Mixing & Mastering Overview

THE IRONY OF IT ALL

I find it amazing that many highly talented, extremely intelligent musicians have no idea how much work goes into mixing and mastering commercial quality audio.  I can kind of understand in the film industry where sound plays an important but nonetheless supporting role, but in music it is the star of a one-man/woman show.  Add to that the fact that folks are adding more and more tracks to their arrangements everyday and wanting them mixed in less and less time.  I used to tease Shoeless Jeff about having 100+ tracks in one of his songs and now it's become the norm.  However, asking if I can mix an orchestral piece in 20 minutes is still crazy (much love Edvin:).

THE QUICKIE IS POSSIBLE BUT FLAWED

The truth is, you can do a rough balance in a short period of time and, depending what you plan on using the audio for, that may be enough. I can't tell you how many times someone had me do a quick balance job on a piece and then came back later and told me that it didn't sound as good on certain systems, or how there were moments in the track where the initial plugin settings didn't work as well, or how it didn't sound as good or as loud as their favorite commercial tracks.

YOU KNOW MORE THAN YOU THINK

People may not know how to mix but they all know when something is wrong.  There is a lot more to mixing and mastering than panning and leveling the tracks. The engineer wants to clean up and edit all the tracks so that extraneous noise is removed. Modern compression levels will reveal all sins. The engineer wants to perform basic edits like fixing a flubbed note, adjusting timing, basic pitch correction. They want to balance the track, using a variety of monitors and automation, so that the track is consistent in and of itself and that it translates as well as possible on other playback systems. (iPhone, car radio, headphones, high end systems) Then at the mastering stage, the engineer needs to make the mix as loud as possible while sacrificing as little of what you loved about the mix as he/she can.

MIXING VS MASTERING

In fact, it is almost a disservice to talk about mixing and mastering like they are the same process. It is like suggesting that Conan the Barbarian's skills with a sword make him qualified to wield a scalpel and perform neurosurgery. Mixing is about taking numerous ingredients and blending them together into a cohesive whole. Imagine a scientist weaving a bunch of DNA together and creating a cute little hedgehog. Mastering would be making the same hedgehog weigh 150 pounds while taking up the same about of space and looking as much like the original hedgehog as possible. However, in this day and age it is still extremely common to be asked to perform both tasks in the same short period of time.

DOWN TO BRASS TACKS

The goal of this series is to connect the dots. The engineer and the artist want the same thing. If the artist understands the process, then they can knowingly choose which aspects to sacrifice when time is an issue. For the DIY-er, there will be a wealth of tips and tricks they can try out on their own mixes.

 
 
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About the author

Marc Antonio Pritchett is a working actor, musician and fight coordinator in the greater Los Angeles area. He is the co-founder and lead engineer at Steel Dawn Recording Studio.

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