written by Damon Mapp
As an audio engineer, I constantly meet people, including clients, who have no idea what the differences are between recording, mixing, and mastering. They might have heard the terms before, but they usually can’t correctly describe what each term means. For those not in the music industry, that’s both understandable and acceptable. However, for those of you in the music business, whether you’re an artist or a manager or an engineer, you need to know what those terms mean.
So, let’s get started.
Recording and Tracking
First, here are some basic definitions for you: recording is the process of capturing sounds, and a recording session is one instance where this happens (as opposed to a live performance).
A standard recording session involves multiple musicians, instruments, and vocalists. So, for the sake of this illustration, we’ll say your band has a drummer, guitarist, bass player, keyboard player, and two vocalists. Now, you could record everything on one microphone… but the drums might overpower the vocals, and the keys might blend into the bass line in certain sections. Recording everything together is like playing entirely unplugged; it can work, but most bands perform miked and plugged into sound systems to provide their audience with a good and balanced audio experience. That same option exists with recording. Instead of recording everything through one microphone, you can record each element separately to its own track in the workstation or mixer. This approach, which is called tracking, lets you (or, more likely, your audio engineer) go in later to perfect the balance of sounds.
Note that I said each element, not each instrument or vocal. That’s because some instruments consist of multiple elements, each of which will need its own mic. For example, a standard drum kit might have a mic for the kick, snare, floor toms, rack toms, cymbals, and high hats. This allows you to create a much more precise sound in the next phase: mixing.
Mixing is taking the individual elements that were recorded as separate tracks in the workstation or on tape and adjusting their levels and tones to create the right balance. Remember when I mentioned that, without separate mics (and their resulting tracks), the drums might overpower the vocals? That’s a balance issue, and mixing allows you to prevent or correct that.
With mixing, you can ensure that certain tracks aren’t overbearing or piercing or, at the other end of the spectrum, too soft and buried by the other elements. You also apply EQ, compression, editing, and effects if they are needed or desired.
Once the mixing is complete for a track, the engineer saves a “mixdown” of the song, which is turned into an album in the next stage: mastering.
Like the mixing process, the mastering process involves finding balance. However, instead of balancing elements within a song, you’re balancing the different songs into a cohesive album. This involves:
- Balancing the level and tonal settings (EQ) of the songs
- Controlling the dynamic range (how loud and quiet each section is) for the right musical blend of variety and power
- Editing the “tops and tails”—the beginning and ending of each song—and the gaps to create a compelling sequence
- Fixing any outstanding problems from the mix, if possible
- Protecting your content by including PQ information, UPC/EAN codes, ISRCs, and CD Text
- Creating finished files that are ready for manufacturing and/or distribution
Mastering is an important part of the process that many artists overlook or undervalue. It’s more than just cranking up the volume, which is what many artists request. It requires a big picture approach and an eye for detail. Without both efforts, the finished album isn’t… well, it isn’t finished.
With today’s technology, it is becoming increasingly easy to record and mix in your bedroom or home studio. While this can be a viable option (which I will elaborate on in a future article), I honestly recommend hiring a professional audio engineer for your recording project. In addition to having the gear and software, a good engineer and studio will have proper room acoustics, training, experience, and an ear for what they do. Those valuable tools aren’t acquired easily, nor are they sold on store shelves.