Mixing And Mastering: A Simple (But Complete) Guide

Without mixing and mastering your recordings, there’s really no way to get that pro audio sound that every artist wants and every listener expects.

However, it’s not always clear which stage in music production has the biggest influence – or how to go about choosing the right mixing and mastering engineers for your work. 

Understand mixing and mastering once and for all with this quick guide. 

  1. Mixing and Mastering: What’s the difference? 
  2. Do I Need Mixing and Mastering If I’m Just Starting? 
  3. Should I Mix and Master My Own Music? 
  4. Should the Same Engineer Do Both Jobs? 
  5. How Long Does Mixing Take? What About Mastering?
  6. How Much Does Mixing Cost? How Much Does Mastering Cost?


Want the short answer? 

Jump straight to our quick comparison guide.

1. Mixing and Mastering: What's the Difference?

So, we know that it’s necessary in the recording journey to both mix and master a recording, but what are these steps and how are they different from one another?

Mixing

To simplify things, I usually explain mixing as the process of taking individually recorded tracks and blending them together like ingredients in a recipe. When making your favorite dish, you don’t just throw everything on a plate and enjoy a meal – instead, different ingredients need to be prepared in different ways so that everything comes together in harmony.

Mixing is much the same in that your mixing engineer may need to adjust and automate volume levels of different tracks to blend them, add effects like delay and reverb for extra spice and tweak EQ settings for corrections and added flavor. Each instrument is also panned in the stereo field to make space so that each track sits just right in the mix and no frequencies step on each other.

Mastering

Mastering, on the other hand, is the finalization process where everything gets baked together. This is where the mix has been perfected and the track as a whole is worked on to give it shine, sparkle, volume, depth, punch and loudness. During the mastering process, an audio engineer will utilize different tools like compression, stereo width tools, limiters, maximizers, EQ, automation and more to ensure that the final master achieves the right levels to meet industry standards and the proper tone for your style of music.

2. Do I Need Mixing and Mastering If I’m Just Starting?

Whether you’re just getting started in your musical journey or you’ve already recorded some material, the mixing process needs to be on your mind. Even demos should pay some attention to mixing, and the need for more in-depth mixing only grows as you reach the point of professionally recording a performance.

Mastering, on the other hand, may not be as important in the early stages of the recording process, but if you plan to release your music to the public, the benefits that come along with a professionally mastered track can be immense. Today’s listeners have become accustomed to a certain sound in modern recorded music, and without mastering, you’re going to have a hard time convincing people that you’re a serious artist if your own tracks don’t measure up. Even the best songs can fall flat without mastering, so this part of the process is integral in representing your music the way it was meant to be heard.

Close up image of sound engineer's hands moving dials on mixing and mastering console.

3. Should I Mix and Master My Own Music?

Mixing and mastering your own music makes sense, right? I mean, after all, who better to bring out the best in each song then the person or persons who wrote the music? Well, the reality is that mixing and mastering your own music is often a bad idea. The key reason for this is that you are going to have an unconscious bias toward certain parts. This is through no fault of your own – it’s just human nature. As a musician, you want your part to stand out because you’ve worked so hard on creating it, and maybe the part does need to stand out; however, an objective mixing engineer is going to be able to provide a fresh set of ears with no bias toward any one part. Instead, he or she will take the time to work with the music to make ensure you achieve balance, both in volume and tone as well as panning placement.

Mastering is also best left to an objective audio professional for the same reason. Attempting to master your own music can result in disaster because you’re going to want to push EQ frequencies to benefit some parts at the detriment of a balanced track. You might also be partial to a certain sound based on the role you play in the group, and this can cause you to lose sight of the big picture. For the best results, you should trust an experienced mastering engineer.

Mastering, on the other hand, may not be as important in the early stages of the recording process, but if you plan to release your music to the public, the benefits that come along with a professionally mastered track can be immense. Today’s listeners have become accustomed to a certain sound in modern recorded music, and without mastering, you’re going to have a hard time convincing people that you’re a serious artist if your own tracks don’t measure up. Even the best songs can fall flat without mastering, so this part of the process is integral in representing your music the way it was meant to be heard.

4. Should the Same Engineer Do Both Jobs?

Another common question for musicians when it comes to selecting the right approach to mixing a song and mastering is whether or not the same audio engineer should do both jobs. While the issue here is the same as the one faced when mixing your own music (i.e. partiality toward certain parts instead of a balance), the issue is deeper than that.

A mixing engineer is trained and experienced in listening to songs in a different way than a mastering engineer. Mixing requires an attention to detail regarding how each track blends with the others, but a mastering engineer is more concerned with how the final mix sounds as a singular unit.

Additionally, someone who has mixed a song may find that they have become too accustomed to hearing the music as individual tracks during the mixing process. This occurs because of soloing tracks, making edits, applying and removing effects and so on. If this same person is tasked with mastering, perspective is lost because he or she will probably still hear the song as individual tracks instead of one cohesive song.

As a result, it’s often best to leave recording to a recording engineer, mixing to a mixing engineer and mastering to a mastering engineer. This way, each professional can focus on his or her specific job and provide expertise. Also, you’re more likely to get a better mix and final master when you have audio professionals listening at different stages of each process.

5. How Long Does Mixing Take? What About Mastering?

I know the feeling – you write a great song, perfect each part and get a killer recording of it. Now, you want to share your music with everyone as soon as possible so they can enjoy your hard work and dedication to your craft. The urge to rush your music out the door can be huge, but I would caution anyone who plans to release their music to take the time and get things right first.

Mixing

In terms of time needed, mixing can vary. The length of your track, the number of edits required and the number of instruments in the track can all play a big part in how long it takes. On average, though, you can expect to spend a few hours on each track. It might also benefit you and your engineer to let a mix sit for a day or two and re-visit the track with fresh ears. Obviously, this can add to the amount of time needed, but the results are often worth it.

Mastering

Mastering may take a bit less time, but once again, factors like track length and the need for level balancing throughout many changing sections of a song can add to the time required. Once again, you can be looking at a few hours per track for a good master, but the amount of time needed goes up as more requirements are added. This is often the case when music is going to be released for an album or other mass duplication project.

6. How Much Does Mixing Cost? How Much Does Mastering Cost?

Since a mix and a master are typically created by two separate engineers, you’re likely to be charged for both services individually. The good news is that once you have a solid mix, you can have that mix mastered at a later date. This can give you time to get comfortable with the mix and begin planning for the mastering phase.

As far as the actual cost involved, different engineers and studios approach things in different ways. Some charge an hourly rate, but others may charge a per-track fee instead. Still, you may find some that charge a fee based on the length of a track.

Mixing

In general, mixing tends to be a bit more expensive since it is often more time consuming. You can usually expect to spend between $500 and $1,500 for mixing services, but this could be more or less depending on the level of detail your music requires, the level of expertise your engineer brings to the table and the amount of time required to re-visit a mix and make adjustments.

Mastering

Mastering can be less expensive because the process usually doesn’t take as long. You’ll find that rates vary depending on a number of factors, but most mastering services cost between $40 and $180 per song. Once again, this can be more or less if multiple versions need to be created or if a master needs multiple revisions.

Mixing vs Mastering: Quick Comparison

Mixing
Mastering
What is it?
Mixing is the process of taking individually recorded tracks and blending them together.
Mastering is the finalization process where everything gets baked together. This is where the mix has been perfected and the track as a whole is worked on to give it shine, sparkle, volume, depth, punch and loudness.
Process
Mixing engineer may need to adjust volume levels of different tracks to blend them, add effects like delay and reverb for extra spice and tweak EQ settings for added flavor. Each instrument is also panned to make space so that each track sits just right in the mix and no frequencies step on each other.
During the mastering process, an audio engineer will utilize compression, stereo width tools, limiters, maximizers, EQ, automation and more to ensure that the final master achieves the right levels to meet industry standards and the proper tone for your style of music.
Who does it?
Mixing engineer
Mastering engineer
Cost
$500-$1500 per song
$40-$120 per song
How long does it take?
Approx 4+ hours per song
Approx 45min – 1 hour per song
What do you need to provide the engineer?
Multiple individual recorded tracks e.g. kick drum, snare, bass, guitar, vocals
1 Stereo file of final mixdown

Get Started with Your Free Test Master

At Cefe Flynn Mastering, I provide serious audio solutions for artists who demand professional results. I’m dedicated to helping your tracks sound their best, and whether you’re just starting out or you’ve got a killer mix that just needs the finishing touch from a dedicated mastering engineer, I can get your music where it needs to be using the latest in industry standards and top-level digital audio workstation tools.

To learn more contact me through the online form or submit your tracks online for a free mastering sample today.