Stop Saying “Mixingandmastering”
That's not a typo in the title. That's what I hear artists say all the time.
“We're looking for mixingandmastering”
“We sent our album off to get mixedandmastered”
“I've been watching YouTube tutorials on mixingandmastering my own demos”
Like it's one thing. The problem is that it's not! If you say “mixingandmastering” like it's one thing, people who know better will be judging you.
So let's clear up the different stages of the post-production process:
Take what's been tracked and adjust fades, comps, tuning, timing, etc.
Fixing little issues with the performance. Manual tuning. A weird breath here and there. Flying a word from the last chorus to the first. That kind of stuff.
Take the production (what's been tracked and edited) and adjust levels, eq, compression, effects so that it makes you feel what you want to feel. Balance all the track volumes. Add more top end to that guitar. Put more reverb on the vocal. Blend in some vocal distortion. Yada yada yada.
When you play the mix at this point it should sound great. It should make feel something when it's loud, and still sound great/fun/emotional when it's quiet. If you're not happy, don't say “oh well it's not mastered yet.”
Preparing the mixes for release to the world. It used to be that this was purely preparing the mix for the physical medium (you had to make sure the final level was right for cutting the vinyl, not too much bass that your needle would pop out of the groove on playback, etc), but over the years it's evolved to be more creative.
This very much depends on the mix itself but can include
- Making the mix commercially loud
- Sweetening the mix with subtle EQ moves
- Fixing a few frequencies that the mixing engineer didn't notice because they are mixing in a bad room.
- Making all the songs on the album sound like they go together sonically (a similar EQ curve, loudness between tracks, timing between songs)
A mastered mix should sound like the mix – but just intangibly better. It's not the mastering engineer's job to change how the mix sounds drastically (that's the mix engineer's job).
It should have sounded great before, now it should sound finished.
Ideally, you master an entire album all at once because half the point of mastering is to create a final deliverable where all the tracks sound like they go together. Just like mixing engineer should be mostly focused on creating a mix that sounds great – the mastering engineer is there to make the entire album sounds great. This is why even if you release a song as a single before the album is done, your mastering engineer will probably need to make little tweaks for the final album because at the time of the single, they didn't know what the album sounded like!
Mixing vs Mastering
As a mixing engineer, I know how to make things louder. I have more compressors, limiters, and clipping plugins than should be legal for one person to own. I can make your song hit -6 LUFS in my sleep. What I don't know how to do is make it sound better and finished after I'm done getting the song to vibe how I want. When is it loud enough? When is it bright enough? Etc…
Mastering is a weird dark art. It's all about subtlety. Often times a mastering engineer is making EQ moves of 0.25db (a tiiiiiiny move). It requires a certain kind of skillset (and zen) that takes years to learn as a separate process from mixing – because it's not mixing!!
Because mastering is more about the art of the final deliverable rather than just making it louder or mixing part 2, this is why they should be separate processes. Hence why it frustrates me when I hear “mixingandmastering” casually thrown out by artists who are talking about their upcoming single or album.
99% of people who claim to be “mixing and mastering engineers” are just mixing engineers that make the mix loud while they're at it. And they probably think calling themselves “mixing and mastering engineers” makes themselves sound cool and more hireable (it does sound badass). If they say they've gotten bad results sending to other mastering engineers, they're sending it to the wrong mastering engineers!
Now, I've been known deliver mixes to clients that have never been to a mastering engineer (because of budgets, it's for a weekly livestream, etc). Sure, I make them loud and try to check my overall EQ curve after a break, but I rarely say “I mixed and mastered this song.” If possible, we always send to a pro mastering engineer. In fact, when you request a quote from us, we always quote first the price with servicing to one of our top, A-list mastering engineers because your music deserves it!
[…] Oh, and in ALL these cases, you probably want to hire a separate and dedicated mastering engineer. […]