How to Mix and Master Music
Find out how to get a professional sound and polish for all your beats and songs
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Last Updated: February 2023 | Article Details: 3437 words (13 – 17 minute read)
So you want to learn about mixing and mastering?
In this guide, we’ll tell you all the basics – what it is, how it’s done, the tools involved and a step-by-step workflow to help you improve the sonic qualities of your music, whether it’s an instrumental beat or a full song with vocals.
Learning how to mix and master your music can feel like a dark art at times – and believe me, in some ways it is.
But don’t be too intimidated. You can get a clean, professional sound for your music by following a few basic tenets.
Ready to get into it? Let’s go…
Article Table of Contents
- 2 How Do You Mix and Master Music?
- 2.1 The Different Tools Involved
- 2.2 Step-By-Step Mix/Master Workflow
Listen to the entire article (excluding featured video) instead:
What is Mixing and Mastering?
Mixing and mastering are two separate audio engineering processes done to give a work of audio a professional level of sound quality. They are most common in music, film/tv and podcast/audiobook applications.
Mixing is the process of taking several different individual tracks of audio (whether they’re vocals, instruments, etc.) and literally “mixing” them together to make the final product something that is balanced (ex/ nothing too quiet or too loud), clean (ex/ no harshness, etc) and polished (ex/ not too dull/cold/lifeless).
Mastering is the final stage of the audio engineering process. It involves mostly correcting any imperfections in the “mixed” audio (from the above mixing process) in a finely tuned environment using special equipment. Mastering also adds a final “layer” of polish to the overall work and maximizes it’s “loudness” (how loud the overall track is) while maintaining as much “dynamic range” (the difference between loud parts and quiet parts) as possible.
Overall, the goal of mixing and mastering is to have a polished piece of audio that will translate well (i.e. sound relatively the same) across different types of sound systems.
How Do You Mix and Master Music?
Contrary to popular belief, mixing and mastering starts long before you send your tracks to an audio engineer.
THIS IS IMPORTANT: The process starts from the very beginning – the recording and composing process WILL affect your final mix/master.
So it’s essential that you try to get the BEST possible recordings of your vocal and instrument tracks.
If you’re composing a beat, that means you need to use high quality sounds and choose sounds that don’t clash with each other or fight for space in the mix.
The better you are at doing these things, the easier it will be to get a stellar mix/master of your song or track.
Remember these words: garbage in, garbage out.
But once that’s all taken care of, actual mixing and mastering is done by using a DAW (digital audio workstation) or a mixing console (like you see in pictures of big studios), along with tools like equalizers, compressors, reverbs and more (either software or hardware versions).
The essence of mixing and mastering is to:
- Correct imperfections in the audio
- Balance various sounds together optimally
- Add life and character to sounds and make everything “gel together”
- Increase the loudness of the overall track
- Make it sound similar across different types of playback devices
Important Note: In this guide, we’re only talking about mixing and mastering inside a DAW (using your computer) using software plugins/effects.
The Different Tools Involved
There are a lot of tools (and variations of tools) that can be used for mixing and mastering music. They all provide a piece of the overall puzzle. Depending on your preferred workflow, all of these tools can be software-based or pieces of hardware you run audio through.
Below we get into the general tools you’ll use to mix and master, but it isn’t an exhaustive list. There are lots of specialized tools out there too that all do specific things. It’s a rabbit hole…
Here’s a general overview of the different things involved:
Studio Monitors and/or Headphones
When you’re mixing and mastering, it’s important you have a good set of neutral speakers or headphones to listen on. If you use a regular old set that you would to normally listen to music casually, you’re not getting an accurate enough sense of what’s happening in your mix. A lot of consumer-grade headphones and speaker systems have a hyped up sound (often in the bass or the high-end). You need a set of studio monitors that are neutral, and not “colored” too much.
Mixing and mastering on headphones is a contentious subject that has a lot of differing opinions. Some say it’s possible, other’s say you shouldn’t. I’ve done it and will continue to do it. If you want to mix using headphones, take a look at our top picks for the best studio headphones.
Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
A digital audio workstation is a piece of computer software that mimics hardware mixing consoles you see in a lot of big studios. It’s not exactly “beat making software,” but does often allow you to make beats too. You can import audio into a linear timeline with full “mixer” controls and digitally adjust all of it’s parameters. DAWs provide a lot of flexibility, and so are often also used in combination with hardware effects and consoles and third-party software plugins.
BUT, you can do EVERYTHING you need to with ONLY a DAW – they all come with included plugins for the rest of the tools below.
Quiz: Which Music Producer Are You?
Harmonic Distortion Tools
Usually we think of distortion as being bad. And usually we’re right. But for the purposes of mixing music, you can often add character to a sound by applying subtle “harmonic” distortion. This harmonic distortion complements a sound and is often pleasing to the ear in small amounts. Other types of distortion (like “digital” distortion or clipping) are NOT good and should be avoided at all costs.
EQs are a type of tool that let you shape a sound’s frequency range. Every sound you can hear falls somewhere within the “frequency spectrum” of human hearing (20 Hz to 20,000 Hz – measured in “hertz”). An equalizer will allow you to either boost (increase) or attenuate (decrease) a specific part of a sound’s frequency range. You can carve and sculpt sounds so they fit well together without clashing or fighting for space in any part of the frequency spectrum.
Compressors are tools that literally “compress” an audio signal. Every audio recording has “dynamic range” (the difference between the loudest and quietest parts of a sound or several pieces of audio). Compressors allow you to control this dynamic range so that if the differences are too far apart, they can be made more balanced/tamed. The louder parts are turned down and/or the quieter parts are turned up – the dynamic range is “squashed.”
These effects are things like reverbs and delays. They play with our sense of timing when it comes to audio. Reverbs add “ambience” to a sound to make it sound like it’s coming from a specific type of space (like a concert hall or a bathroom, for example). Delay’s, on the other hand, are used to add echoes to a sound. These effects help give a sense of real life to recorded audio, which is often naturally very clinical sounding (in other words, dull and lifeless).
It’s important to keep in mind you won’t always use each and every tool available to you all the time. But all of these tools are used to clean, polish and embellish sounds in a mix and across an overall song. They’re used to heighten the listening experience and make the listener feel like they’re hearing the music in real life (or get as close as we possible can).
Step-By-Step Mixing and Mastering Workflow
Time needed: 1 hour and 30 minutes.
A general workflow on how to mix and master your own music.
- Import and Organize Your Audio Tracks
First, drag all your audio material into your DAW. If you’re working with a beat inside your DAW, export each track separately, and start a new mixing and mastering project. Organize all the audio tracks by similar groups (drum sounds, melodic parts, harmony parts, sound effects, vocals, etc.).
- Balance the Volumes of Each Sound Against an “Anchor” Sound
Pick the most important sound in your overall mix – this may be a kick drum or a lead vocal or something else. This will be the “anchor” you’ll use to mix in everything else. Bring every sound to 0 volume, and bring up the anchor sound to a level you like (that doesn’t clip/distort). Then bring in other sounds one by one until they’re all well balanced.
- Use Panning Controls to Widen the Sound Stage of the Mix
Think of yourself looking at a stage from the audience perspective. Using the left/right “pan” knobs on each track, start to spread each sound around the virtual “sound stage” in your mind. This helps separate sounds from each other so they don’t sound muffled and jumbled. Lead vocals, kick/snare drums and bass are usually kept dead center in most modern music.
- Use Equalizers to Help All the Sounds Fit Well Together
This requires an understanding of the frequency spectrum associated with human hearing. Each sound will fall into a range of the frequency spectrum that humans can perceive (20 Hz to 20,000 Hz). Sometimes two sounds will overlap with each other in a given range or sounds can have too much or too little of a given frequency. You can use EQ (equalization) to carve out frequencies to help sounds sit well together and not clash or fight for space.
- Use Compressors to Control the Dynamic Range of Sounds
Sometimes in a given sound (especially microphone-recorded vocals/instruments) the quiet parts are too quite compared to the loud parts and vice-versa. The differences in the loud/quiet is the “dynamic range” of the audio. You can use a compressor plugin to bring the quiet parts and loud parts closer together so they’re more consistent and can be heard/felt equally well by the listener.
- Use Creative Mixing Plugins to Add Life and Character
Now that you’ve corrected things in the mix, it’s time to get creative and liven up the mix. Here you’ll use things like eqs/compressors/delays/reverbs/distortions/etc to add some character to the mix and bring it to life. There are so many things that can be done in this regard to really capture a listeners attention and suck them into the song experience.
- Adjust Volume and Panning to Avoid Clipping and Unwanted Distortion
Now it’s time to make sure nothing is “coming in too hot” and causing audio clipping and unwanted distortion. Think of audio meters turning RED. That’s what clipping is and it means the audio signal is way too high. You don’t want to clip at any point in the mix. In fact, in the mixing stage you usually want to stay WELL BELOW the clipping limit throughout the song (ex/ -6db during the loudest parts). If needed turn all tracks down a couple dBs (decibels).
- Take a Break, Revisit and Print
It’s important to take a break (preferably overnight) to let your ears rest and reset before re-visiting your mix. Once you’ve given yourself a fair amount of time away, go back to the mix and listen all the way through. If anything sounds bad or off, you can now make adjustments with fresh ears. If you’re happy with the mix, it’s time to print the stereo track or stems. Render/export the finished mix as a single stereo WAV file or a few “stem” WAV files (i.e. groups of sounds – drums, vocals, etc).
- Import Stems/Stereo WAV Into a New Project
Keep things clean and start a new project in your DAW for the sole purpose of mastering the song. Import all your rendered audio files from the mix and organize them however you’d like. If you’re using stems instead of a single audio file, you can spend some time adjusting each track’s volume in relation to each other to get the optimal balance.
- Use Specialized Plugins to Accentuate the Good and Help With “Translation”
Using specialized equalizers and other plugins, it’s time to correct any last minute overall imperfections and imbalances in the song as a whole (as opposed to each individual sound). You use this opportunity to mold the overall shape of the song’s frequency spectrum so that it will sound ideal on any type of playback system. You may also add additional warmth or character to the song’s sound as a whole.
- Use Specialized Compressors/Limiters to Finalize the Track
Very light compression on the mix as a whole (on stereo 2 bus or master track) at this stage helps the track gel together as a whole. Next, you’ll apply a special type of compression called “limiting” to bring up the overall loudness of the song without clipping, so that it will stand up and compete against other songs in the market.
- Test/Reference On Several Systems and Adjust
Finally, you want to test your finished song on several different playback systems (ex/ car stereo, home stereo, phone, headphones/earbuds, etc.) to see how well the song translates across them. You’ll also want to test it against a professionally produced/mixed/mastered track to see how it stands up against it. Make adjustments to the mix/master as necessary and re-test until it stands up reasonably well.
- Print the Master Audio File
After you’re happy with the overall sound of the song across several playback systems, it’s time to print/render/export the master copy as a 44.1 Khz 16-bit WAV audio file. This is the master copy of the song you’ll use to upload to streaming sites and make other digital/physical copies of.
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Beginner Mixing and Mastering Tips
If you’re a complete beginner to the concept of mixing music, then you may feel a little overwhelmed at the info in this guide.
Don’t worry – it’ll become clearer to you the more you do it and learn about the ins and outs of the tools/techniques used by pros.
For now, just try doing some light mixing on your tracks to clean things up a bit. Let a pro (or an online service) handle the mastering.
Follow the tips below to get started on your mixing and mastering journey.
Understand the Purpose of EQ
The EQ is like the scalpel of the audio engineering world. It’s one of the most fundamental ways to shape your sound and correct imbalances.
The real purpose of corrective EQ is to get rid of “masking” – when two or more sounds occupy the same frequency range and end up boosting those frequencies in the overall mix. This can make the overall song sound muddy/boomy/harsh, etc.
With EQ, what you’re trying to do is “un-mask” things in the mix. You’re trying to bring clarity back by carving up the frequency space to let everything play well together.
Cut, Don’t Boost
Boosting when using an EQ can be useful in some cases. But if you’re inexperienced you can really ruin a mix. When starting out, always opt to cut/attenuate frequencies instead of trying to boost frequencies. Things will be cleaner that way.
Something that a lot of beginners do is place a high-pass filter around 80-100 Hz on any non-bass sounds in a mix. A high pass filter is an EQ that cuts out lower frequencies and only lets the “high(s) pass” through. This alone can clean things up quite a bit.
But be careful, cutting too much (or over-doing your high pass filtering) can cause things to become too thin sounding.
Compression can be very useful in making a sound/recording more consistent in volume (amplitude), and sometimes even make it louder, letting it cut through the rest of the mix easily. But it’s VERY EASY to overdo it.
It’s most commonly used on vocals, bass and drums but can be used in many other instances as well. Use a light touch with compression and fully understand all of the controls and what they do before using it widespread in a mix.
And be careful, a little compression helps but too much makes everything sound flat and lifeless. Over compressed music is difficult and fatiguing to listen to. Dynamics (and dynamic range) is important – it lets things breathe and keeps life in them.
Make Small Adjustments and Take Big Breaks
Most of the time you shouldn’t have to make drastic adjustments with EQ or compression or any other effect/plugin (including reverb/delay). Work small and compare whatever you did to a sound to it’s original, unaltered state. Make a decision about which sounds better to your ear and move on.
And try not to mix for long, extended periods of time. Usually an hour to an hour and a half (60-90 minutes) is a good session. After that your ears are probably fatiguing and you’ll make worse decisions. Take a break (best if overnight) before going back to the mix.
The Magic is in the Middle
Some of us love extra bass, and some of us love those shimmering highs. But the real secret is that the magic is in the mid-range. What you’ll start to notice when you get better and better at mixing, is that a lot of your work will take place in the middle of the frequency spectrum.
Sure you’ll boost and cut in the high end (i.e. treble) and the low end (i.e. bass), but when it comes to clarity and making things sit well together, a lot of it is a mid-range issue (especially low-mids). That’s because a lot of the sounds we hear are made up mostly of mid-range frequencies.
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Frequently Asked Questions
Mixing is when you take several different audio tracks (instruments, vocals, etc) and “mix” them together so that every sound is clear and balanced in relation to the other sounds. It’s also the process of cleaning up imperfections in any of the individual sounds. Mastering is when you take the finished “mix” of the song (as a single piece of music, rather than individual sounds/tracks) and give it a final “quality check” and additional polish/work so that it’s loud and clear on several different types of playback systems.
If you plan on releasing your music to the public, then yes it is necessary. It makes sure that everything sounds good to anyone who might listen to it. Listeners don’t usually like hearing unmixed/unmastered) music because it often sounds “bad.” You also want your songs to be able to stand up to all of the other professional-grade songs out there in the market.
Mixing and mastering go hand-in-hand. Neither is more important than the other. They do different things, both of which are necessary to achieve a professional sound with your music. But a well mixed, un-mastered song will sound better than an un-mixed, but mastered song. Just remember, without mastering your music won’t be loud and clear in every listening situation. And it definitely won’t stand up to competitors in the market.
Mixing and mastering can be a daunting task, and learning how to mix and master is confusing, frustrating and elusive sometimes.
It’s normal. It can be a difficult thing to really wrap your head around. If you’re having trouble with it, it’s best to let someone else do the mixing and mastering for your music.
But if you’re someone who wants to focus on getting better at mixing and mastering, then keep at it. Learn the tools and concepts inside and out, and practice a lot. That’s the only way to really get great at it.
Thanks for reading this entire guide! I hope your journey in learning how to mix and master music is an easy one. It wasn’t (and still isn’t) for me…
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