Sound or audio production transitioned through the acoustic, electric and magnetic eras of production, to make it to where we currently stand – the digital era.
Ry Cooder’s Bop ‘Til You Drop, made history in 1979 by becoming the first digitally recorded pop album, and that swung things into full motion. Now, music production is a full-blown industry, but at its core, every process eventually makes its way to mixing and ultimately, mastering.
Here’s where your efforts transition into a final product that you can now share with the world. But what is the difference between mixing and mastering? The lines between the two are often blurred, and if you’re new to this, you’ve probably been confused.
No worries, we’ve got you! Let’s get into it.
What is Mixing?
Mixing is the process of putting together or blending multiple tracks. The idea is to make separate audio tracks sound good when played together in unison. The process would generally require you to balance the layers of audio, make sure the sounds of each instrument are audible, synchronized and work cohesively to create the sound you want.
When you’re mixing an album, you want to ensure that the volume is consistent and the general effect is how you want it to be.
What is Mastering?
Mastering is all about optimizing the sound of what you’ve created. Here’s where you fine-tune, tweak and polish out your audio to make it just that much better as a whole. This might include slight changes in the EQ, removing distortion or dithering, stereo enhancement and other adjustments.
The Key Difference Between Mixing and Mastering
Mixing is all about organizing and putting together the audio you have; mastering optimizes it. So the difference here is, mixing focuses on a multiplicity of sounds, to create a whole, but mastering focuses on the whole – the audio in its entirety, the big picture.
Both are equally important in producing quality audio. However, if you’re looking to create a demo, you might be able to get away with skipping the mastering.
But, the truth is, mixing is more of a craft, where mastering is an art. To genuinely make a difference at the final stage, you need to have that knack for spotting the nuances of what you hear. These would be things that the average person might miss.
Should You DIY or Leave It to the Pros?
Now that you know the difference between mixing and mastering you might wonder if you need a sound engineer to get it done. The good news is, you most likely will be able to get the mixing done yourself. There’s plenty of mixing software out there that can help you produce your music.
However, mastering is generally acknowledged as the more complex of the two. It takes an extensive amount of knowledge and expertise to truly make a difference in your track.
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Let’s use this as an example. Have you ever listened to an album where one song was barely audible but the next practically blew out your speakers? The answer is no, right? This is thanks to the mastering engineer.
The mastering engineer focuses on improving the sound of each track and also focuses on the broader picture of the full album.
This ensures the listener has an amazing experience listening to your music — whether it’s one song or the album as a whole.
Should the Mixing Engineer Master Your Album?
Here’s the million-dollar question — should the same engineer mix and master your album? Well, it depends.
Since mastering is all about improving the audio, it depends on the mixing engineer’s experience with this skill.
Some mixing engineers make sound enhancements while they’re mixing each track. However, this doesn’t mean they have the keen ear of a mastering engineer.
There are many reasons why bands want the same engineer to mix and master their album. However, you also risk sacrificing quality.
If your album isn’t mastered well, the listener may not be able to hear the amazing and unique qualities of your music.
Your guitar solos will be toned down, the bass will get lost in the rest of the mixes, and you won’t hear every bell and whistle that the drummer is playing.
The same goes for hip hop artists and those in the electronic music genre. Bad mastering can tone down the vocals, beats, and other elements of your music.
If you’re still confused, the best course of action is to listen to the previous albums a mixing engineer has done. If they also offer mastering, listen very carefully to their previous work and ensure the mastering quality is good.
But keep in mind, it’s always best to just hire a mastering engineer who can take your recordings to the next level.
Hire a Mastering Engineer for the Album of Your Dreams
All musicians strive for the perfect recordings. To achieve this, you need great mixes and masters.
But should the mixing engineer master your album? While it sounds convenient, hiring a mastering engineer will ensure you get the highest-quality album.
How well do you understand mastering? For something that’s needed on every track, there’s still a lot of mystery surrounding it.
The last step before releasing a track, mastering takes place after all the production and post-production has wrapped-up. Once all the levels are properly mixed and balanced, mastering adds that final polish and brings things up to the proper volume.
But what is the right volume for a hip hop mastered song? How do you get the right amount of low-end without things sounding too cluttered?
Keep reading for all you need to know before mastering a hip hop track.
Know the Genre
Every genre of music has its own characteristics that need to come through. For hip hop, it’s a thumping low-end with a crisp high end. Think of the combination of an 808 kick and the chainsaw hi-hats found in modern hip hop and trap.
The challenge here is getting the right amount of bass without losing energy to compression and limiters. Luckily, you can balance that out by boosting the highs.
Get a Reference
Use reference tracks to help guide you through the mastering process. Having professionally produced tracks to compare your track against will reveal what areas you need to focus on to get the right sound.
There are different plugins that will allow you to easily A/B between your track and your reference tracks. These tools make it really convenient for you to compare and contrast your work.
Know Your Targets
Once upon a time, all mastered tracks were targeted toward radio broadcast levels. In today’s marketplace, you need to consider the target levels of all the different platforms the track will be released on.
Spotify, Apple Music, Tidal, and the other streaming platforms provide their target LUFS (Loudness Levels relative to Full-Scale.) Produce a master at the target level for each platform.
Use Your Tools
By the time the track is ready for mastering, the tonality and shape of the track should be set. What’s left for you is to make sure that things are balanced and set to the proper level.
Remember to dither the track if you’re working at a lower rate than the session was recorded in. This will eliminate unwanted noise.
There are three primary tools to set your master. They are as follows.
EQ – Use an equalizer tool to boost the right frequencies for the genre. In hip hop, you’ll want to make sure that the low-end and high-end come through the strongest. This should leave plenty of room to boost the vocals in the mids if needed.
Compression – A compressor keeps the loud parts from getting too loud and the quiet parts from being too quiet. A multi-band compressor lets you compress specific frequencies without affecting the overall track. This way you can tame wild frequencies without squashing the entire track.
Limiting – A limiter does exactly what it says. It limits the volume of the track. Putting a limiter at the end of your signal chain helps you control the loudness of the track, ensuring that it doesn’t peak higher than your target level.
Hip Hop Mastered Song
Mastering hip hop isn’t that different than mastering any other genre of music. The difference is that a hip hop mastered song is going to feature fewer mids than guitar-oriented music.
Instead, you’ll want to boost your low-end and set a nice and crisp high-end, using compression to keep things from getting out of control.
During audio mastering, it’s possible to introduce unwanted distortion effects into the audio. One of the processes a mastering engineer might use to remove this kind of distortion is known as dithering.
But what exactly is dither and dithering? I’ll explain in this article.
What Is Dither?
Analog studio sound mixer closeup with laptop and sound wave form in the background
Dither is one of the more complicated concepts to understand in audio mastering. Essentially, dither is low-volume noise that’s mixed into a digital audio file when it’s converted from a higher bit resolution and into a lower one.
When you do this kind of conversion, it can introduce what’s known as truncation distortion. If this kind of distortion isn’t prevented, it can lead to a digital audio file that’s downright unpleasant to listen to.
What Is Bit Depth?
In the world of digital audio, the bit depth refers to the number of values available to represent the amplitude of a single audio sample. The higher the bitrate, the more DBs of dynamic range each sample will have.
When you export a file to a lower bitrate, there are effectively now fewer values available for the file to depict the dynamic range of the audio. This results in a “rounding off” of the audio; since the bitrate has been reduced, the amplitude of each sample can no longer be measured in as much detail.
This “rounding off” affects the shape of the waveform, resulting in distortion.
So How Does Dithering Prevent This?
Truncation distortion creates harmonics that are correlated to the initial source; these harmonics make it quite obvious to hear. With dithering, you introduce a noise that’s random, which effectively covers up the truncation distortion.
So why not just keep your files at 24-bit and remove the need of experiencing any truncation distortion? Unfortunately, the vast majority of playback devices are going to be 16-bit. If you try to play a 24-bit audio file on one of these devices, it isn’t going to sound good.
When to Dither in Audio Mastering
Essentially, you need to use dithering when you’re mastering the file at a lower bitrate than you worked at during the production stage. Say you recorded in 24-bit and you’re mastering the audio file in 16-bit; you need to use dithering. On the other hand, if you were recording and producing in 16-bit and you bounce it at 16-bit, you don’t need to dither.
If you’re sending a track to a mastering engineer, you should never export it at a lower bitrate than the one you were working at, as this will mean the audio is already damaged before the engineer even starts working on it.
Work with a Professional Mastering Engineer
So now you understand a little more about what dithering is. If you’re a music producer, consider working with a professional mastering engineer instead of trying to master your own music. This can help your tracks sound more refined and high quality.
Need a professional mastering engineer? Then get in touch with me today.