Updated: May 27, 2022
You've written and recorded a song that you're proud of, but you just can't get it to sound the way that it does in your head. You compare your track to music on Spotify or the radio, but you're disappointed that it can't compete. You might be wondering, "What's the secret to a professional sounding song?"
The answer is (sort of) simple: mixing and mastering. The reality is that there is simply too much music being released nowadays to compromise on post-production. If you want your music to be taken seriously, good mixing and mastering is a necessity.
Here's some good news:
The professional quality that you're after is now more attainable than ever. Home audio technology has skyrocketed in the past decade, with brands like Focusrite providing industry-standard preamps and audio interfaces at consumer-level prices, putting control in the hands of the artists and bringing pro audio within reach
More Engineers are transitioning to remote service in the Covid-19 era. It's easier than ever to find a trusted engineer to collaborate with online to help unlock your potential, and make your songs sound the best that they can
If you want to hear the difference that mixing and mastering makes, check out these before and after samples of "The Important Things" by Rebecca Murillo:
Now you may be thinking, "I understand that mixing and mastering make a huge difference, but what exactly happens in this stage?" Let's break it down:
In mixing, levels are balanced and effects processing is added to enhance the song emotionally and bring out its full potential. Tracks are specifically treated so that everything can be heard clearly and coherently, and exported as a single stereo file. There are infinite creative possibilities for how this can be done.
A few things managed at this stage are:
Equalisation (EQ), affecting the tone of the sound you're working with, allowing you to sculpt the frequency response of your audio
Compression, used to control the dynamic range of your audio (the difference between the loudest and quietest parts), such as to level out the volume of a vocal recording including loud yelling and soft whispers
Reverberation, or reverb, used to create a sense of space by mimicking the reflections of a range of environments such as small clubs or large stadiums
Delay, an echo effect, another tool for creating a sense of space that can be especially effective on vocals
Mastering is the final step in the creative process for finishing your track. During this stage, general corrections and enhancements are applied, and the song is brought to a commercial loudness level that will play back consistently across different listening platforms (Youtube, radio, Spotify, etc.)
What's the Difference?
If you're wondering what the difference is, rest assured that you wouldn't be the first. After all, the same types of effects used in mixing are also used in mastering, right? Correct, but here's the distinction:
The goal of mixing is to consider each of the individual elements carefully in crafting a cohesive final mix
The goal of mastering is to listen to the complete mix, applying adjustments as necessary to make sure that the song is competitive with similar music
For this reason, it can be helpful to send finished mixes to a separate mastering engineer to get a fresh set of ears and a unique, unbiased perspective in the final stage of completion. While I am personally equipped to master my own mixes, I encourage my clients to explore different options when it comes to mastering to ensure that they get the best product possible, linking in personally trusted mastering engineers when appropriate.
What about E-Mastering?
You may have heard of different options for online mastering, such as LANDR. While the validity of these options is highly debated in the pro audio community, here's what you need to know: there will never be a perfect replacement for a professional engineer using their ears to master your song. That being said, technology has come a long way; if you're looking for a quick and cost effective way to bring your songs to commercial loudness, then the following options are worth investigating:
LANDR applies stereo bus processing to your track, using artificial intelligence and machine learning to replicate the mastering process digitally and automatically, allowing you to tweak some parameters before receiving your final master.
Aria works similarly to LANDR, automatically applying processing to each track that you upload, but by using analog hardware that imparts characteristic quality and warmth.
At the end of the day, no two projects will have the same journey from idea to final product, but now you have some tools to make sure that your hard work as an artist isn't undercut by inattention to quality post-production.
Want to learn how to connect and effectively collaborate with mixing and mastering engineers to level up your music? Check out these 4 tips to find the perfect engineer for your music!
Interested in working together on your next project? I'd love to hear what you're working on, get in touch now!
Matt Villanueva is a producer and audio engineer living in Los Angeles. He spends any time outside of the studio shredding at the skatepark or kicking back with his bombshell girlfriend and heart-melting Chihuahua, Paco.