learning to mix:

Whether you're getting started on your mixing career or wanting to brush up on your knowledge, Roey Izhaki’s Mixing Audio: Concepts, Practices, and Tools 3E explores the entire mixing process from fundamental concepts to advanced techniques.

 Why are mixing and mastering important?

Why are mixing and mastering important?

Music is a tough, extremely competitive industry. Every artist has a limited amount of time to hook a new listener and pique their interest, so how the music sounds is important, to say the least.

By having music mixed and mastered, musicians are ensuring that their songs and albums sound the best they possibly can on a variety of mediums, from stereo to streaming to the radio. Due to the internet and streaming capabilities, the modern musician isn’t just competing with local artists and amateurs — they’re going up against the top hits and favorite artists.

Professionally mixing and mastering music helps artists and bands put their best foot forward right from the start. Mixing and mastering are two distinct processes that are integral to creating a high-quality final product.

Want an in-depth look at mastering for major record labels? Take a look at our top book suggestion:

Equip yourself with the best mastering knowhow and learn unparalleled tricks and techniques shared by a Grammy® Award-winning Mastering Engineer with 25 years experience at Capitol Records in Evren Göknar’s Major Label Mastering: Professional Mastering Process.

Resources for mixing and mastering

Resources for mixing and mastering

If you want to become better at mixing, mastering or both, it’s important to understand that practice makes perfect. The more you spend time experimenting, working on music and reading about techniques, the easier it will become to master the software, tools and processes required to become a sound engineer.